In the United States of America, Democracy is viewed as an integral to both the nation’s identity and political system. However sympathies to alternatives have always been present in the popular discourse as well. Additionally, “Democracy” has gained so many political and moral connotations that the distinction between it and a more accurate description of our political process - as a democratic republic.
These observations inspire a few questions:
- Why is the concept of Democracy so important to the identity of the USA?
- What are the updsides and downsides to Democracy both in concept and in practice?
- How does Democracic practice in the USA compare to the ideal?
This article attempts to answer the second question, while touching contextually on the first and third. Additionally, this article is a prompt for a discussion on an episode of the Art of Thought podcast.
Note: I use “Democracy” capitalized not to refer to the Democratic political party in the USA, but to specifically refer to “democracy” as popularly conceived in the USA.
What is Democracy?
This section serves as an overview of what Democracy means in this article. There are many other resources that provide a more thorough foundation, but that isn’t necessary here.
So, what is democracy (lower-case)? According to dictionary.com, democracy is
government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.
This definition serves as a landmark for considering Democracy, the flavor of democracy as concieved of in the USA. Importantly, the phrase “supreme power is vested in the people” regards every democratic government’s loyalty to the popular desicions of citizens when they are submitted through the appropriate protocol.
Next, there are some important lines to draw between democracy and Democracy.
Direct democracy is democracy where all political desicions, legislative and executive, are made through some kind of popular vote among citizens. While this is commonly used in small groups, it is not how the American government operates or even pretends to operate at the national level.
Absolute democracy is democracy where all democratic desicions are executed regardless of conflicts with the current law. The American national government contains a Supreme Court that is appointed and can, in some circumstances, rule against democractic desicions. The vast buerocracy that makes up the American national and state governments ensures that many democratic desicions are not faithfully executed as they are presented to the voting citizenry. And finally, new democratic desicions cannot override the American constitution unless the constitution is first ammeded to allow it. For example, American citizens cannot be declared guilty of serious crimes without the option for a preceeding trial by jury. So, the USA does not practice absolute democracy.
Note: A democratic republic being a kind of democracy, I take the republican side of this category to be an aspect of Democracy in the USA.
The Upsides of Democracy
From a historical perspective, Democracy seems to have coincided with the development of a hugely powerful and influencial country that is the USA. The USA is currently a global superpower unmatched in almost every aspect of international influence, and has been a top global superpower for at least a century.
As for domestic concerns, Americans enjoy some of the highest living standards ever experienced in any part of the world at any point in the past. Of course, the USA is not alone in this status — these luxurious living standards are matched or surpassed in most of North America, most of Europe, and much in North-Eastern Asia.
Much of the USA’s political success is popularly attributed to its faithful practice of Democracy. Some plausible upside of Democracy are:
U1. relative political stability
U2. political representation for citizens
U3. citizen participation in politics
U4. moderation of the concentration of political power
U5. federated legislation executive power
U6. cohesion of national identity
The Downsides of Democracy
Although Democracy is almost unanimously pronounced good by the Americans both publically and privately, it is not without is downsides. Notably, the history of democratic practice is littered with failures. As Plato hypothesized (with ample evidence) in Republic, democracies tend toward tyranny.
Democracy’s central virtue is also is central vice. The public citizenry, which can providing an anchorpoint for political moderation, can also be swayed easily towards political mistakes. With the upsides from the previous section in mind, some plausible downsides of Democracy are:
D1. unknowledgable voters involced many desicions
D2. political incentive to appear good to voters rather than perform well
D3. irrational views of citizenry when it comes to policy
D4. greater popularity of the short-term over the long-term
D5. slow processing for desicion-making
D6. distributed and vague responsibiltiy
The Net Weighting of Democracy