Democracy in America: Essay & Questions

What is a thumbnail history of democracy?


Democracy (rule by the people) is an ancient form of government and can be seen in tribal organizations or small villages when there is a village council with cooperative discussions and rules. An example would be the Iroquois Confederacy of American Indians.


There is evidence of republics in India in sixth century BCE. Greek historians mention democratic city-states in India with an elected raja or leader and an assembly open to all free men. Ancient Greece was a collection of city-states. Sparta, for instance, was an oligarchy resembling a democracy in that power was divided among different bodies. The lawgiver, Lycurgus, in the 7th century BCE, made the world’s first written constitution, forming a militarized communal system that made all Spartans equal. Equality, military fitness, and austerity were the common virtues. All citizens, including women, had the right to public education. 


Athens, another and rival Greek city-state, is considered the birthplace of classic democracy. After a period of political unrest, Athenians looked to Solon, their aristocratic lawgiver, to mediate between the rich minority and the poor majority. Solon organized a democratic government, in which all citizens could attend the Assembly or Ecclesia and vote. The Ecclesia was the sovereign body that passed laws and elected officials. Archons or magistrates of the Areopagus were the check to the Ecclesia.This was the foundation for the Athenian Golden Age of Democracy in the 5th  century BCE. Athens became a great civilization with equality of rights extended to more citizens by Pericles, lauded as a great leader favoring the many instead of the few. Citizens were selected by lot to hold office or be on juries. It was a direct democracy with decisions made and voted on after open discussion at the Ecclesia by all men present. The Boule (a council of citizens) carried out the decisions, and the court of law ruled on disputed cases. 


Modern representative democracies resemble the Roman Republic more that the Greek city-state. In Rome in 451 BCE conflict between the patricians and plebians resulted in a new constitution based on Greek example. There were two ruling consuls, the executive authority; the Senate was the law-making and administrative body of patricians (aristocrats); and the plebians (commoners) participated through assemblies that could have a final say on laws and elections. The stability of Rome depended on its system of checks to absolute power. 


Medieval systems using principles of democracy include aspects of the Christian Church, the medieval guilds, the German tribal system, the Althing of the Icelandic Commonwealth, the t’atha system of Ireland, city-states in Switzerland, and other parliamentary systems in Europe. Tocqueville especially praises the British for the slow and deliberate building of democratic institutions, starting with the Magna Carta (1215) that elevated the law over the arbitrary power of the king. The English settlers brought a long democratic tradition with them to America, the basis for American democracy. 


2. What are some other classics of political philosophy?


The Greek philosopher, Plato (427-347 BCE) wrote his famous The Republic describing the ideal state as having no private property. Plato discusses power and corruption, tyranny, justice, the Good, and the perfect ruler as a philosopher-king. Aristotle is called the Father of Political Science because of his important treatises, Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle discusses different types of government, giving examples of three admired political administrations in Sparta, Crete, and Carthage. He also describes types of democracy and constitutions. A good government is one that strives for the common good, he says.


Various classical historians recorded examples of good and bad governments. Thucydides (c. 460 BCE-395 BCE) was a Greek historian who covered the war between Sparta and Athens in The History of the Peloponnesian War, celebrated for its realistic description. This work is still studied in military colleges and contains material on the theory of international relations. Julius Caesar (100 BCE-44 BCE), Roman general and statesman, helped turn the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. His Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (40s BCE) is a masterpiece including details of his military strategy in the conquest of France.


Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) wrote the City of God, a medieval classic read in the Church and royal courts, summarizing current political ideas in the light of Christianity.


Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) is a defining work from the Renaissance. Utopia presents an ideal society where the citizens are virtuous through reason, not force. They eschew war and embrace religious tolerance. A counterbalance to this political idealism is the opposing argument of pragmatism in The Prince (1532) by NiccolÚ Machiavelli (1469-1527). This work was both admired and reviled for its expedient advice to rulers to create stability through fear, force, and manipulation. 


Some of the Enlightenment philosophers Tocqueville read are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and John Locke, those thinkers who fuelled the American and French Revolutions with their ideas of equality and freedom. Of the Social Contract (1762) by Rousseau (1712-1778) was a progressive work negating the divine right of kings and popularizing the idea of the people’s will as the true power of a state. He said that the social contract that citizens make with the state is an act of freedom not submission.


Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La BrËde et de Montesquieu (1689-1755) wrote The Spirit of the Laws (1748) in which he advocates constitutionalism and the principle of the separation of powers in government. John Locke (1632-1704) was a British empiricist who wrote against absolute monarchy in favor of government by the consent of the governed in Two Treatises on Government (1689).


Modern books on politics are too numerous to list, but some important recent works include Development as Freedom (1999) by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, and The Origins of Political Order (2011) by Francis Fukuyama. Sen expands the definition of freedom, linking it to economic opportunity. Fukuyama’s book looks at the evolution of the rule of law, the state, and accountable government throughout world history. 


3.  What in French history contributed to Tocqueville’s view of democracy?


Tocqueville’s aristocratic family had lived through the French Revolution, with one of his grandparents guillotined and his parents imprisoned. He witnessed the convulsions of France as it came to terms with democratic change for half a century, and he could only marvel that it had all been accomplished relatively easily in America. He wanted to find out why and how.


The ancien rÈgime or Old Regime refers to the French aristocracy he was born into that ruled in France from the 15th to 18th centuries under the Valois and Bourbon dynasties. The Three Estates of the realm were the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. The kings tried to create a centralized state under an absolute monarchy, while French aristocrats, as Tocqueville notes in his book, were the check on monarchy. This system started to unravel in the eighteenth century with the political ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers, who provided the theory for modern democracy. Tocqueville, though an aristocrat, grew up on this liberal philosophy, yet he kept a foot in his conservative heritage. As a lawyer and magistrate, he stood not only for liberty and justice for all, but also for law and order. He himself helped to put down socialist street demonstrations in Paris for fear of mob violence. He tried to bring democracy to France through law, helping to write the French Constitution for the Second Republic in 1848, based on his study of American democracy.


The French Revolution (1789-1795) was violent at home and also involved France in foreign wars.  The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted by the National Assembly in 1789, modeled on the American Declaration of Independence.  Class divisions, however, were more pronounced in France, with workers, bourgeois, clergy, and nobles, sometimes working together, and sometimes bitter enemies.  In the next forty years, the government constantly shifted its structure, ruling principles, and ruling classes, with a succession of constitutions and leaders. The 1790s degenerated into chaos with the Reign of Terror. In France, democracy was often associated with terror in the streets, as different factions demanded their rights. They did not have at hand the democratic institutions, like town halls, that American settlers brought from England. This is why Tocqueville explains in his book that democracy does not have to be radical or violent. In fact, he claims that Americans have many conservative checks to make sure democracy is orderly. He is trying to convince a nervous French public.


After the Reign of Terror, the execution of Louis XVI, the Constitutional Republic, and the Napoleonic Empire, France restored the Bourbon monarchy under Louis XVIII in 1814. Once again when the people tired of absolute monarchy and the bourgeoisie rebelled, the Citizen King, Louis-Phillippe, was installed in a constitutional monarchy in 1830. It was during this regime, which Tocqueville despised, that he traveled to America. After helping to establish the Second Republic in the Revolution of 1848, Tocqueville finally despaired of participating in French politics and retired to write his books, when Napoleon III took over the Second French Empire (1852-1870). Democracy came to France, but it was a painful and long process.


4. How does the American Constitution protect individual and minority rights?


Tocqueville discusses the broad measures against majority tyranny in the structure of the American government itself with its checks and balances, but in addition, specific protections are added in amendments to the Constitution. The first ten amendments, added to the Constitution in 1791 are called the Bill of Rights, modeled on the English Bill of Rights. Below, the relevant amendments are listed.


The Second Amendment is the right of citizens to own and bear weapons.


The Third Amendment prohibits the government from using private homes to quarter soldiers without the owner’s permission.


The Fourth Amendment is a protection against unlawful search, arrest, and seizure of property without a warrant showing probable cause of criminal intent.


The Fifth Amendment guarantees a fair trial and due process of law; accused persons are not required to testify against themselves.


The Sixth Amendment guarantees a speedy public trial by jury for criminal offenses with right to legal counsel.  The accused must be told of the charges upon arrest. 


The Eighth Amendment forbids excessive bail and fines, and cruel or unusual punishment.


The Tenth Amendment gives to the states and to the people any powers the Constitution does not give the federal government.


The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) describes the guarantees of United States citizenship, repeals the counting of blacks as three-fifths of a person, and prohibits states from refusing due process and equal protection of the law.


The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) protects a citizen from the state or federal government using race as a qualification for voting.


The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) gives women the vote.


The Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) prohibits states and federal government from charging a poll tax (to prevent the poor or minority races from voting).


The Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) prevents discrimination of age by giving the vote to everyone age 18 and older


In this way, the protection of individuals and minorities from the majority is an ongoing constitutional process addressing issues as they arise. 



5. What are the challenges that face American democracy today?


Tocqueville was worried about possible majority tyranny. The legislative branch was the most powerful when he observed the system; he felt that the lawmakers were likely to be influenced by majority opinion rather than doing what was right, and that the minority would not be represented. Today it is the tyranny of the minority that is a threat. Special interest groups sway Congress and highjack party politics. Presidential and Congressional elections are astronomically expensive, and only big monied interests can finance them. Elections are manipulated in various ways, including gerrymandering, or redistricting according to party lines. The polarization of party politics means minority extremists win primaries and get elected so the majority is no longer properly represented. Big corporations are able to diverge from the true public interest for the sake of a few shareholders. The majority middle class seems to be losing its ground and its voice in government. Congress fails to reach majority decisions and threatens to shut down government rather than compromise.


It is the executive branch that has gained power, particularly in the sphere of foreign policy. America has had a security state since the introduction of nuclear power, first in the Cold War, and now in the War on Terror. With the country in a perpetual state of war or heightened alert, vast amounts are spent on the military and Homeland Security. Civil rights are compromised, such as the right of privacy with increased surveillance. Tocqueville admired America for its perpetual peace and small army but today, the United States has the most expensive military organization in the world and fights constant wars in distant countries trying to sway the balance of world power and to protect its oil interests in the Middle East. The budget goes for the military instead of education and other necessities.


The technological revolution has had both good and bad impacts. The threats of terror and war have increased and become global in consequence. A few terrorists can hack computers or hiijack planes or drop bombs. On the other hand, governments can no longer hide their tyranny from the world, as social media document violations of civil rights. The constant influx of new information, however, is sometimes confusing and difficult to assimilate, making decisions more complex. 


Though individuals have more tools to advance themselves, they are constrained in creativity by the expectations of a mass culture so pervasive it almost erases distinctions of “majority” and “minority.” Tocqueville felt that what saved American democracy was its steadfast foundation in morality, and that is still the hope for the future as well. Tocqueville might have been impressed by how far Americans have gone to become a unified and multicultural society extending civil rights to more and more groups.