I would argue there are three broad levels of democracy. Two of them are widely recognized. Where does America stand?

The first broad level of democracy is referred to as electoral democracy. This type of democracy is typically defined procedurally. Thus, we say free and open elections constitute democracy. This specific process is democracy. This is how most people would probably define democracy, as it’s very much a pillar of American democracy. Ask pretty much any American, and they will probably explain it to you in this way. However, this is a very minimalistic definition of democracy. It fails to take into account the rights of people. If we simply define democracy as where there are fair and free elections, many questionable countries could be included as democratic. We already know there are countries that do hold elections, yet still systematically repress the population, are heavily corrupt, or are under the auspices of the military.

A new definition is therefore needed for democracy. The second broad level of democracy is called a liberal democracy (sometimes called a constitutional democracy). In her post to the SCSU Scholars blog here, Janet gets very confused over the relationship between rights and democracy. Her contention is that the United States is not a democracy, but instead a republic. This is a very egregious false dichotomy; the two are not mutually exclusive. The United States is both a constitutional republic and a representative liberal democracy. So, what’s a liberal democracy? It’s a form of democracy that, in addition to free and open elections, also protects the right of the people. It says that opposition parties should be able to run, a free press should be allowed, there should be civilian control over the military, minority rights are protected, and there is governmental accountability, among other things. This seems like a good definition for democracy. It is, after all, what American democracy constitutes. However, this widely held definition of democracy is lacking a very essential component, which is the will of the people.

The third broad level of democracy is participatory democracy. In this level of democracy, the electorate has a meaningful say in policy formulation. That is, the government is responsive to the people. Instead of spectators, the citizenry are participants in the democracy.

Unfortunately, the United States does not fall into the third category. While it does a good job at being a free and open society with fair and regular elections, we know it is not responsive to the public. Take, for example, when Dick Cheney was asked in 2008 about the massive unpopularity of the Iraq War. His response was, “So?” That’s your typical elite response. Right after this candid response by the Vice President, Dana Perino, the White House Press Secretary for George Bush, had this to say as to whether the American people should have input in decision-making: “You had your input. The American people have input every four years. That’s the way the system is set up.” And she’s right. Democracy is being defined as holding elections every few years but little more. The Iraq War is but one of many glaring examples of the government’s unresponsiveness to the will of the people. It’s easy to cite more, but I won’t bother wasting your time. For the basic description of this form of government, called a polyarchy (as opposed to true democracy), I defer you to the works of Robert Dahl, a highly eminent political theorist. The real question is, What is the foundation from which this American democracy was created and how do the American people feel about it?

The first question might not seem like an easy one, since it’s not generally taught in any civics course. First, a good characterization of this democracy is given by Walter Lippmann, a highly respected and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and democracy theorist of the 20th century (who was highly praised by the progressives of the era). Much of his views on this topic can be found in his 1922 book (Public Opinion) and his 1925 book (The Phantom Public), where he talks about manufacturing consent—propaganda, essentially—and the public’s role in democracy. Lippmann argues for an elite and bureaucratic ruling class, a vanguard as it were, consistent with the description given by Dahl. The notion of public involvement in governing is a “false ideal.” As such, the public, the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders,” must be relegated to being spectators rather than participants (who are instead the “responsible men”). Though, he recognized, this ignorant spectator class should occasionally “lend their weight” to a small choice of the “responsible men” (elections). This characterization is broadly consistent with how American democracy operates (as Dana Perino concurred in the above quote).

The framework for this democracy was given by James Madison, the Father of the U.S. Constitution. In his eyes, the government’s role was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” The majority, the public (or the “great beast” as Hamilton put it), must be restrained so as not to interfere with the “permanent interests of the country,” or what Madison calls the “landed proprietors.” Otherwise, he contended, “if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place.” Madison therefore suggested the power be concentrated in the hands of the “more capable set of men,” the Senate, which “ought to come from, & represent, the Wealth of the nation.” So that’s the foundation upon which American democracy, very accurately and articulately described by Dahl and Lippmann and many others, is formulated. And it’s agreed that educated people like us are supposed to approve of and go along with it. But what does the American public think of this?

First of all, it’s very widely recognized how the government operates. The highly respected Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland did a survey in early 2008. They found that 80% of Americans see the government as being “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” and not “for the benefit of all the people.” What’s more, 94% percent of the people disagreed with how the government is run and said that the government should “pay attention to the views of the people” more than just every four years. An overwhelming majority of the American public argue for a form of participatory democracy, that is, a functioning democracy. We should be asking ourselves now why this is not happening.

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