Constitutional Underpinnings of American Democracy

  • Theories of democracy
  • Considerations that influenced the formulation and adoption of the Constitution
  • Federalism (with attention to intergovernmental relations)
  • Separation of powers
  • Checks and balances
  • Majority rule
  • Minority right

“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

-Winston. S. Churchill

The idea of establishing a democratic form of government appears to have encompassed the modern nation-states. The traditional notion of democracy as, ‘the government of the people, by the people, for the people’, has made into an attractive alternative to the citizens of the newly emerged nation-states. In spite of many of the drawbacks, the conceptual and practical application of the system suffers from, its ability to transform, ‘will of people’ has been its highest accomplishment so far. Often referred to as the government that represents the ‘tyranny of the majority,' the idea of democracy has however successful managed to represent even the minorities. It is now heralded as the only form of government through which every section of the society can get successfully represented.

The word ‘democracy’ has its origin in the Greek word ‘demokratio,’ with ‘demos’ referring to ‘the people’ and the word ‘Kratos’ meaning ‘rule.’ The word democracy necessarily means the ‘rule of people.’ Thus, on the democratic form of government, the people or their representatives enjoy the right to govern the state. The democratic form of government was practiced for the first time in the ancient Greece Civilization.

The conceptual understanding of democracy and its practical application, however, cannot be understood as a homogenous unit. In many of these nation-states, various other democratic institutions might not exist or even exits in a perverted form. Many variations and differences characterize it; the only significant aspect commonly shared by all ‘democratic’ nation-states is their ability to conduct regular elections successfully. However, its most important attribute is that this kind of government allows people to exercise their right to give consent to the governing authority assuring its legitimacy. The idea that the sovereign power ultimately resides with the people is its most appealing characteristics that in 1992, the world celebrated 2500 years of democracy.  Its popularity continues even though scholars predict its demise.

Traditional Theory Of Democracy:

The traditional theory of Democracy believes that the government depends on the consent of the governed. According to this theory, everyone has the right to participate in the decision-making process either directly or indirectly through the representatives. It promotes the idea of a majoritarian form of government but without violating the rights of its minorities. It is aware of the rights and dignity of the minority and believes in the principle of compromise and negotiation. 

Pluralist Theory Of Democracy:

The pluralist theory of Democracy that believes, politics is ultimately the competition among different pressure groups with each one trying to influence the decision-making process of the government according to their preference. People with shared interest and ideas come together and form a group. Thus, there doesn’t exist a single dominant group, but there are multiple ones with each exercising their influence. It believes that the presence of multiple interests will create a healthy competition between them producing a decision making process that is based on compromise and negotiations.  

Elite Theory Of Democracy:

The elite theory believes that society is divided into two groups. The dominant group among the two is the minority, who ‘rules’ the vast majority of the masses who are ‘ruled.’ It is the minority that ultimately influences the decision-making process of the government while the majority enjoys no real power or influence. This theory believes that the policies and programs framed by the government are also biased towards these groups of elites. A minority few thus rule the democratic form of government.     

Hyperpluralism:

In the democratic theory of hyperpluralism, the extreme form of the pluralist theory of democracy is exercise. Here, the various group interests that dominate the government further weaken it. This may produce a significant obstacle in the decision-making process of the government where different competing interest exists that lack any cohesion between them.      

The common theme that characterized these different theories of democracy is the belief that in the democracy it is either an individual or a group of them that posses the right to govern. The source of power ultimately resides with the individual.    

The Constitution of America:

The framers of the Constitution of America thus tries to reflect these different understanding of democracy and provide guidelines that frame the federal democratic government in the United States. Federalism was the most significant element of its constitution when it was initially formulated in 1789. The separation and limitation of power provided by the federal political system ensured that no one unit of the government would be able to dominate the other one (Ostrom, 1991, p. xi). Over the period, United States understanding of federalism has further evolved and developed through its progressive interpretation.

The Declaration of Independence strongly asserted a shared national identity of Americans who were unified in the cause of creating and maintaining a republican government. However, there also existed a shared suspicion among its citizens of distant and despotic governments that the revolution was fought against (Drake, 1999, p. 2). Thus, when the thirteen colonies came together to form the Federation of United States they weren’t willing to surrender their complete authority and get dominated by the state. Declaration of Independence thus provides for the establishment of a weak national government. The United States Constitution provides for the separation of power where the states possess more power and authority than the federal government through its Tenth Constitutional Amendment. The American Supreme Court also guarantees this separation and limitation of authority between states and the federal government.

The American constitution also provides for a Majoritarian democratic system that played a significant role in the rise of its two-party system. Two political parties- Democrats and Republicans dominate the American political system; thus, providing for a stable political system that the presence of multiple parties at times doesn’t allow.      

American Federalism:

The American political system is based on the principle of Federalism. The term ‘federalism’ has been associated with the development of the American system of government. In a federal form of government, the power is shared between different states and its federal government. However, in a federal system, the powers of both the national units and the sub-national units must be specified and limited with their functions defined.

Separation Of Powers:

The United States Constitution thus provides for the division of power in its Tenth Amendment. The Amendment provides certain power to the national government. The federal government enjoys supremacy while exercising its powers. However, all other powers except those entrusted with the federal government are reserved to the states. But, there are also certain powers denied to the state by the Constitution.

However, though the constitution has provided its states units with more power than its federal government; over the period the federal government in practice has managed to exercise more power than that guaranteed by the constitution. Here, the role of judiciary becomes important in interpreting the separation of authority as provided in the constitution and restricting their scope.

National Government:

The Constitution provides several legislative, executive and judicial powers to the federal government. The powers entrusted to the national government include the authority to regulate trade and interstate commerce, declare war, the power to levy a tax, create, courts banks, post offices, coin money, etc.

State Government:

The Constitution reserves all power to the state government, except those granted to the federal authority. The state government thus enjoys the authority to form local governments, police citizens, education, etc. There are some limitations to its power; it includes making treaties with the foreign government, coining money, issuing bills of credit, etc.

Checks And Balances:

The Federal form of government also provides for the division of power between different organs of the state. Though the American constitution provides for separation between the legislative, executive and judicial body of the government, it also provides for a system of checks and balances between them. In the American presidential form of government, though the executive is not responsible to the legislature there are some instances in which the President needs the approval of the Senate. The examples of this include, when it has to nominate judges, make foreign treaties, etc.  The President is also unable to exercise it certain authorities without the cooperation of the Congress, its legislature.

The Congress also needs the approval of the President to covert a bill into law. The judiciary, in turn, posses the power of judicial review. Through, the court posses the ability to decide if the law violates the basic constitutional norms. If it does, then the judiciary exercise its rights to declare the law null and void. Thus, the American Consitution provides for a system of checks and balances that doesn’t allow for any single organ of the government machinery to play a more dominant role.

Majority Rule:

The Majoritarian electoral system characterizes the American political system. Majoritarian System is also known as the ‘first-past-the-post’ system. It is the oldest and also the simplest form of the electoral system. Through this system, the entire nation was divided into single-member constituencies. The candidate was required to win a plurality or an absolute majority of votes to be elected. The candidate that scored lesser than the majority of votes loses. Here, the number of votes won vis-à-vis the other candidates is considered rather than the proportion of votes won.

Also, in America, the majoritarian electoral system has provided for the two-party system in the government. Since it’s the majority of votes won rather than the proportion of votes cast is given more consideration. This condition has proved to be more favorable for the emergence and the rise of the two-party system. This situation further exacerbates the problem and provided for the dictatorship of the majority.

Minority Right:

The Majoritarian, Two-Party dominant political system thus created doesn’t provide much space for minority views to express and represent themselves. Since the government to get elected had to reflect and propagate the views espoused by the majority, the minority never gets represented. In the two-party system thus, there is no alternative platform available with the minority to express its views. Thus, a  section of the society remains under-represented.  

Conclusion:

The United States Federal Democratic system of government is not the ideal form of democratic state where every individual gets represented. It’s a flawed system that provides for the tyranny of a dominant majority. But, it is the same government that elected its first African American President less than a decade ago. The system does suffer from some flaws but one must not forget that it has always upheld the civil rights and liberties of its citizens. It has always tried to uphold the basic democratic principles. The nation has not always achieved success in maintaining its ideas and principles but its federal democratic government has enjoyed the legacy of more than 200 years and hence can celebrate as the most successful experiment of democracy. It suffers from the most grievous flaws yet compared to the other forms of government present in the contemporary period it is the most remarkable experiment where the power ultimately resides with the people.

Reference:

Books:

Drake, F.D. and Nelson, L.R. eds., 1999. States' rights and American Federalism: A documentary history. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Vincent, O.S.T.R.O.M., 1991. The Meaning of American Federalism: Constituting a Self Governing Society. Institute for Contemporary Studies Press.

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