How Much Democracy?

Democracy, most basically ‘rule by the people,’ is an easy thing to support in principle. But in practice it can be an awfully tricky concept to implement. This post is the first in a series examining the principles of democracy and democratic systems. First, a bit of historical background in preparation for the next piece and those beyond.


How Much Democracy in America?

While recognizing it as the foundation of political legitimacy, the founding generation of the United States was for the most part wary of actually handing the daily affairs of government directly to the people. So they established a system of ‘representative democracy’ designed to funnel ultimate power to a national elite. (For example, this was a period when the electoral college actually mattered because it was another layer between popular elections and governance.)

In the early part of the 20th century, a group of reformers known as progressives pushed in the other direction. Unhappy with what they saw as corruption in high places, they succeeded in introducing new avenues for direct citizen participation. Among their favorite tools were the recall, referendum, and ballot initiative. At the federal level they succeeded in amending the Constitution for the direct election of U.S. Senators.

One other group merits mention in this fight over the shape of American democracy: segregationists. With the end of Reconstruction in the mid-1870s, the states of the former Confederacy were able to shift their system of racial repression from extra-legal (and often violent) channels into the legal system. Their favorite tools included poll taxes, literacy tests, etc. But they also learned to use the primary election system to great effect.

Choosing candidates in white-only primaries or caucuses was an easy way to ensure the maintenance of segregation. Regardless of party, candidates were first beholden to the white electorate to even get on the ballot. So even where African Americans might vote in sufficient numbers to decide an election, they would be faced with two candidates pledged to uphold the racial status quo. The opportunity to vote was thus stripped of any democratic meaning.


We now live in a period where most of the restrictions designed to maintain racial exclusion have been ruled unconstitutional. But the primary election process endures, with all of its potential for warping election outcomes. The redistricting process includes the same warping potential as politicians determine which set of constituents they will be responsible to. And beyond these structural matters there are plenty of other opportunities to consider what democracy does or should mean in practice in the United States.

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