The Democratic Ideal Essay, Research Paper
The Democratic Ideal
Over one hundred years ago Alexis de Tocqueville expressed what would become the American standard when he observed “Americans were born equal without having to become so.” This ideology is also known of as the “democratic wish”: the participation of a united people pursuing a shared communal interest. In modern-day America people do not always believe that this ideal is upheld and some think it unrealistic. I will examine this perspective by focusing on thoughts of authorities on the subject of democracy and a political-science graduate student.
Many people think that nations are either democratic or not – like a light switch that can only be on or off. There are different levels, like a dimmer switch. According to the writer of The Democratic Wish, James A. Monroe, these levels can be defined as “direct democracy”; power of the people without direct representation, “indirect democracy”; power of the people where there is an elect public representation, and “anarchism”; a society so democratic there is no need for authority. He concludes that Americans fear public power as a threat to liberty. Their government is weak and fragmented, designed to prevent action more easily to produce it. In the recurring quest for the people, Americans redesign the political institution and rewrite political rules. According to political scientist Michael Nelson a great irony propels American political development: the search for a more direct democracy builds up the bureaucracy; a form of government where the elected officials follow rules blindly or without thinking.
Monroe believes that the fear of public power has been perpetuated ever since the first American constitutions avoided ministerial power altogether. But early democracy does not have a clean record of equality. The founding fathers realized that if a government couldn’t oppress people directly, it could still take political dissidents’ property from them. This is what happened to Loyalist who fled to Canada after the revolution. In fact, the White House is built on land that was confiscated from a loyalist.
To further his point Monroe asks the question, “How did American’s negotiate their dread of power as they constructed their administrative institutions?” He answers this question by use of the “myth of communal democracy”. Reformers – oppressed groups, public officials, policy entrepreneurs – have repeatedly overcome the checks and balances of a polity biased against the expansion of government by promising to restore power to the people. “The people” covers a multitude of factions. This helps explain why the democratic wish introduces change more easily than do movement based explicitly on the redistribution of wealth or power. In other words, new state powers are secured and new groups are legitimated through the mobilization of the people.
Is there a considerable mobilization of the people? According to Fred Nelson, a political science graduate student at Western Illinois University, there is a considerable impact on our current politics by many interests groups. He believes that many interest groups fail to take part in democracy because they feel that they are rarely represented in government. The following is taken from my interview with him:
“Because only one person can win in an election, there is a natural homogenizing affect, so that candidates and political parties tend to have views that represent only the largest number of people.
These views tend to be conservative and status quo. These homogenizing process results from the fact that most people are afraid of “throwing away” their one vote on a candidate that might not win. Thus they choose the lesser of two evils (there are usually only two given that a majority of the vote is 51%) that sort-of resembles what they stand for. Because voters are afraid of voting for candidates that might not win, their choice in candidates is limited. These limitations mean that very few women, blacks, Asians, Latinos, homosexuals, radical conservatives, radical liberals, young, old, etc., ever get elected. Without the representation in government, their interests and views are frequently ignored. ”
Fred infers that interest groups and factions do no have a voice because of the system. This differs with Michael Nelson’s assumption that we are quest for a direct democracy has likened our government to a bureaucracy. Fred later goes on to examine European democracy as being more efficient that American democracy because electoral systems are those that rely on proportional representation. Most PR systems rely on multiple-member districts, which means that several candidates are elected from each jurisdiction. That is, instead of only having one person represent you in the House of Representatives, you could have ten. Thus, if the Republicans get 40% of the vote, they would get four seats. If the Democrats get 20% of the vote they get two seats; and if the Environmentalist party gets 10% of the vote they would get one seat. In these systems voters are given more choice because it is more likely that the candidate or party that most closely represents them is more likely to win a seat in the House of Representatives giving them tangible representation in the legislature. Proportional representation is used very infrequently in the United States, although it is used in the vast majority of democratic countries around the world. Proportional Representation is used almost exclusively in Europe.
I find Fred and Monroe’s views to be contrasting. Monroe, unlike Fred, believes in communal democracy. I tend to agree with Fred’s idea that any democracy that fails to encourage a majority of people to participate in the electoral process is a failing democracy, which fails to represent the interests of the people. I do agree with Monroe, however, on the idea that people tend to find a sense of democracy within them by overcoming a system of checks and balances, but this is not within the context of politics, but rather day to day life. Compounding this problem is the fact that money has become so important in American politics Perhaps, Tocqueville was right in saying “I know no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts.” It is apparent that incumbents are more likely to win elections. Knowing this interest groups and donors are much more willing to give funds to incumbent candidates –further increasing the chances that they can attract more votes than opposing candidates. Proof of this phenomenon is available through the Midwest Democracy Center, which successfully predicted over 80% of the previous Indiana’s House of Representatives elections, based on incumbency and previous patterns. This further limits the number of choices available to the voter.
Because voters have such limited choice in most American elections they are increasingly seeing little reason to vote. Voter turnout rates have fallen consistently since the 1960’s, dropping below 50% in the previous presidential election. This figure can be put into perspective when compared to other democracies’ average voter turnout rates–Australia, 93.8; Italy, 90.5; Denmark, 86.8; Norway, 82.7.
In conclusion, the belief that Americans are born equal is not always true, though it has been expressed by many. Getting involved with organizations that promote the individual can help to further the growth of the individual. The individual is powerless in a democracy unless they take action. Consensus promotes bureaucracy rather than a democracy.