False Foundations: The Myth of Democracy in America

By Chris Cronin
Staff Columnist

Part three in a monthly series on the falsehoods and misremembered facts behind some of America’s most cherished cultural touchstones. For the first article in the series, see the Oct. 26 issue of The Elm.

The idea that our country is a democracy is firmly embedded in our political rhetoric. Of our two major parties, one is called the Democratic Party. We are so fond of using the word Democracy, especially when referring to the perceived lack of democracy abroad, that the State Department has a dedicated Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. A simple Google search for “Barack Obama Democracy” yields 18,900 news articles, with the president voicing support for democracy in the Middle East, in Africa, and throughout the world.

But despite our leader’s prolific use of the word, this country is not, nor was ever intended to be, a democracy, at least in its classic definition. Democracy dates all the way back to ancient Athens, a period of time which was rediscovered during the Renaissance and re-evaluated during the Enlightenment, the period which influenced our founders most. The founders were both aware of and interested in building upon the Athenian Democracy, a fact reflected in the architectural style of many of our most famous monuments in Washington D.C. The presence of Greek columns on the buildings which house our government is no coincidence—rather, it is a concerted effort to place America as the heir to the legacy of democratic Athens and the Roman Republic.

It is the Roman Republic which bears much closer similarity to the government our founders planned. The Roman Republic refers to the period in time between the fall of the ancient Roman monarchy and the ascension of Julius Caesar to the office of Emperor, and it was hardly a democracy. The Senate held ultimate legislative authority, and its members were appointed directly by the consuls, the highest executive body. Consuls were elected, but the process was rather unfair; tales of Roman electioneering could easily fill another article. In addition, it cost quite a bit of money to run for consul, and so consuls were generally drawn from the aristocracy. Finally, in times of crisis, the senate could appoint a Dictator to a six-month term, granting him absolute power until the crisis was resolved.

On the other hand, in the Athenian democracy, all eligible citizens were given say on every major decision. A council was convened, and all eligible citizens were given equal votes. Citizens were randomly selected for terms of public office. Obviously, such a system would be impractical for America. Our government faces so many decisions, and our population is so large, that polling the entire population of eligible voters is a difficult proposition. Some states have the option of holding ballot referendums—generally a simple yes or no answer on a major question, as we saw in Maryland this past election—but these are only used for major, wide-ranging decisions.

In both cases, enfranchisement was extremely limited, generally extended only to native, property-holding men, mirroring the early history of voting in our country. The voting population, as envisioned by the founders, included only white, non-immigrant, property-holding men. Over the course of various 19th-century reforms, this was gradually extended to most men, though Native Americans could not vote until 1924, and black and low-income Americans faced severe discrimination voting in the South until the 1960s. Even women were not allowed to vote until 1920, and the voting age was only lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971 (in Athens, the voting age was 20).

But even though enfranchisement has steadily increased, our highest offices are not necessarily democratically elected. Although senatorial elections are now commonplace, the office only became elected in 1913; the founders envisioned our senators as elected by their state legislatures. And the Electoral College, the body which actually casts states’ votes for president, has no obligation to follow the outcome of the popular election. Indeed, this body was specifically designed as a failsafe by the founders, in case citizens elected the wrong man.

So where does this leave us? In 2013, we still must contend with the Electoral College, referendums are rare and on a state-by-state basis, and voting rights are not always adequately enforced, with voting-roll purges and blatant vote-gathering redistricting commonplace. Despite our leader’s’ continued use of the term, we are still not a democracy, at least not in the Athenian sense.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not getting better. With each election, we have developed new and more efficient methods of gathering votes. With successive reforms, we have extended the vote to groups of people at which the founders would have balked. And we have steadily moved this country, over nearly 250 years of progress, closer to a true democracy.

The United States of America may not have been envisioned as a democracy. It may not act as a democracy. But we’re getting there.

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