TLO’s Views


Democracy’s Challenges

Expanding the People’s rights and entitlements

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Essentially, throughout this country’s history, we the people have faced two fundamental challenges with regard to making the fundamental principles of our democracy’s real. The first has been, and still is, the challenge of expanding people’s rights and entitlements. From the very first, America and Americans have struggled with applying democracy’s basic principles across what has been a diverse set of racial, gender, religious and ethnic groups. The myth that this country was and is white, male, and christian has been dominant from the beginning. Ensuring greater freedoms and equal opportunities has been our greatest challenges, whether the disenfanchised has been blacks, native americans, new immigrants, or women. The second challenge is a derivative of the first, that of deepening, strengthening, and securing our democracy’s institutions and their practices so that our country’s principles and practices can eventually by securely available to all those who live and work in this county.

The United States as a Democratic Republic

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In an election as chaotic as our 2020 Presidential Election, when less than a third of Americans believe the presidential campaign process is working as it should, looking carefully at how the Founding Fathers envisioned the the democratic process of our nation can be a helpful exercise. The problem is, when it comes to the idea of democracy, the Founding Fathers had mixed feelings, with some outright opposing the very use of the word. 

"Democracy was an epithet," said Joseph Ellis, author of the Pulitzer-winning book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. "Democracy meant mob rule. Democracy meant conceding the issue to people who don't understand it."  As a consequence of this distrust of the knowledge and wisdom of “the people, many of the Founding Fathers preferred to define the nascent government they were creating as a republic. The word "democracy" never once appears in the Declaration of Independence of the Constitution. 

The Federalist Papers, specifically Federalist No. 10, written by James Madison, who would later become the fourth president of the United States, expounded on the differences between “A pure democracy,” defined as “a society consisting of a small number of citizens who assemble and administer the government in person" (which, for Madison, offers no remedy for the "mischiefs of faction"), and “A democratic republic,” which "promises the cure for which we are seeking." Alexander Hamilton, one of the most influential voices in the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, was particularly skeptical of a pure democracy. In a speech given on June 21, 1788 at the New York convention to ratify the Constitution, Hamilton explained

It has been observed by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this.The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity: When they assembled, the field of debate presented an ungovernable mob, not only incapable of deliberation, but prepared for every enormity. In these assemblies, the enemies of the people brought forward their plans of ambition systematically. They were opposed by their enemies of another party; and it became a matter of contingency, whether the people subjected themselves to be led blindly by one tyrant or by another.

If some of the nation's founders, like Hamilton, found flaws with direct democracy as practiced in ancient Greece, they almost certainly would have taken issue with a number of features of the modern political landscape, such as ballot measure and presidential primaries. In fact, many of the nation's fathers opposed the creation of political parties at all. They had seen how wrangling by political interests in Europe affected nations across the Atlantic. In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned: 

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Americans today might not have much confidence in our current election process; - the Founding Fathers probably wouldn't have liked it much either