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The democracy idea

GJ Boris Allan

Be nice to America. Or we’ll bring democracy to your country. — Bumper sticker/fridge magnet/etc.

It is in the nature of too many political ideologies that dogma is dominant and subtlety is subordinate, so that a refined view is generally lacking and we are presented with a crude choice between that seen as good and that seen as bad or evil. Ideological accounts of allies often highlight the good, disregard the bad, and deny the evil – whereas ideological accounts of adversaries often highlight the evil, amplify the bad, and ignore the good.

For example, rebellious colonists in British America highlighted the evil of “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes, and Conditions” (US Declaration of Independence, 1776). The colonists conveniently ignored the valuable aid and succour given by those “savages” to early colonists, and obviously they omitted to mention atrocities inflicted on indigenous people by colonists in the Americas from 1492 onwards. The rebels against the British monarch were worried about their future, and in justifying their rebellion they used any means necessary to promote their case.

Present-day US Americans live in a society with many pressures, with many feelings of anxiety, and with many worried people. A natural human reaction is to compensate for these negative feelings by positive feelings of reassurance that they live in the best country in the world – a country they feel the rest of the world envies. Or, as Jimmy Carter warned during his campaign for US president:

A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It is a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity. — Jimmy Carter, New York city, 14 October 1976 [Carter1977]

A candidate for change, realistic and honest Carter won in 1976, but he lost the next election to an opponent (Ronald Reagan) who played on people’s insecurities. For example, debating Carter, Reagan asked people “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” and “Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you think that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?”. Reagan also promised change: a new dawn, with economic growth through cutting taxes that would benefit everybody – “you can lick inflation by increasing productivity and by decreasing the cost of government to the place that we have balanced budgets” (Presidential debate, 28 October 1980). Reagan claimed that his economic plan, including tax cuts, would generate so much extra revenue through increased economic activity that there could be “a balanced budget by 1983 if not earlier”.

By the time of the 1984 election, the budget had not been balanced, and the deficit had even increased in both absolute and relative terms – which had not passed unnoticed by Reagan’s opponents. Though emphasizing the negative (such as fear and anxiety) can win elections if the negative is attributable to the other side, it also helps to use the positive (such as superiority to other countries) and Reagan and his allies were adept promoters of bluster and boasting: “Under this President’s strong and principled leadership, America is back with pride, patriotism, and prosperity. We’re number one, and there’s a lot of idiots who don’t know that” (vice-President George HW Bush, 2 November 1984 – the election was held on 6 November 1984, and was a landslide for Reagan).

Insecurity can be dressed in many garbs and I was amused, yet somewhat worried, by an aggressive outburst by another politician on the defensive – where the best form of defence is attack. New York city had lost its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, a surprise to its inhabitants. A Democratic mayoral candidate was at his pandering best when he told the world (and his potential voters) “We don’t need the reassurance from the International Olympic Committee or anyone else that New York is a world-class city.” (The Los Angeles Times, 7 July 2005). Then came the attack: “We don’t need to put New York on the map. It’s already the center of the universe” – not exactly “gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained”. As is well known, all babies think they are the centre of their universe, so how could they all be so wrong, when the true centre is New York?

The nature of democracy

To talk about exporting democracy (as if democracy were a US American invention) reinforces these forceful feelings about the USA. On the one hand (a US hand) if democracy is a US invention, then this explains why US society is best and so superior, and certainly not weak. On the other hand (a non-Western hand) if democracy is Western notion, then democracy cannot be good. When discussing countries, the positive is often identified with the word “democracy” by politicians and ideologues from dominant countries (people who like to think they come from a democracy). References to democracy in the public sphere tend to be ideological, with the essence of democracy being unclear.

Ideologues use the hallowed label in promoting their causes in order to minimize dissent, hoping to make those who disagree with their “democratic” cause seem in favour of dictatorship. In this ideology there is no nuance, no true discussion, no appreciation of the rich variety of life, because to disagree (we are told) is to be against democracy; and how can one be against democracy or (by some miraculous connection) be against freedom? The nature of the connection between democracy and freedom is never made clear. Democracy can be defined in various ways, and is often seen (by those from the West) as a very distinctively Western notion that cannot be easily applied elsewhere (such as Iraq), but:

However, there is real loss of clarity when the blame for the difficulties in postintervention Iraq is not put on the peculiar nature the underinformed and underreflected military intervention that was precipitously chosen, but placed instead on some imagined view that democracy does not suit Iraqi, or Middle Eastern, or non-Western cultures. — Amartya Sen, Identity and violence [2006]

Of course, the West has been so intrusive in the affairs of other parts of the world that “Western” notions can produce “non-Western” reactions in those other parts of the world (such as the promotion of “Asian values” in east Asia), and such reactions have a counterpart in the continental European suspicion of “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism seen as being characteristic of the USA and the UK.

It seems obvious that we cannot define democracy in any absolute way. We can provide some indicators of democracy, and we can examine what could be consequences of democracy, but very little is free of subjectivity and – depending on one’s ideology – consequences of democracy might be “government by the people”, “government by elected representatives”, or the feared “tyranny of the majority”. Deciding on whether a society is a true democracy is fraught with subjectivity, and many questions arise. How can we gauge if one society is more democratic than another? How do we decide when a society has moved from being undemocratic to being a democracy? Do we want a tyranny of the effective majority? Are democracies often ruled by elected potentates? The list continues.

Thomas Jefferson thought the engineers of the US constitution had not given the white males in his country enough say, and so he thought the tyranny of the white-male vote-wielding majority needed to be increased. Jefferson wrote that members of juries should be elected by those white males so that jurors made their decisions to suit the majority (be “amenable to them”). Judges and justices of the peace should also be elected, for the same reason:

The juries, our judges of all fact, and of law when they choose it, are not selected by the people, nor amenable to them. They are chosen by an officer named by the court and executive. … Judges [should be] elective or amovable. Justices, jurors, and sheriffs [should be] elective. — Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Samuel Kerchival (12 July 1816)

Jefferson’s version of dominance of the effective majority has come to pass: in many US states even supreme court judges are elected on a political platform, as are most sheriffs (the senior law officer in a county). Judges and sheriffs, therefore, serve subject to the approval of the effective majority. As far as I know, jurors are not elected in any state but, for too long, all-white juries selected by the majority’s elected agents were uncomfortably commonplace in US courtrooms, particularly in states that had a segregationist history.

In the 21st century, in the murder trial of a black defendant, the US Supreme Court decided that “The trial judge committed clear error in rejecting the … objection to the strike of Mr. Brooks” (a black prospective juror) because there were there seemed no good reasons to object to the juror, and the reasons given were trivial.1 All judges in Louisiana, including those it the state’s supreme court, are elected to their position as politicians (with overt party affiliations) who have to satisfy the majority to be re-elected, and who have to encourage donations to their campaigns:

The Louisiana Supreme Court should change its rules to require justices to recuse themselves from deciding cases that involve litigants or lawyers who have given them campaign contributions, a Tulane Law School professor has concluded after he and another scholar studied voting patterns on the state’s high court over 14 years. In 181 civil cases between 1992 and 2006, the nine justices have been significantly influenced by campaign donations in making their decisions, says the study, which is soon to be published in the Tulane Law Review. — Susan Finch, “Money talks, says study of justices”, The Times-Picayune (1 February 2008)

US history has shown very clearly the effectiveness of a tyranny by the effective majority – democracy in action perhaps, but not a very commendable form. As the tyranny has continued for many years in the USA, it is worth wondering when a more worthy democracy arrived, or – as the form of democracy varies by US state – 50 more worthy democracies arrived. Finding something worthy in one US state is often balanced by finding something less than worthy in another.

Slaves were a numerical majority in many states before the US civil war, but slaves were not the effective (vote-wielding) majority. Freed slaves were still a numerical majority in many states after the civil war, but freed slaves were never a vote-wielding majority – they were denied the vote and other civil rights by intimidation, and by the rule of unfair laws (often known as “Jim Crow” laws). Did a worthwhile democracy arrive in the USA:

As we have seen, though it is difficult for anybody to define what is democracy, the idea of the USA being a democracy is very important to many US Americans who feel democracy is a good thing, and thus living in a democracy makes them feel good about themselves. Feeling good extends to other aspects: they may think that the USA is the world’s largest democracy (though it is India), or that the USA is the world’s oldest democracy (and then it all depends on what you mean by democracy). Moreover there is the question: was the US republic ever meant to be a democracy?

The nature of a republic

A majority voted for Al Gore in the 2000 US presidential election, but he did not get the majority of votes in the electoral college that selected the president – George W Bush had that majority. The effective majority did not match the real voting majority because there was not a direct correspondence between a person’s vote for president and votes cast in the electoral college (in which each state acts and votes according to its own laws). Republican ideologues noted that if the framers of the US constitution had wished to create a pure democracy they would have done so. They often referred to James Madison, whose ideas varied from those of Jefferson (note that Jefferson did not help write the constitution, but Madison is known as “Father of the Constitution”). Madison had noted that “theoretic politicians” who supported a pure democracy were wrong to think that, by giving everybody perfect equality in their political rights, people would have “equalized” possessions, opinions, and passions, whereas the effect of a republican government is:

to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. — James Madison, Federalist Papers, 10 (22 November 1787)

Madison also pointed out that some of those chosen might be less altruistic, and be subject to temporary or partial considerations, but in a federal republic they were less likely to dominate – Madison did not say, however, how those from other constituent units of a republic (say, states) could change another unit’s bad laws (Jim Crow laws in southern states comes to mind).

Alexander Hamilton did not trust “We, the people”, because he thought they were not sufficiently discerning – people were too irrational. Hamilton supported the electoral college in presidential elections because the election of a president should be made those (men) most capable of analyzing the requirements of the job. The members of the electoral college (an elite?) – selected by their fellows “from the general mass” – would be more likely to be able to cope with the complicated processes involved in electing the president:

… The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, 68 (12 March 1788) [EMPHASIS in original]

Unfortunately for that argument, in the modern electoral college the electors are told for whom they should vote, where the rules about voting depend upon the state – electors are required to analyze very little of the candidates qualities.

In promoting the constitution, those in favour (Federalists) did not have all their way, and other people were much less enthusiastic about the proposed method of electing the president (do not forget we are talking of debates in 1787/1788):

… the legislative body of each state is empowered to point out to their constituents some mode of choice, or (to save trouble) may choose themselves, a certain number of electors, who shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot, for two persons, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves. Or in other words, they shall vote for two, one or both of whom they know nothing of. … Is it necessary, is it rational, that the sacred rights of mankind should thus dwindle down to Electors of electors, and those again electors of other electors? This seems to be degrading them even below the prophetical curse denounced by the good old patriarch, on the offspring of his degenerate son: “servant of servants”.2 — REPUBLICUS, Antifederalist Papers, 72 (1 March 1788)

When considering the 2000 election, Republican commentators noted that in a simple majority vote of the US population, presidential elections would be dominated by the most populous regions of the country and by large metropolitan areas. By giving sparser populated states relatively more of a say in the college, presidential candidates were encouraged to campaign in the smaller states, who – so the argument goes – would otherwise be ignored in a simple majority-vote election. A majority-vote election would not favour Republicans, because in 2000 Al Gore could have put together a plurality or majority in the Northeast, in parts of the Midwest, and in California.

The reformulation of the popular majority to an unrepresentative effective majority, has similarities to the British parliamentary system of first-past-the-post elections. Small differences in party voting numbers across the country can produce big differences in numbers of members of the British parliament, and in the 1951 general election the Conservative Party had fewer total votes than Labour, but won more seats. The British system still remains the same, as it suits the party in power – the status quo has its own inertia.

The US electoral college system has its own inertia, and the system suits some states more than others. Then comes the paradox: under the US constitution, states who gained influence from the electoral college would have to agree to amend the constitution to remove the college and so reduce their own influence – which does not seem a likely scenario.

Even if Congress agreed to the amendment, three-quarters of the states would have to agree before it became law. As there are 50 states, then a negative vote (or no vote at all) from 13 states would be enough to scupper this or any other amendment. To stop an amendment we must consider the power of the vetoing minority. In the 2000 census the 13 smallest states had about 4.5% of the US population, and less than two million people in the 13 states voted in the November general elections. If we assume that ratifying a constitutional amendment requires more than half of the votes cast in a state, then a total of one million people voting no in these 13 states would probably stop any amendment.

Incidentally, if a voter in the most populous state (California) had a voting power of 1.00 in electing the president in 2000, then a voter in the least populous state (Wyoming) had a power of 3.97, if you weight the numbers of votes in the electoral college by the number of eligible voters. That is like saying “One person, one vote” in California, and “One person, four votes” in Wyoming – the mathematics of democracy can be truly wonderful.


1US Supreme Court (Snyder v Louisiana, 19 March 2008): “… in petitioner’s capital murder case, the prosecutor used peremptory strikes to eliminate black prospective jurors who had survived challenges for cause. The jury convicted petitioner and sentenced him to death. … On direct appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court conditionally affirmed petitioner’s conviction.”

Five of the thirty-six jurors who survived challenges for cause were black and all five were eliminated by peremptory strikes by the prosecution.

2A biblical reference to Noah cursing Ham.


    Jimmy (James Earl) Carter. A government as good as its people. Simon & Schuster, 1977. Reprint 1996, University of Arkansas Press.

    Amartya Sen. Identity and violence: The illusion of destiny. Issues of our time. WW Norton, 2006.

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