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posted on 27 April 2016

What Is American Democracy, Anyway?

Written by

If you seek a definition of “American democracy”, different people, Americans included, will give you different answers. Moreover, despite its popularity, Wikipedia has yet to have a specific definition for it.

In this post, I will clearly define the unique version of American democracy, starting from America’s birthday …

1. Was America founded as a democracy?

This is highly debatable for two main reasons, at least:

  1. The word “democracy” never appeared in the U.S. Constitution.
  2. Slavery: slaves were not part of “We the People” per se in the U.S. Constitution.

However, for all practical purposes, let’s settle with this: America was founded as a republic with a limited version of democracy that resembled ancient Athenian democracy more than modern democracy.

2. Athenian democracy

Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia – Athenian democracy:

It was a system of direct democracy, in which participating citizens voted directly on legislation and executive bills. Participation was not open to all residents: to vote one had to be an adult, male citizen who owned land and was not a slave, and the number of these "varied between 30,000 and 50,000 out of a total population of around 250,000 to 300,000."[1]

3. Defining American democracy

American democracy can be separated chronically into three distinct periods:

  1. 1776 - 1919: Let's label this period as "less than half democracy", during which only some rich white men could vote, far less than half of the American population.
  2. 1920 - 1964: Let's label this period as "more than half democracy", thanks to the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, thus enabling over half of the American population to vote.
  3. 1965 - Present: Let's label this period as "full democracy', thanks to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, thus realizing one person, one vote in America, at last!

Next, let me elaborate on each.

3.1 Less than half democracy

"We the People", so begins the U.S. Constitution. But who are "the People" referenced? To the Founding Fathers, "the People", politically at least, included only certain rich white men as follows:

  1. Voting: Women were not allowed to vote, nor were the minorities. Slaves were treated mostly as property. For example, when George Washington was elected the first President in 1789, only 6% of the American population was eligible to vote! For more, read: U.S. voting rights timeline.
  2. Serving: Only the rich were able to serve. For example, Members of Congress were virtually unpaid until 1855 (Salaries of members of the United States Congress).

In short, from 1776 to 1919, American democracy was fundamentally no different from Athenian democracy of more than 2,000 years ago!

3.2 More than half democracy

On August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, which gave women the right to vote.

It was an evolutionary step that set American democracy fundamentally apart from, and humanly more advanced than, Athenian democracy!

3.3 Full democracy

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, thus ending an evil legacy of racism that was allowed on the first day of the republic and finally realizing the democratic ideal of one person, one vote! America became a full, and true, democracy, like some European countries (e.g. France), at last!

4. Discussion

America is unique (What is America, Anyway?), but American democracy appears not so much so.

Sadly, democracy, ancient or modern, has been a proven failure throughout human history without a single example of lasting success! For example, history is repeating itself as democracy is failing in modern Greece for the same reason it failed in ancient Greece: debt!

Debt matters! Debt destroyed Athenian democracy and the Roman Empire. Debt will destroy America (i.e. both American democracy and the American Empire)! For more, read: Democratic Socialism vs. Democratic Imperialism.

American democracy may have lasted a bit longer than some other democracies for one main reason: America is unique, especially in its richness of natural resources, combined (previously) with robust capitalism!

Will American democracy ultimately succeed, thus proving to be the sole exception to human history? Highly unlikely!

For now, American democracy, the "full" version, has to prove that it can outlast Soviet communism in longevity! For more, read: Longevity: American Democracy vs. Soviet Communism.

Three factual observations about democracy:

  1. Democracy worked in the West throughout the 20th century for one main reason: the superb development of capitalism!
  2. Democracy has yet to work in the third world (e.g. the Mideast) for one main reason: lack of the development of capitalism!
  3. Democracy in the West has been deeply in trouble since the turn of the 21st century for one main reason: China! China is not a democracy. Instead, its government is called "state capitalism", which appears to be slightly better than any [full] democracy.

Everything is relative, including political systems. For more, read: Towards an Ideal Form of Government.

Now, it’s time for Americans to know, and remember, what our Founding Fathers thought about democracy more than 200 years ago ...

5. What did our Founding Fathers think of democracy, really?

Below are five examples.

Still wondering why the word “democracy” never appeared in the U.S. Constitution? Wonder not!

It seems likely our Founding Fathers foresaw the huge flaws in a full democracy and never intended America to one, like it is today …

6. Closing

It is very important for the world to correctly understand American democracy. Now, you have a clear definition for it, at least!

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