Interesting analysis from an Oklahoma newspaper on the history and the current state of democracy in the U.S.A. - Editor
Think the U.S. is a true democracy? Actually, the founding fathers visualized a republic – and neither form of government has anything to do with party affiliation.
Democracy or Republic?
By BETTY SMITH Press special writer
The ancient Greeks came up with the idea that the people should run the government. That legacy continues today in the United States and many other countries around the world.
But different countries vary on their interpretations of “democracy,” and wars have been fought over it.
Although most people probably didn’t know about it or think about it, Tuesday was National Celebration of Greek and American Democracy Day. There were no parades, no speeches, no politicians kissing babies. But when asked, some people did reflect on the meaning of democracy and how it functions in the U.S. today.
Democracy had its genesis in the city-state of Athens about 500 B.C. In that society, people – more precisely, men – made decisions together, rather than electing representatives to make those decisions on their behalf.
Obviously, that is not possible today in a country as large, well-populated and diverse as the U.S. The founding fathers created what they considered a “republic,” or federation of states, with the House of Representatives elected by the people and other federal officials appointed.
In case you’re wondering, none of this has anything to do with whether one is a registered “Republican” or “Democrat.”
The U.S. Department of State Web site defines democracy as “a government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.”
Or, as Abraham Lincoln termed it, a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
“Greece is the home of democracy,” said Dr. Justin Halpern, professor of political science at Northeastern State University. “The founding fathers [of the U.S.] were not especially keen on direct votes of the people. The founding fathers thought they were a republic, and they only provided for direct election of one house.”
The electoral college is a survivor of that philosophy – a survivor many people believe should go the way of the dinosaur, with the president instead being elected by popular vote.
And for a long time, people did not vote directly on senators, who were appointed by the states.
One also has to take into consideration that for much of America’s history, various groups were not allowed to vote. Women have been able to vote for less than a century. While blacks – the men, anyway – gained the right to vote after the Civil War, in actual practice, the poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures prevented them from casting ballots, especially in the South. And Native Americans were not granted full citizenship until the 20th century.
Halpern believes direct democracy is becoming more prevalent, especially on votes such as the state questions and local issues like sales taxes. And New England preserves the Greek style of direct democracy in its famous town meetings, he added.
He also has watched the evolution of the presidential election process. Candidates used to be selected in caucuses and in the infamous “smoke-filled rooms” where political bosses ruled.
“Now, more and more, they are selected in primaries,” he said.
Halpern believes continued development of the Internet will result in more direct democracy in the future.
Retired educator Fred Gibson, who has taught history and government and led public and foreign policy issue forums, sometimes fears for democracy.
“I think we have gone to great lengths to change the idea of democracy,” he said. “We have been more or less brainwashed to think of democracy as socialism, and we have a perverted knowledge of what capitalism is. It’s more a matter of license than it is freedom, for persons who have the advantage to succeed.”
Gibson pointed out Jesus Christ was concerned with the poor and with equality of people.
“He didn’t have that much respect for wealth,” Gibson said.
Gibson admires President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies to give people a hand up and out of the Depression through meaningful work programs.
He believes today’s society needs more programs to promote equality.
“We are getting away from what democracy means,” he said. “Democracy is where everybody has an equal opportunity for liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Department of State’s publication indicates that “freedom and democracy are often used interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous.”
It calls democracy the institutionalization of freedom. A direct democracy, where all people participate, is only possible where a small number of citizens are involved, such as in the New England town meetings.
In larger groups, people elect their representatives to vote on issues – whether it be a church board, club officers, or something as large as the federal government.
While the general concept of a democracy is that the majority rules, many contemporary societies also consider it important to protect the rights of the minorities.
Locally, people are often presented with the concept of two sovereign nations, such as the Cherokee Nation or the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, dealing with the federal government.
The Department of State lists these principals as the pillars of democracy:
• Sovereignty of the people.
• Government based on consent of the governed.
• Majority rule.
• Minority rights.
• Guarantee of basic human rights.
• Free and fair elections.
• Equality before the law.
• Due process of law.
• Constitutional limits on government.
• Social, economic and political pluralism.
• Values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation and compromise