What Do We Mean When We Talk About Democracy?
Every ideology requires some degree of acquiescence at the personal, social and governmental levels to prevail. It is the character, or spirit, of that collective consciousness that acts to sustain or reject it. Consciousness is at the crux of our personal and collective existence and expanded consciousness is what fuels the ideology of democracy. It is a dynamic that grows with us, informs our attitudes and behaviors, and enlightens how we relate to everything. It is the basis for altruism, and both the concept and the practice of democracy are deeply rooted in that. Democracy animates outwardly through our social contracts. It is the great equalizer and it’s important to understand how it grows, flourishes, and dies.
To appreciate its character, I think we need to look at the most common ways we understand it. Although there is evidence of democratic ways of thinking and organizing before the Greeks, Western thought credits them for naming it as a core system of interaction. The word ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words, ‘demos’ meaning whole citizens living within a particular city-state, and 'kratos,' meaning power or rule. The Athenian Greeks defined it in relation to governing themselves. The late U.S. Representative John Lewis said that “democracy is not a state, but an action.”
As an ideology, democracy concerns the social, political, and economic domains of life. It is a multi-layered, dynamic work-in-progress. Social democracy is a principled process that ensures some degree of equality within a social fabric, limited only by one’s ability and ambition. It spills over into political democracy, a method that involves citizens in decision-making, usually through representation. It is oriented toward liberty and freedom and guided by justice. Economic democracy is a course of action that guarantees everyone the right to have their basic needs met.
Although democracy is most commonly defined in political terms, it is the social, or functional, democracy that deserves more open discussion. Because it is based on merit, it ensures basic welfare at its core and guarantees the same general opportunities for all. It includes provisions for a safe and clean environment, the opportunity for quality education at an early age, a meaningful vocation, and assurance of both the physical and psychological conditions necessary for fulfillment and happiness. It consigns to society the responsibility of supporting those unable to care for themselves.
In a functional democracy, individuals mature enough to make rational decisions about their welfare have the right to believe and do anything that doesn’t harm others, as long as they are prepared for the consequences of their actions. Just as a democratic system of government guarantees the rights of minorities, a functional democracy has an even broader scope. It supports diversity and includes provisions for a livable environment not only for humans but also for other species. Although are always differences among its members, it offers a regulated system that provides incentives without exploitation. History shows us that democracy is the least expensive and most efficient of ideologies thus far in the human social experiment. It is the only one that maximizes public buy-in, and ultimately, it is the only sustainable social model.
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” ~ Preamble to the U.S. Constitution
From the Colonies to Federal Democracy in North America
The most difficult psychological change for many people to make is the transfer of loyalty from the political and social systems in which they were born into a different one. This is particularly true if the society they were born into was tolerable. If people feel it is necessary to leave from the society they were born into to another it requires that they accept the new system of governance, at least in the beginning. However, if a change of governance takes place where they live without a revolution, the transference of loyalty is done in stages, from confederation to federation.
A confederation is a system of governance where the individual states are more powerful than the central government. Currently, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United Nations are examples of confederations. A federation is a system where the central government is more powerful than the individual states. The United States and most modern nation-states today are some variation of federations.
If a society is unable to solve problems that threaten its existence, it either collapses to a more basic level of organization or creates a structure of governance that is large enough to solve the existing problems. This process of emerging out of an old way and synthesizing into a new way is an example of what Karl Marx called ‘dialectical materialism.’ Marx defined this dialectic as a three-stage process: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The English colonies of North America are a good example of this by moving from being separate and bi-loyal to a confederation, then to a federation. They were the first nation to do so and became the example for the rest of the world to emulate.
By the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, 13 of the 15 British colonies began to reconsider their relationship with Great Britain. Until then most colonists identified with the colonies they lived in, i.e., a Virginian, a Connecticut Yankee, or a New Yorker, etc. Their secondary loyalty was considering themselves to be a member of the British Empire, to be English. They did not think of themselves as American. Americans were the indigenous people. As difficulties increased in the dozen years after the French and Indian War, a plurality of the colonists increasingly considered themselves to no longer be English. The American Revolution was successful because 13 of the British colonies in North America were forced to cooperate in their common grievances against the British Government. Going back to the previous system was not possible. The reality was that a new system was needed that was large enough to deal with the governance of those colonies as a single unit, first to successfully pursue the war against England and then to govern themselves afterward. The primary loyalty was still to the society in which they were raised, but were now independent states with only enough power transferred to a central government to ensure their survival. This process ultimately required giving, usually grudgingly, greater power to the central government. Such a process is going on in Europe today, as younger people in the European Union consider that they are European rather than just the nation in which they were born into.
The creation of the United States under the Articles of Confederation was the first time since Athenian democracy that citizens could choose who would govern them and how they were to be governed. The collective experience of the US founders, under the Articles of Confederation in 1781, was recognizing that a government must have enough power to enforce cooperation within society if that society is to survive internally and externally. The most important contribution that happened under the Articles of Confederation was psychological. Most of the residents in this new country now felt that they were Americans, a feeling shared by the majority of people in the country. The second greatest contribution under the Articles of Confederation was creating a system by which new territories could become states.
Under the Articles, the United States government could not levy taxes, regulate trade, or control money. Each state minted its own money and had its tariffs, rules, and regulations. However, it cost more in tariffs and took nearly as long for a textile mill in New England to purchase cotton than that same cotton would cost in an English textile mill. There was a huge national debt due to the expense of fighting the war of independence. The United States currency was not worth the paper it was printed on, and without the ability to tax, it was not possible to maintain a military. Individual states were placing their own interests above that of the country as a whole. By 1786 -1787 the country was on the brink of collapse. For most citizens of this new United States that was the least of the bad options. The problem was finding a balance that allowed the people to retain as much freedom as possible and still have a viable country. In Massachusetts, the economic situation was so bad that a group of debt-ridden farmers led by Daniel Shays, rebelled. Faced with potential dissolution, most people preferred giving enough authority to the central government rather than opting for the chaos that was emerging and the probable take-over by the British, who were still in Canada and the western lands.
The Articles of Confederation proved too weak for a central government to enforce internal cooperation and to protect itself from potential external enemies. A republic was consequently formed with a strong central, or federal, government which allowed the states to retain as much power as possible. In a republic, power is delegated by the people (through the franchise) to the elected officials of the federal government and their appointees. Other powers are concurrent with, or shared, by both the federal and state and local governments.
The Evolution of Democracy
Democracy comes from the Greek words meaning “people rule”. As a system of government, democracy evolved in Athens, over 2500 years ago, from a city-state with perhaps 50,000 citizens and lasted for only a single generation. Modern democracy started with the Magna Carta in 1215 in England which placed limits on the absolute monarchy. It broadened power and established the right to be tried by one’s peers, the concept of no taxation without representation, and resulted in the evolution of the authority of Parliament and English common law.
American democracy combined the democratic principles that had evolved from the English and the practical application of philosophies of governance from the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, particularly by the English philosopher John Locke. They were also influenced by the French philosophers Montesquieu (separation of powers), Voltaire (separation of church and state), and the Swiss philosopher Rousseau (the social contract between commoners and rulers). The idea of “commander in chief” is borrowed from the Iroquois tribe. The United States Constitution is the oldest written charter or constitution in continual use. This is a written document of a system of governance specifying the rules by which society would be governed. The ultimate authority resides with the citizens by requiring those who govern to be voted into office on a prescribed and regular basis.
The Distribution of Power through the Constitution
The Constitution of the United States provides the structure, or framework, of how we govern ourselves. It is based on two principles: democracy and a republican structure with individual state governments, as well as a strong central government. Government is about power, the distribution of power, and the limits placed on how much power an institution or individual can have.
Power is the ability to get intended results, particularly the power to use force to protect society through its police, FBI, Coast Guard, and National Guard, and protect society from external enemies through its military and spy organizations. Governments also have a monopoly on collecting the financial resources necessary to maintain themselves through taxation, tariffs, and levies, and other means.
The Constitution is flexible in that it can adapt to changing circumstances of society over time. In their practical wisdom, the Founders created a system that deals with the underlying law through the institutions of government they created. These structures are like organs in a living being. Just as we have grown throughout our lives with the same organs we were born with, so has the Constitution been able to adapt to a society that is significantly different than the one created over 225 years ago. These institutions are able to evolve or grow to adjust to changing conditions over time. One way the Constitution is flexible is through Article I, Section 8, clause 18, or the “elastic clause,” which states that Congress shall deem what is “necessary and proper.” It is purposefully vague enough to be the basis of the “implied powers” within the Constitution.
In the Constitution, there is recognition that human nature is constant. One of the many traits that make us human is the desire for power. To limit the potential for abuse of power, the Founders created a document that provided enough power to rule, but with limits on that power. The purpose is to retain as much freedom for the individual as possible while allowing the government enough power to function. To guarantee that power will remain with its citizens, it was written around three main principles: checks and balances between the three branches of government; federalism (the power of the central government is paramount); and the protection of rights of its citizens.
Checks and Balances
The Constitution divides the federal government of the United States into three branches. These are the Executive, headed by the President; the Legislative made up of the House of Representatives and Senate in Congress; and the Judicial, headed by the Supreme Court. Each branch is given specific jobs to do and the power to perform those jobs.
To prevent one branch of government from getting too much power, the founders specified what the duties of each branch were. An example is Congress can pass laws with a simple majority of 50% plus one, but the President is given the power to veto a bill if he or she so chooses. In turn, Congress can override the President’s veto by a 2/3 vote, which is more difficult. Other examples are that the President can make a treaty, appoint cabinet secretaries and Supreme Court Justices but Senate approval is required; and the House of Representatives can deny the finances to implement treaties or other programs initiated by the President.
The division of power between the central and state governments is another main principle of the Constitution.
Certain powers are exclusive to the central government, others are retained by the States, and some are shared by the federal government, the states, and local government. However, the Supremacy Clause dictates that the Federal government authority is preemptive. There has and continues to be, tension between the states and the federal government.
A good way to get a better understanding of federalism is to study it when it’s under pressure. On numerous occasions states have disagreed with federal authority, requiring decisions from the Supreme Court to determine how power is distributed between the states and the Federal government. In 1860, eleven Southern states believed that the idea of federalism was so different from their own that they fought the Civil War over the belief that they had the right to withdraw from the Union. A more recent issue of conflict involving state rights was in the late 1950s when the Governor of Arkansas challenged a federal order and tried to prevent Little Rock’s all-white high school from being integrated. President Eisenhower federalized the National Guard of Arkansas, forcing integration. The key issue in this conflict was when, if ever, does a state have the right to go against the will of the federal courts? The conclusion was that if the Supreme Court says that when laws have passed, or a presidential action taken is constitutional, the states have to abide by those decisions.
Protection of Rights
A third basic principle of the Constitution is the guarantee of certain rights to all Americans. The Supreme Court is the final arbitrator on whether laws or actions are Constitutional, i.e., correct. The chief role of the Supreme Court is to determine whether the actions of individuals, such as the President, Cabinet Secretaries, or a county sheriff, are constitutional. The Supreme Court tends to reflect changing attitudes within the nation. It has, from time to time, changed its interpretations of the Constitution, reflecting the collective evolution of consciousness of society. Such an example was the Supreme Court’s decision in 1955 that the separation of public facilities was unequal and therefore unconstitutional in Brown vs. the Board of Education. This reversed Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) Supreme Court decision that stated that public facilities, such as schools or trains, could be segregated as long as separate but equal facilities were available. The integration of Little Rock high school was the result of this reversed decision by the Supreme Court and implemented by the federal government under Article VI; the supremacy of national law. This was the legal basis for the Civil Rights movement that followed. The Supreme Court is also the judge regarding whether a member of the government is following the mandate of his or her office by presiding over an impeachment procedure to determine if that individual will be removed from office.
Many democratic guarantees are found in the amendments to the Constitution. Article V provides a double process of how the Constitution could be changed or amended. Before an amendment can take effect, it must be sent to the states by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress or by a convention called by two-thirds of the states, and ratified by three-fourths of the states or by three-fourths of conventions thereof, the method of ratification being determined by Congress at the time of proposal. This provides a way to bypass the power of the Federal government to the power of state governments. To date, no convention for proposing amendments has been called by the states, and only once, in 1933 for the ratification of the twenty-first amendment - has the convention method of ratification been used.
The Constitution went into effect in 1789 without any amendments with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be added after the Constitution was ratified by the States. After the Constitution was ratified, a Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, was passed to protect individual rights of citizens from potential abuse of power of the government.
Democracy continues to evolve through the amendment process. The Constitution now contains twenty-seven amendments. Some of the amendments deal with how the government is conducted, such as the direct election of senators instead of being appointed by State Legislators or by governors and changing the way the Vice-President is elected.
The Bill of Rights Has Three Parts
The first three Constitutional amendments concern themselves with the general rights such as the rights of all people (both citizens and non-citizens) who are legally living in the United States.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of thought and the expression of those beliefs as long as they do not interfere with others' rights to do the same. They include freedom of religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly of groups, and the right to petition the government. There are limits of expression if it harms others such as libel, or causes a riot or panic.
The Second Amendment allows the states to have the right to have a militia or National Guard. The Supreme Court has recently decided the second amendment also means that individual citizens have a right to have guns. One of the main functions of a society is to provide security for its citizens. As violence increases, because deranged individuals are killing more and more citizens, I predict that this decision will be reviewed and reversed by a future Supreme Court.
The Third Amendment no longer applies as it protects citizens from having to quarter or house and supply armies in their homes. These days the military now lives in forts. A portion of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments apply to both general and due process. The Fourth Amendment includes the implication of privacy. The Fifth Amendment includes the right of eminent domain, or the right to not have property taken by the government without procedure and without being paid a fair price.
The second part of the Bill of Rights protects individuals who are accused of a crime based on the philosophy that it is the responsibility of the government to prove guilt and not the individual to prove their innocence. This is referred to as the due process of law, because it follows a logical procedure or process starting with the government seeking evidence of a crime (Amendment 4), to the rights of the accused (Amendment 5), requirements for a jury trial (Amendment 6), rules of common law (Amendment 7), and limits of punishment (Amendment 8) are the practical guarantees of a fair trial through each step of the process in that each amendment spells out the rights of the individual accused of a crime from how evidence is obtained to the type of punishment if proven guilty.
The third part of the Bill of Rights is a catch-all by stating that unless the Constitution prevents individuals from doing an action (Amendment 9) or the States from doing some action (Amendment 10), then individuals and the States have the right reserved for individuals to do whatever they want.
The Right to Privacy
The right to privacy is not expressly stated in the Constitution but is implied. Many states expressly have the right to privacy in their state constitutions. The right to privacy has evolved since the conception of the Constitution. It was the result of an interpretation by the Supreme Court of the Fourth Amendment, an amendment that also includes all the provisions of the Constitution taken in totality.
Types of Power
Delegated powers are those activities in which the national government may engage. The powers are given or delegated, by the people by the franchise through the Constitution, to the federal government (Article 1, Section 8). These powers may be either expressed or implied. If expressed, they are also numbered or enumerated. In some cases, these powers may be carried out by the national government only. In other situations, states may also share, or concurrently exercise these powers along with the federal government. Unless prevented by law, all other actions are reserved for the citizens and the states.