Joel Hirst: The Principles of American Democracy | Huffington Post

April 3, 2012 11:13 am1 commentViews: 2

There is perhaps no term more used, misunderstood and abused than the word ‘democracy.’

Abraham Lincoln’s democracy was encapsulated in his quote, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy”; while Gandhi said, “The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires change of heart”; and Aristotle is quoted as saying, “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.”

Yet what is democracy? The dictionary definition of democracy is simple: “Government by the people.” This definition is important, but is naturally insufficient to address the minutiae of democratic governance — the act of exercising authority. This is probably because, more than a simple word, democracy is an idea which encapsulates other beliefs and principles into a governing dynamic; it outlines how authority will be wielded in a given country.

America, perhaps more than any other nation, has the principle of democracy woven into its fiber. Yet, far too often, the battle for ideas takes a shortcut — relegating itself to catch phrases, campaign slogans and bumper stickers — and democracy suffers. As Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

For this reason, it is occasionally important to review the components of democratic governance which serve to protect the people from each other, from a predatory state, and serve as the guarantors of basic rights acquired in a free society. In my opinion, democratic governance in America can be summed up in five elements.

The first element is the mechanism of representative democracy. Recently (beginning in the 1960s) a new trend coined ”direct democracy” had gained ground, emanating from the disenchantment of certain segments of society with their elected leaders. This type of mob rule has achieved its most sophisticated expression in a few countries (such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia or Russia) where strongmen seek to use it to bypass traditional democratic governance. Direct democracy seeks to provide opportunities for “the people” to participate directly in their own governance — through committees, cooperatives, plebiscites and referendums. While on the surface this sounds positive, in practice direct democracy tends to favor the well-funded, well-organized and more energetic (or more unemployed) segments of a community or society. Take the caucus process as an example — generally, candidates who win caucuses are not those who win popular votes but instead are able to mobilize a small group of committed supporters. Apply this principle to governance and it is clear to see that a municipality or county managed by Ron Paul supporters might not achieve outcomes that are the best for all. The idea of direct democracy also flies in the face of one, pre-eminent principal of freedom — the right to not participate.

Stemming from the importance of having a representative body governing as the people’s surrogates, it is also essential to have a professional, non-partisan civil service that provide these services to the people. Governments in unstable democracies all too often confuse and blur the lines dividing party, administration and state. This is bad for democracy. Activist governments attempting to socially engineer their citizenry using their civil service as partisan soldiers for their political project have been a serious cause of recent misery. The role of the president, as the nation’s first civil servant, is to carefully implement the laws passed by Congress and interpreted by the court system — not to engage in social engineering. The moment he (she) takes office they cease to represent their party — and instead represent the entire nation.

This leads me to the third component of American democracy: the principal of separation of powers. In the United States this means three separate but equal branches of government, each with a clear role and with an equal claim to legitimacy. The Congress makes the laws, the Supreme Court interprets them (with an eye on the Constitution), and the president implements them. Anything beyond this — such as signing statements and executive orders — are abuses of executive authority. In the American system, the executive, due to his (her) legitimate use of coercive authority, has their terms of office limited. These three, separate but equal branches preserve the delicate balance which protect American liberties.

The fourth is the principal of limited government. This is important and is at the center of much of the political tension in the United States. There is a certain irony to this. An essential component of American foreign assistance is in the field of democracy and governance — and much of this goes into assisting in decentralization strategies for foreign governments. It is an accepted fact in development theory that centralized governments tend towards authoritarianism, corruption and inefficiency. The fact that U.S. assistance programs continue to promote decentralization overseas while there exists a trend toward centralization at home is ironic, and sad. America’s founders and framers understood the importance of decentralization and even wrote it into the Constitution as the 10th amendment, requiring that all activity not explicitly set out in the Constitution be devolved to the states. Washington would do well to read this amendment on occasion.

Finally, none of these principles would have any value if they were not woven around a nucleus of hard, civil and political rights which, enshrined in the bill of rights, guarantee the individual within American society certain “inalienable rights” — such as life, liberty, property, speech, assembly, religion, due process, and others. These are the fundamental building blocks around which the entire instrument of American democratic governance is built. And these are the only rights recognized by American democracy. Other rights, such as the economic, social and cultural rights are not building blocks but instead negotiations between free citizens as to the nature and extent of the nation’s social contract. They are such, because all inalienable rights compel duties from the federal government; and the duties these rights would compel directly interfere with the free market system as well as the bill of rights (such as the 10th amendment).

This is American democratic governance; a messy, sometimes frustrating process which — nevertheless — serves to guarantee the greatest quotient of individual liberty ever experienced by man.

  • Jorge

    Que tal Joel!
    En la ruta de la perfeccion de la democracia, más allá de la elección de representantes, ésta tiende a ser más homogénea y a entenderse y vivirse de igual manera en aquellas sociedades donde se le ha nutrido y protegido como forma de vida. A mayor educacion mayor democracia, siendo lo opuesto desgraciadamente cierto tambien. Y ese es el problema en america latina: los despotas jefes de estado de los paises del ALBA aprovechan la escasa cultura politica de sus pueblos para violar sus constituciones y enraizarse en el poder creando auténticas mafiocracias o caquistocracias que postergan aun más el anhelo democratico, el ideal democratico. Excelente articulo Joel!