Thursday, March 16, 2006

American Politics: Essay on Dilemmas of American Politics

The American Dilemma: the Nature of Democracy in the United States


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, Hamilton’s chief concern in Federalist 1, was “whether societies of men [were] capable or not of establishing good government… or whether they [were] forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force” (33). The founders knew many of the problems with democratic governance created by “societies of men”, among these were the conflicting nature of majority rule and minority rights, and also how ordinary citizens participated in a democratic society. Contemporary scholars like E.E. Schattschneider, Robert Dahl and Rogers Smith have since participated in various aspects of this debate and each analyzed the essential dilemmas of the American system. The purpose of this essay is to flesh out those concerns in order to understand the nature of American democracy.

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 Europe as well as the Articles of Confederation. More importantly the founders’ insistence that the people were involved in the processes of government — albeit indirectly — was crucial to a good government. Although the Constitution granted more federal power than its predecessor, the founders were still concerned with ensuring both strong governmental power and participation by the citizenry. On the one hand, as Jay wrote concerning a type of social contract, Americans must “cede to [the government] some of their natural rights,” but ultimately a government has legitimacy because it derives its powers from the consent of the governed (Fed. 2: 37). Although there are many issues that could be scrutinized about the government setup by the Constitution, two have been a particular source of conflict: majority rule/minority rights and democratic participation.

The Dilemmas

The Constitution hoped to “break and control the violence of faction” (Fed. 10: 77). One of Madison’s chief concerns in forming the new Union was respecting the rights of the majority while ensuring that the majority did not subvert the interests or rights of others. In what Madison deemed the problem of factions, Madison sought to control its “effects” (Fed. 10: 80). Madison’s solution was to institute a republican form of government, rather than a pure democracy. With a republican government, representation would take place and authority delegated, thus broadening or extending the sphere of interests. Alexis de Tocqueville noted a similar dilemma when he quizzically asked: “I hold it to be an impious and detestable maxim, that, politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything; and yet I have asserted that all authority originates in the will of the majority. Am I, then, in contradiction with myself?” (113). It is certain de Tocqueville was torn on the nature of what deemed the “tyranny of the majority.” Majority rule represented the greatest good for the greatest number, but often this good, even in a republican government, resulted in tyranny because there was no check or limitation on majority rule. From public opinion to the legislature to the judiciary, majority rule succeeded at every turn.

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 United States be both equal and repressive?[1]

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.[2] 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 New Haven, Connecticut’s government, he notes that the interaction between all pressure groups creates a “symbiosis” between government leaders and the citizenry and makes for a vital pluralistic democracy (325). As Dahl notes, “If we ask, ‘Who Governs?’, the answer is not the mass nor its leaders but both together” (7). Moreover, because Americans have been imbedded with a Democratic creed, citizens are both pertinent and crucial for a healthy democracy.

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,” Madison’s concerns about mob rule and the passions of pure democracy were tempered by his insistence for a republican form of government (Fed. 50: 322, Fed. 10: 81-82). By creating a representative government as such, it limited the role the average citizen would have in the government.


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.

[1] It seems that in one respect, the equality Tocqueville speaks of is based on America’s economic and ideological development, whereas Smith is more concerned with social equality. In this sense, it seems somewhat unfair to discount in total Tocqueville’s analysis.

[2] 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment