The Fragility of Democracy

By Dougherty, Jude P. | Modern Age, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Fragility of Democracy

Dougherty, Jude P., Modern Age


It is reported that as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention trudged out of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, an anxious person in the crowd inquired of Benjamin Franklin, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" "A republic," Franklin replied, "if you can keep it." (1) The keeping of it is the subject of this essay. The democracy brought into being on that historic day in 1787 was not judged to be imperishable, even in the eyes of its framers. This essay will first examine the commonplace meaning of the term "democracy" and some of the pre-political conditions for its establishment and then consider some of the perennial threats to its perpetuation.

In common usage, the word, "democracy," is far from a univocal term. (2) "The Peoples Democratic Republic" is not what Woodrow Wilson had in mind when he led a crusade to make the world safe for democracy. For John Dewey, the leading American philosopher of Wilson's day, democracy is more than a form of government. It is a way of life, a creed directed to a social ideal.

While it is customary to distinguish among democracy's several forms, i.e., direct, representative, constitutional, and social or economic, what is usually meant by democracy is representative or constitutional democracy. Direct democracy is identified with political life in ancient Greece where policy decisions were made directly by the populace as a whole, the majority determining the outcome. Apart from New England town meetings, initiated in the colonial period and continued through today in some states, notably in Vermont and in New Hampshire, the procedure is otherwise unknown in the United States, and those town meetings that survive take place only where the body of citizens is small enough to enable participation by all. Referenda as employed in the United Sates in some way resemble the direct democracy of ancient Greece insofar as they seek the counsel of the populace as a whole, but they are not binding and can be ignored by political authorities or reversed by the courts.

Today when we call a form of government a democracy, we usually have in mind representative democracy in which citizens exercise their right to form policy, not in person but through representatives elected by them. In a constitutional democracy, such as those that prevail in Europe and in the United States, the powers of the majority are exercised within the framework of a written constitution designed to guarantee the rights of minorities and the protection of other rights governing speech, press, and religion. A constitution need not be a single written instrument or even a legal document. It may be nothing more than a commonly accepted set of fixed norms or principles that are recognized as the fundamental law of the polity. The essence of a constitution is that it formalizes a set of fundamental norms governing the political community and fixes a limitation on the exercise of power. Political parties are the chief instrument through which the electorate is involved in both the exercise and the transfer of power. The political party is at once the means of representing the diverse interests of the electorate in the exercise of power and also a device for allowing a replacement of one set of power holders with another.

Greek democracy was a brief historical episode and is not to be taken as the exemplar of modern democratic governments. Modern democratic ideas were shaped to a large extent by medieval ideas and institutions, notably by the concept of divine, natural, and customary law as a restraint on the power of kings, including the right to levy taxes. Accordingly, the king was obliged to consult the several "estates" or group interests in the realm. Gatherings of representatives of these various estates were the origins of modern parliaments that first appeared in America, Great Britain, and France. Representative parliaments, freely elected under universal franchise, became the key institutions of Western democracy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. …

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