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The Root Principles of Democracy

By Melvin I. Urofsky

"...that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not vanish from this earth."
                                             -- President Abraham Lincoln
                                                Gettysburg Address, 1863

Speaking at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg in the midst of a great civil war fought to preserve the United States as a country, President Lincoln gave us in his ringing conclusion perhaps the best-known definition of democracy in American history. By "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," he meant, the essentials of democratic government he so well described are applicable to all nations that aspire to a democratic society.

Democracy is hard, perhaps the most complex and difficult of all forms of government. It is filled with tensions and contradictions, and requires that its members labor diligently to make it work. Democracy is not designed for efficiency, but for accountability; a democratic government may not be able to act as quickly as a dictatorship, but once committed to a course of action it can draw upon deep wellsprings of popular support. Democracy, certainly in its American form, is never a finished product, but is always evolving. The outer forms of government in the United States have altered little in two centuries, but once we look past the surface we discover great changes. Yet, most Americans believe -- and rightly so -- that the basic principles underlying their government derive directly from notions first enunciated by the framers of the Constitution in 1787.

In these papers, we have tried to explicate what some of those principles are, indicating a little of their historical development and explaining why they are important to the workings of government in the United States in particular as well as democracy in general. Because any democracy is an evolving system, the papers also indicate some shortcomings of the U.S. governmental system, and how the nation has tried to address those problems. No one claims that the American model, as successful as it has been for the United States, is the model that all democracies should follow. Each nation must fashion a government out of its own culture and history. But these essays do identify fundamental principles that, in one form or another, must be present in all democracies. The exact manner in which laws are made, for example, can vary widely, but no matter what the forms, they must obey the root principle that the citizenry has to be involved in the process and feel ownership of those laws.

What are these root principles? We have identified 11 that we believe are key to understanding how democracy has evolved and how it operates in the United States.

Constitutionalism: Law-making must take place within certain parameters; there must be approved methods for laws to be made and to be changed, and certain areas -- namely the rights of individuals -- must be off limits to the whims of majority rule. A constitution is a law, but at the same time it is much more than that. It is the organic document of a government, laying out the powers of the different branches as well as the limits on governmental authority. A key feature of constitutionalism is that this basic framework cannot easily be changed because of the wishes of a transient majority. It requires the consent of the governed expressed in a clear and unambiguous manner. In the United States, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times since 1787. The framers made the amendment process difficult but not impossible. Most of the amendments have extended democracy by enlarging individual rights and wiping away differences based on race or gender. None of these amendments were lightly undertaken, and when adopted, all had the support of a great majority of the people.

Democratic Elections: No matter how well designed a government is, it cannot be considered democratic unless the officials who head that government are freely elected by the citizens in a manner perceived to be open and fair to all. The mechanism of an election may vary, but the essentials are the same for all democratic societies: access of all qualified citizens to the ballot, protection of the individual against undue influence in the casting of the ballot, and an open and honest counting of the votes. Because large-scale balloting is always subject to errors and fraud, care must be taken to avoid these as much as possible, so that if there is a problem or a close election -- as happened in the 2000 presidential election in the United States -- the people will understand that despite the difficulty, the results can still be accepted as binding upon them.

Federalism, State and Local Governments: The United States is unique in its federal system of government, in which power and authority are shared and exercised by national, state, and local governments. But if the model is not suited to other nations, there are still lessons to be learned. The further government is from the people, the less effective it is and the less it is trusted. By having local and state governments, Americans can see some of their elected officials up close. They can tie policies and programs directly to the men and women who enacted them and who implement them. In addition, decentralization of authority makes it all that much harder to effect an illegitimate takeover of the government. The principle that democracies ought to decentralize power and responsibility may not matter much in a small and relatively homogeneous country, but it can be an important safeguard in large and heterogeneous nations.

Creation of law: History records that formal laws have been made by mankind for five millennia, but the methods different societies have used to make the rules under which they will live have varied enormously, from edicts by god-kings to majority vote at village meetings. In the United States, law is made at many levels, from local town councils, on up through state legislatures, to the U.S. Congress. But at all these levels, there is a large input from the citizenry, either directly or indirectly. Law-making bodies recognize that they are responsible to their constituents, and if they do not legislate in the people's best interests, they will face defeat at the next election. The key to democratic law-making is not the mechanism or even the forum in which it takes place, but the sense of accountability to the citizenry and the need to recognize the wishes of the people.

An independent judiciary: Alexander Hamilton remarked in The Federalist in 1788-89 that the courts, being without the powers of either sword or purse, would be "the least dangerous branch" of the government. Yet courts can be very powerful in a democracy, and in many ways are the operating arm through which constitutional constraints are interpreted and enforced. In the United States, the courts may declare acts of Congress and of state legislatures invalid because they conflict with the Constitution, and may enjoin presidential actions on similar grounds. The greatest defender of individual rights in the United States has been the court system; this is made possible because most judges have life tenure and can focus on legal issues without the distraction of politics. While not all constitutional courts are the same, there must be a body that has the authority to determine what the Constitution says, and when different branches of government have exceeded their powers.

Powers of the presidency: All modern societies must have a chief executive able to carry out the responsibilities of government, from the simple administration of a program to directing the armed forces to defending the nation in wartime. But a fine line must be drawn between giving the executive sufficient powers to do the job and, at the same time, limiting that authority to prevent a dictatorship. In the United States, the Constitution has drawn clear lines around the powers of the president, and while the office is one of the strongest in the world, its strength derives from consent of the governed and the ability of the occupant of the White House to work well with the other branches of government. Here again, the actual organization of the chief executive's office is not the issue, but rather the constraints imposed upon that office by such principles as "separation of powers." In a democracy, a president must rule through his or her political skills, establishing a framework of cooperation with the legislature and above all with the people. At the same time, the citizenry must feel secure that constitutional constraints ensure that the president or prime minister is always the servant, and not the master, of the people.

Role of a free media: Closely tied to the public's right to know are a free media -- newspapers, radio and television networks -- that can investigate the workings of government and report on them without fear of prosecution. English common law made any criticism of the king (and by extension the entire government) a crime known as seditious libel. The United States eventually did away with this crime, and in its place created a theory of the press that has served democracy well. In a complex state, the individual citizen may not be able to leave work to go watch trials, sit in on legislative debates, or investigate how a government program works. But the press is the surrogate of the citizen, reporting back through print and broadcast media what it has found so that the citizenry can act on that knowledge. In a democracy, the people rely on the press to ferret out corruption, to expose the maladministration of justice or the inefficient and ineffective workings of a government body. No country can be free without a free press, and one sign of any dictatorship is the silencing of the media.

Role of interest groups: In the 18th century, and in fact well into the 19th, law-making represented primarily a dialogue between the voters and their elected representatives in Congress or in state and local governments. Because the population was smaller, governmental programs more limited, and communications simpler, there was no need for citizens to resort to mediating organizations for assistance in making their views known. But, in the 20th century, society grew more complex, and the role of government expanded. Now there are many issues that voters need to speak about, and in order to make their voices heard on specific matters, citizens create lobby groups, groups advocating public and private interests, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) devoted to single issues. There has been much internal criticism of this aspect of American democracy, and some people claim that those interests with access to large sums of money can make their voices better heard than those with fewer resources. There is a certain truth to that criticism, but the fact of the matter is that there are hundreds of these groups who help to educate the public and lawmakers about particular matters, and in doing so they help many individual citizens of ordinary means get their views known to their lawmakers in a complex age. With the age of the Internet upon us, the number of voices will increase even more, and these NGOs will help to refine and focus citizen interest in an effective manner.

Public's right to know: Before this century, if people wanted to know how their government was running, generally all they had to do was go down to the town hall or the agora and listen to the debates and discussions. But today we deal with large, complex bureaucracies, statutes and regulations that often run hundreds of pages, and a legislative process that, even while accountable to the people, may still be too murky for most to understand what is happening. In a democracy, government should, as much as possible, be transparent -- that is, its deliberations and decisions should be open to public scrutiny. Clearly, not all government actions should be public, but the citizenry have a right to know how their tax dollars are spent, whether the administration of justice is efficient and effective, and whether their elected representatives are acting responsibly. How this information is made available will vary from government to government, but no democratic government can operate in total secrecy.

Protecting minority rights: If by "democracy" we mean rule by the majority, then one of the great problems in a democracy is how minorities are treated. By "minorities" we do not mean people who voted against the winning party, but rather those who are indelibly different from the majority by reasons of race, religion, or ethnicity. In the United States, the great problem has been that of race; it took a bloody civil war to free black slaves, and then another century before people of color could count on free exercise of their constitutional rights. The problem of racial equality is one that the United States is still wrestling with today. But this is part of the evolutionary nature of democracy, the drive to become more inclusive and to grant to those who are different from the majority not only protection against persecution but the opportunity to participate as full and equal citizens. Examples of nations treating their minorities in a bloody and horrible manner are numerous, and the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews is only the most vivid illustration. But no society can aspire to call itself democratic if it systematically excludes specific groups from the full protection of the laws.

Civilian control of the military: In ancient times, the primary responsibility of a leader was to lead society's military forces either to defend the nation or to conquer others. All too often, the popularity of a successful general led him to seek control of the government through force; he who controlled the military could easily sweep all others aside. In modern times we have seen, far too many times to count, a colonel or general using the power of the army in a coup to overthrow the civilian government. In a democracy, the military must not only be under the actual control of civilian authorities, but it must have a culture that emphasizes the role of soldiers as the servants and not the rulers of society. This is easier to accomplish when there is a citizen army, whose officers come from all sectors of society and after a term of service, return to civilian life. But the principle remains the same: The military must always be subordinate; its job is to protect democracy and not rule.

From these essays we can derive certain overarching themes. First, and most important, is that in a democracy the ultimate source of all authority is the people. The Constitution of the United States announces this boldly in its first words: "We, the People of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution." All powers in government must come from the people, and must be accepted by them as legitimate. This validation takes place through a variety of means, including the processes of making law as well as free and fair elections.

A second general principle is that there must be a division of powers so that no one part of the government can become so strong as to subvert the will of the people. Although the president is always seen as the most powerful office in American government, the Constitution limits those powers and requires the chief executive to work in harmony with the other branches as well as with the constituency of voters. Although civilian control of the military would seem to place great power in the president's hands, the culture underlying the military in a democratic society works against the misuse of that force. Courts also exist to serve as limitations not only on the executive but on the legislative branch as well. In a democracy, government must be in a balance, and all the different parts must appreciate the wisdom and necessity of that balance.

Third, the rights of individuals and of minorities must be respected, and the majority may not use its power to deprive any person of basic liberties. In a democracy this may often be difficult, especially if there is a diverse population holding diverse views on critical subjects. But once a government deprives one group of rights, then the rights of all the people are in jeopardy.

These themes run throughout the Democracy Papers, and each topic supports all of these overarching principles. The will of the people is ensured through free and fair elections, through the making of law, through a free press examining the workings of government, and through a right to know what the government is doing. It expresses itself through interest groups, even if a bit unevenly. In the United States, the division of powers is mandated by the Constitution, an organic document held in near reverence by the American people. It is also seen in limitations imposed upon the government, by civilian control of the military, and by a federal system. And rights of minorities are ensured through many means, the most important of which is an independent judiciary.

But can these principles be translated into other cultures? There is no simple answer, because the success of any governmental system depends on so many intertwined features. During the colonial period in American history, the imperial government in London could not exert close control of its distant American colonies, and so power and authority devolved onto the local legislatures. This in turn led to a federal system encapsulated in a Constitution that reflects the peculiar historical situation of the people of the United States. The perceived excesses of the British king led to limits on executive authority, while the experience of a citizen militia laid the basis for civilian control of the military.

Individual rights proved harder, but as democracy has evolved in the United States, the rights of the people have expanded from those of white, property-owning men to include men and women of all races, colors, and creeds. Diversity, originally seen as a problem for government, became one of the great strengths of democracy. With so many different peoples, religions and cultures in large democratic nations, any effort to impose one uniform manner of life would have proven disastrous. Instead of fighting diversity, the American people made it a cornerstone of their democratic faith.

Other nations as they experiment with democracy -- and it is always an experiment -- will need to examine how the attributes described in these papers can best be created and sustained in their own culture. There is no one way; to paraphrase the poet Walt Whitman, democracy is a multitude, often contradicting itself. But if we keep our eye on the basic, immutable principles -- that ultimate authority resides in the people, that governmental powers must be limited, and that individual rights must be protected-then there can be many ways in which to achieve those goals.

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