The American Dilemma: the Nature of Democracy in the
The dilemma of American democracy — or democracy in general for that matter — is sorting out how the government should work from how it actually does. The Federalist Papers revealed concise details of how the gears of the American system would turn. But even with their recommendation to ratify the Constitution, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay knew the inherent limitations. Indeed,
In the Beginning
The Constitution outlined the political framework from which American democracy was supposed to flourish. Among the aspects of the unique American system was a federated structure between the national and state levels, separation of powers among the three branches and extensive checks and balances. The Federalist Papers argued in favor of this constitutional setup because of its superior nature compared to that of other governments, like those of aristocratic lineage in
The Constitution hoped to “break and control the violence of faction” (Fed. 10: 77). One of
Contemporary scholars also got in on this debate. For Schattschneider, the rule in majority rule is vital. Not only is their no seeming conflict between majority rule and minority rights, but Schattschneider disdains minority group pressure politics that short-circuit the majority (Schattschneider as cited in Adamany xviii). Simply put: majoritarian politics is the essence of democracy. Smith is skeptical of majority rule because of the injustices practiced against minorities like women, immigrants and African-Americans. For Smith, majority rule has been both illiberal and undemocratic because of this oppression. In particular, Smith was critical of Tocqueville in his notion about the “equality of condition,” which existed in the American polity. How could the
The second point of dilemma with respect to the Constitution was the nature of political participation among the state’s citizens. This debate has been certainly contentious among elite theorists and pluralists. For this, we return to Schattschneider, who believed that politics and government by the people were best expressed through political parties. The main dilemma of the “pluralist heaven,” as he so called it, was that only a limited number of citizens could ever fully participate in pressure group politics (35). Political parties evened the playing field by giving every group a fair say, and representing the interests of all. Schattschneider concludes: “Democracy is a political system in which the people have a choice among the alternatives created by competing political organizations and leaders” (138). Pluralist theorist Robert Dahl disagreed. In Who Governs, Dahl’s classic tome on
The founders could have never anticipated many of the elements of the current American system. The framework laid out in the Constitution created multiple venues for active participation by the citizenry, in particular through free and fair elections and a free press. For Schattschneider, however, democracy flourished because political parties enabled a government run by the people. Not only were the founders skeptical of political parties — particularly George Washington — but they also did not envision the powerful role parties would play. Of course, no sooner than six years after the ratification of the Constitution, solid parties already had coalesced. As well, it is not clear whether or not the founders thought the citizens should play as important a role in decision-making as pluralists assert. Worried as he was that “men were no angels,”
In this essay I have tried to show how the nature of American democracy was imbedded with a certain political framework that left several conflicts — majority rule and minority rights on the one hand and the role of democratic participation on the other. The framework of the American system was founded on checks and limitations, instituted so no one power could supersede one another. What the Constitution could never reconcile was how certain problems not directly expressed in the document could be solved. Even the founders’ attempts to understand such dilemmas would never fully answer the question. Other scholars involved themselves in these debates, and the literature regarding these dilemmas and conflicts is lengthy and important. Moreover, the dilemmas of American democracy are not just limited to these two concepts. Hopefully, however, exploring the relationship of majority rule and minority rights, as well as citizen participation in the government provides a richer understanding of the American system.
 It seems that in one respect, the equality Tocqueville speaks of is based on
 Schattschneider is in some ways more critical of pluralist theory than he is a strong proponent of elite theory. Schattscheider allows that there is some level of citizen participation, and this departs from hard elite theorists that suggest government is in no way influenced by the citizenry.