Democracy in America: What Does it Mean?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

While the United States of America is many things to many people, it is not as is popularly conceived a Democracy and it never has been. This view is not coming from a perspective of politics, but one of stark reality. The thinking of the overwhelming majority of our Founding Fathers, as embodied in the Constitution they wrote, was certainly not to give power to the masses. I don’t believe this point is in dispute by the majority of Constitutional experts, despite their various positions on the political spectrum. Most politicians with self-awareness and intelligence have always known that we are not a Democracy as a country, despite the fact that most also proclaim it to be a Democracy. The problem with what I just wrote is that defining Democracy is a very slippery process and as I will show, the word means very different thing to many different people.

Permit me to begin by defining Democracy in terms of the myth that has been created around it in American parlance: “Democracy represents both the Will and the Rule of the People over their government. As such it is the best form of government for all”. Whether we believe it or not all Americans have grown up under this national myth and its’ use is ubiquitous to both domestic and foreign policy. The many wars this country has fought were prosecuted in the interests of this myth of Democracy, whether in destroying the Axis in World War II to save the world, or to nurture its creation and existence in numerous foreign lands. A student of history understands that the reasons for the wars America has fought are far more complex and ultimately self-serving than protecting Democracy. Nevertheless, to initially go to war, a populace must be energized by the belief that it will be fought for a higher purpose, in order to send it young adults to fight and potentially die. This energy in America usually has come from a combination of the myth of protecting democracy and a general threat to all the people. The simple rubric in my lifetime and in the history before it, is that we are fighting for Democracy. I will explore this myth, so central to our lives of citizens and discuss its implications.

In viewing the wide-ranging definitions of democracy I’ll begin by looking at a list of some made by famous people as compiled by Professor William M. Reisinger, of the University of Iowa. He introduces his list with these words:

“The basic sense of democracy as a form of governance rests on its etymology as rule by the entire people rather than, as Shapiro puts it, by any “aristocrat, monarch, philosopher, bureaucrat, expert, or religious leader.” Beyond that, actual definitions of democracy come in all shapes and sizes. On the next page are a variety of others’ definitions for your perusal, presented in chronological order. Each emphasizes one or more things thought to be true about democracy: 1) it is a dangerous form of government; 2) it includes genuine competition for power; 3) it permits mass participation on a legally equal footing; 4) it provides civil and other liberties that restrict the sphere of state power within the society; or 5) it promotes widespread deliberation about how to make and enforce policy so as to promote the common good.”

Some of the definitions he gives follow:

“A constitution [or politeia] may be defined as ‘the organization of a city [or polis] in respect of its offices generally, but especially in respect of that particular office which is sovereign in all issues. . . . In democratic cities, for example, the people [demos] is sovereign. . . . [W]hen the masses govern the city with a view to the common interest, the form of government is called by the generic name . . . of ‘constitutional government’. . . . Democracy is directed to the interest of the poor [only, not to the interests of everyone–WR].” (Aristotle 1995, 97-101)

“Democracy [is] not majority rule: democracy [is] diffusion of power, representation of interests, recognition of minorities.” (John Calhoun, as paraphrased by Roper 1989, 63)

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” (H.L. Mencken, quoted in Danziger 1998, 155)

Democracy is “the substitution of election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.” (G.B. Shaw, quoted in Danziger 1998, 155)

“Democracy is “government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them . . . or by officers elected by them.” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1933)

“Democracy is a competitive political system in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process.” (Schattschneider 1960, 141)

Democracy is “a state where political decisions are taken by and with the consent, or the active participation even, of the majority of the People. . . . [L]iberalism, though recognizing that in the last resort the ‘legal majority’ must prevail, tries to protect the minorities as it does the civil rights of the individual, and by much the same methods. . . . Liberal democracy is qualified democracy. The ultimate right of the majority to have its way is conceded, but that way is made as rough as possible.” (Finer 1997, 1568-1570)

 “The fundamental idea of democratic, political legitimacy is that the authorization to exercise state power must arise from the collective decisions of the equal members of a society who are governed by that power.” Collective decisions can be either aggregative (based on counting preferences) or deliberative. “[A] decision is collective just in case it emerges from arrangements of binding collective choice that establish conditions of free public reasoning among equals who are governed by the decisions. In the deliberative conception, then, citizens treat one another as equals not by giving equal consideration to interests–perhaps some interests ought to be discounted . . .–but by offering them justifications for the exercise of collective power . . . .” (Cohen 1998, 185-6; italics in original)

These are eight of the twenty-five definitions that Reisinger listed. Just as he broke up these definitions into categories ranging from “dangerous” (dyspeptic) to positive views, I presented a selection from the entire range of views. The link to his article will bring you to a short piece, quickly read, that will give you the full range of choice of viewpoints. My particular preference is for the last two of the definitions, but I don’t believe that they currently define our system. For further, quick reference this Wikipedia link illustrates the difficulty of defining Democracy and the confusion everyone has had in doing so:

This illustrates the problem that America has with Democracy both as a rallying point and as a guiding myth. Most of us were reared and educated with the idea that “Democracy is the rule of the people”, even though in practicality that is simply not true. In the area of guiding mythology though, that particular myth has been used time and again, to justify many evils and sometimes even promote good.

In realistically looking at our country and Democracy, as with much else in life, I believe context is everything. The American Revolution was fostered by the wealthiest people in this country, who initiated it because they were economically and socially stifled by the rule of a Monarchic Empire. They were highly sophisticated and intelligent men, whose charisma and standing in their particular States, was unquestioned. They used the promise of a “free republic”, end to tyranny and even the inclusion of the populace into decision-making, to rally popular support. That support was far from universal, but nevertheless those we call the “Founding Fathers” prevailed. When I first learned America History my particular hero was the radical Samuel Adams. It always seemed curious to me that after the Revolution his role in the body politic became obscure. As my knowledge of history grew I came to realize that my hero was far too much a threat to the interests of the Founding Fathers, to be allowed a role in the Constitution and the governance of this new country.

The exclusion of Sam Adams and others of his radical ilk is the proof that this was not to be a country where the common people would have ultimate power over their government. The Constitution makes no mention of Democracy; it is a document that creates a particular type of Republic, where the power rests in the hands of those of wealth and property. It is nevertheless a magnificent document that was unprecedented for its time and well into the future, even today. Democracy, however, was the myth used to convince the masses to love and support their country. It has been used as mentioned to justify war and foreign interventions. The supposed protection of Democracy has even been used in the Patriot Act to actually threaten most American’s constitutionally granted freedoms.

When William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review and PBS fame first became prominent in the 1950’s, he was roundly chastised for insisting that our Country was a Republic, not a Democracy. In other words, Buckley, who in general I have no respect for, was correctly denying the unifying myth of our country. In the process of that denial and its effect on conservative thinking, it was seen at the time as scandalous. I think that the idea of the United States being a Democracy is a myth that needs to be de-mythologized. I believe, however, in the idea of the need for the populace to have a greater say in the processes that govern us. I’m tired of the oligarchy that has always ruled our country for its benefit and the citizens’ distress. A large part of the seeming legitimacy of that rule is the myth that we are a democratic society. To even begin to achieve this power for the people, we must educate us all on the real state of affairs and try to proceed with reality and not myth.

What do you the reader think about this and what are your preferences for how this country should be run?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger


65 thoughts on “Democracy in America: What Does it Mean?”

  1. MikeS,

    Maybe it was fate or your intervention, but after an exchange, a peaceful accord have AY and I worked out. It started when I heard him mention his TSA troubles getting home to his girls for a visit.

    A spook becomes a person with kids. And recognizing each other as persons, we made peace. It warms my heart.
    I’m not here to fight. But one gets drawn into the game here.

    Hope you see my screed on this tiresome game we play here there the quickest and the wittiest wins. Reflection? Discussion? Wha! What’s that?, say most.


  2. AY,

    I bear yóu no illwill actually. I see you as just one more of us trying to make sense and a life out of this chaos. Good luck and peace to you and yours.

  3. AY, Thanks for the Nebraska info, I looked it up and did some searching on Nebraska. I did not know about Nebraska. LOL, I probably did at some time but I’m thinking I have that syndrome wherein for every new bit of data entering your mind some other bit of data gets overwritten. 🙂 I did though recall Iceland and China having only one legislative body; the Althing in Iceland. I always liked that name.It’s a very old government and having its named sound like All Thing (I had read) just summed up the political system rather poetically: ‘Here we are, one big group, this is it, the All Thing’.

    That about sums up the extremes that I think a unicameral system works well for, a politically repressed/oppressed population or a homogeneous population living in similar circumstances. I do like the non-partisan aspects of the Nebraska system. More states with a unicameral system, which means that their representatives to the House and Senate might just throw a serious monkey wrench into the two party system.

  4. Id707,

    Good luck…. Please have a good life and go find peace….. I’m sure the people around you need it….. Peace out….

  5. MikeS,

    Just so you know.

    You are a man of many experiences, fully open by your own choice to life’s challenges. You reap not money, but the pleasures of good recollections, and a good conscience. Those are fortunes that many would gladly have.

    Please don’t, like so many do here, and even you do at times, let stupidity (as you perceive it) or opposition bring the veil of anger before your eyes.

    You. to use Jon Stewart’s phrase, become the HULK. 🙂

  6. AY,

    I have no problems with holidays. Your bringing my private life into the discussion shows how low you will stoop to cause pain in other persons who oppose your ideas.

    Now if I had any respect for you then I would ignore your gaffe, as MikeS said that he did.

    But you have attacked me without cease for over a year, solely without offering other than lies and ad hominems, just as yoo do now.
    One can ask in such a case, what is there to respect in you? Such behavior is beyond respect, I feel.

    Show that I am a sock puppet, or shut up. You won’t do either. What a laugh you are.

    Sad for you to show your a55 so openly.

  7. MikeS,

    I did not accuse you of being an errand boy. I excluded that clearly. Can you not read my words?
    I did ask you frankly, as one should, why you popped up to opportunely to AY defense? No answer to that. Why?
    Your friendship, if that is what you mean visavis AY, and your appearance, why that is nice. Accepted as

    answer to my question above. Of course, I’ll let it slide as to the timing of your appearance. You say that you have contact and perhaps received a 911 call.
    None of my business.

    However your friendship does not excuse you for not noticing the errors of your excuses you offered on his behalf, as I pointed out in my latest comment.

    And it was out of respect for your integrity, which I respect generally, that I asked those questions so as to leave these doubts behind.

    So Please go back and re-read my return comment to you with new eyes. It might help.

    And when I offer you an olive branch, why do you ignore it? I offered one completely in tune with at least two of your own blogs. If it because of “me” then say that. Don’t ignore it. That’s rude.

    I am frank, not rude, that I believe.

    1. ID707,

      I answered as I did because I was moved to do so at that time. No hidden motives, just expressing what I was thinking which was that the point about “Iberia”/Liberia” was unneeded. I read all comments on the blog, censor none, but respond when I deem it appropriate to respond, not as a “blog official” which doesn’t exist her, but merely as Mike Spindell.

  8. Id707,

    That’s my story and I’m sticking with it….. Got it….. Are you one of those type of people that act out before a holiday…. It’s more common than you think….. You do know testy is a derivative of testicle….. Well yours are showing….

    While I appreciate mike s honor…. Why are you taking umbrage with him….. Maybe you’re just lashing out at anyone near by…… Think about it…..

    If you act like a sock puppet you will most certainly be called a sock puppet…. Read me!!!!

  9. I wonder what your motive is for coming to his defence?

    You are a great explainer and your comment is perfect, except that it ignores the context that this occurs in.

    What brought you by, so perfectly opportune when AY is struggling? Just an honest question with no malice at all. To see you as GeneH’s errand boy: “MikeS, you take ID this time”! is quite impossible. GeneH does pop up when I am besting one of his disciples or beta hounds properly named.

    I would much rather question you on your observations around the events of 1968, than spend time on this.
    I am reading about the ’72 campaign now. Which links back to ’68, and forward to 2012. Interesting couplings.

    1. ID707,
      When will understand that I’m noones errand boy. At this blog there are people I’ve known for a long time. They’ve given me empathy for pain I’ve faced and I’ve returned the same with their troubles. Yes we also communicate outside this blog, but we’ve never met, given we live far apart. They have become my cyber friends if you will. Please understand though that O
      I won’t cover their asses if I think they’re wrong here and I don’t expect them to cover mine. I have a certain amount of integrity that I’ve built with people through the years and I don’t intend to jeopardize it. Had I been willing to sacrife my integrity in life, given the opportunities I’ve had I’d be a very wealthy man today, or perhaps in jail. 🙂

  10. MikeS,

    You should try my keyboard. I am getting extra muscles from forcing down the keys.

    However your sticking key argument does not hold in AY’s case.

    I understood what he meant, just as you did. But he capitalized Iberia, meaning that he confused the terms.
    No big deal, but if you have followed AY’s recent digs against me, then you would understand. I thought that he was off my back, and then he pops up again with no apparent reason given. Just digs of the obscure type.
    Ho hum.

    And thank you again for getting him away from calling me a sock puppet. Not forgotten.

  11. AY and Dredd,

    It is not only important for the world to know, how can we stand here judging nations for bombing, droning, etc and we don’t know their history nor heritage. Ach Ach!
    As for the bla bla southern Liberia, I take a pass….!

    However you are both sweet guys and I don’t mind being teased.

    Especially appreciate that little knowledge on spell checkers. I don’t use them thus my many errors. I do go at times to Google to check a word.
    Shouldn’t a basic one be included in IE9?

    1. You know I knew exactly what AY was saying in his original post and I took it by context to mean Liberia. On my PC for instance my “N” key sticks and many times a word like stink, will come out as stik. Typing errors are the name of the game anywhere on the Internet and little attention should be paid to it. It is all about the content rather than the spelling….isn’t it?

  12. Anonymously Yours 1, November 18, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    That’s ok dredd…. It is Liberia …. I suppose I can blame it on the autocorrect…. But I’m ultimately responsible….. It’s kinda funny that the Capitol is named after James Monroe….. Monrovia ….. That’s real democracy in action….
    Cool. I wasn’t doing very well in my research project on the Southern State of Iberia that seceded. Even with Idealist707’s help. 😉

  13. Id707,

    That’s my story….. And I’m sticking to it….. Some pad/tablets you have to add words…. Probably none as good as you’re used to using…..

    I wouldn’t say I didn’t know the difference…… I’ll say again…. Autocorrect…. But I’m glad…. You know the difference…. The world is a better place because of it…..

  14. AY,

    Both are legitimate and corrctly spelled words, so the spell checker would OK them both.

    You did not know the difference between Liberia and Iberia. Do you now?

    Ask the question again and I will reply.

  15. I was reading last night again an account of the Democratic Presidential nominee primary races in 1972.
    NOthing has changed much.

    There were speculations of the near development of a multi-party system, our terrible “one-party system”, party bosses commanding voter blocks, the corruption in the Ohio voting apparatus starring Cuyahoga county with 4 districts whereof one black in central Cleveland, who did not report any ballot counts 12 hours after polls closed.

    There were the same issues but from their angle:
    marijuana use (any association was taboo), “abortionists” taboo, playing both sides of the fence on the war (there is always a war!), ground campaigns versus TV campaigns. And a candidate who for some reason the prsss gave a bye to for every change of position, which he did constanly, depending on the local sentiment.

    Just thought you might like to know.

  16. having only two choices has made it easier to buy elections. it limits the number of persons needed to buy.

    would it be better to have five choices? does anyone really want someone in office who only represents 20% of the voters?

    i believe the electoral college should be abolished. it diminishes the vote of anyone disagreeing with the majority in their state and it has become simply a way to game the system. the problem with abolishing it is that it would take a constitutional amendment to get rid of it and i worry about what else might be included with it.

  17. Id707,

    When does the med cart roll around….. You still haven’t answered my question on another thread….. Are you that disconnected…. That you’d call someone out for something like this….

    I apologize for the over site….yes it was the spell checker…. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it….

  18. That was not Dredd, AY. It was me. Are you connected? Your spell checker would accept both words without comment. Hello, are you there? Iberia Liberia
    Wherever! Been to Iberia? One, two, three, four…..!

  19. That’s ok dredd…. It is Liberia …. I suppose I can blame it on the autocorrect…. But I’m ultimately responsible….. It’s kinda funny that the Capitol is named after James Monroe….. Monrovia ….. That’s real democracy in action….

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