Zoe Smith

“This nation had a two-party system” Hamilton


The Broadway musical Hamilton likely made the first party system the most well-known. While much of the musical occurs before the first party system, it paints the key issues that colored the divide between the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. As the United States first began to organize and structure itself, these two parties were the reflection of differing opinions on foreign, federal, and economic policy. The resolution of these defining conflicts in the first party system led to a shift in political norms surrounding key issues that remain core to parties of the U.S. government.

Foreign policy is now defined by trade and immigration policy; at the time of the first party system, the French Revolution and ties with Britain were central to party divides, as Jeffrey Selinger notes in Embracing Dissent. The Federalists, led by largely by Hamilton, wanted to establish advantageous economic and diplomatic relations with Britain. The Democratic-Republicans, headed by Jefferson, wanted to support the tumultuous revolution that was taking France and distance themselves from Britain. This conflict divided the parties on foreign policy, however, the French Revolution lasted one year and with George Washington’s influence, the conflict was ended in favor of staying impartial to the French Revolution.

The issue of federal policy was heavily bound into the question of “what should our government be?” L. Steven Demaree delves into the institution as it was crafted by the early members of the American government, discussing the factors that led to new approaches to government by both parties.[1] Each was determined to step away from the monarchial system of the times and both parties wanted a clean break from the previous models of governing and political culture. Federalists, however, were far less cautious of a centralized government while the Democratic-Republicans advocated for more independent state power and freedom from federal restrictions. This tension between state authority is most infamously reflected through each parties’ views on economic policy but also demonstrates the generational political culture. Today, parties will still question how involved our federal government should be. But in modern policy, that question is not asked when considering voter discrimination, federal taxes, and basic judicial processes. The question remains, though the issues have changed over time.

Economic policy in America has seen great controversy at times, even over the national bank, which is more readily accepted now. Selinger’s research reveals that the Democratic-Republicans again wanted to take a more conservative government approach and limit federal power by leaving funds to the state. The Federalists saw a chance to alleviate state debt and raise America’s value through a consolidated effort. The Federalists won this disagreement as well, early in the party system. With each of these issues reaching their climax and conclusion early into the first party system, the conflict would not sustain for long. The Democratic-Republicans saw sweeping success after the Federalists slowly lost popularity after passing key legislation. Come 1828, the Democrats were the only truly viable party and every factor for the realignment was present.

The second party system began after a period of time known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” The Democrats had little opposition and the government had little to be divided upon. While the realignment slow and gradual, in the elections of 1824 we finally see it realized. Four Democratic-Republicans run for the presidential office; none receive the majority vote. This led to the party splitting, shifting stances on issues to cleanly break from one another and best encompass their supporters.

There are key factors, besides the resolution of the first party system issues that led to this realignment. One was the increased polarization, which was largely a regional divide caused by the divisive interest of states. It stemmed from civil rights issues, such as slavery, and the economic, moral, and democratic grounds for either side. As the Democratic-Republican Party split, the Whigs grew more into their abolitionist cause as they saw more ground support for it. The second party system Democrats were supported by Southern farmers, conservative members of society, and the like.

The electoral makeup, then, was integral to the results of the second party system. The Whigs kept a minority in office because they were supported by local constituents.  However, anyone who would support abolitionist movements or progressive policies would not find much support in voters nationally due to limited access to the vote; only property-owning men would find themselves empowered. Given this voter landscape, the Democrats held a clear advantage after the realignment. This advantage, the realignment itself, was maintained through mobilization, polarization, and strong partisan loyalty.

Andrew Jackson, president in the years of 1829-1837, was the leader of the Democrats and brought forth a new era of active partisanship. The elections of 1828 mobilized voters because of the engaging, and perhaps, new divisions after the “Era of Good Feelings.” Voter turnout jumped from 10.1% in 1820, 26.9% in 1824, and 57.3% in 1828. Furthermore, the realignment brought out sharp distinctions in the new parties which made clearer heuristics for voters. Party supporters knew what the parties stood for and could support them accordingly. Partisanship was further stimulated by a newly invigorated spoils system through the efforts of Andrew Jackson. While the undemocratic factors of party support were largely done away with, these policies and party powers characterized the second party system.

The elements of conflict in the first party system and the factors that brought about the nation’s first realignment have evolved with time, however, they are still present in contemporary politics. Economic and foreign policy are still entwined, now it is best reflected in our relations with China instead of France and Britain. The question of the extent of the Federal government is still brought into question, however, it is now on grounds of welfare and federal law.

Factors that led to the realignment are still being tapped to engage voters. While the spoils system has been done away with, mobilization through engaging campaigns, policy, and mobilization drives are still prioritized, as Marjorie Randon Hershey notes in Party Politics in America. In addition, the growth in political division as illustrated in Morris Fiorina’s Has the American Public Polarized? also foreshadows the potential of realignment due to the failure of the parties to overlap their goals with moderate constituents that make up the majority.

While the times have changed immensely since the first party system and its realignment to the second, we can still analyze and apply the common factors of focus and change in the American government. As our nation becomes more polarized, these factors may come to the forefront once more.

About the blogger: Zoe Smith is a junior Politics and International Relations major, also pursuing Chinese Studies.

[1] Demaree, L. Steven. “The Political Culture of the First Party System.” OAH Magazine of History 2, no. 2 (1986): 9-14. www.jstor.org/stable/25162515.


Welcome to From The Field!  This blog series will feature student posts from the field of Political Science, during their “fieldwork” in their Politics classes and experiences at Messiah.

From the Field Spring 2020

This spring, From the Field will highlight student posts that share findings from their research on US party system realignment, including its present-day relevance, in the department’s Parties and Elections class, which ran last fall. Each month the series will feature a post on one of the historical party eras in America.

Under its relatively new constitution, the United States spawned one of the earliest modern party systems, with party labels first appearing on the ballot in the election of 1800.  Over the course of history, the American political system has had six party systems that have generally been dominated by two key competitors in each era, which centered on issues and groups in the electorate that fed the pattern of competition. (Though political scientists do quibble about the exact beginning and end of some the eras.)


System Period Parties
First 1800-1828 Democratic-Republican & Federalist
Second 1828-1860 Democratic & Whig
Third 1860-1896 Democratic & Republican
Fourth 1896-1932 Democratic & Republican
Fifth 1932-1968 Democratic & Republican
Sixth 1968-? Democratic & Republican


Often, people ask why, in comparison to other longstanding democracies, the United States has fewer parties.  The electoral system – or the decision rule for determining how elections are decided – makes a difference.

Maurice Duverger[1], a French political scientist, made the claim that the type of electoral system (means for making decisions based on votes) impacts the number of parties that effectively gain office and influence policy.  Single-member systems – also known as “first past the post” – give constituents the vote for one representative that serves a specific group of citizens; unless parties have concentrations in different regions of a system, the top two parties tend to get the votes.  Without votes, and thus seats, smaller parties do not get to be part of the formal lawmaking process.  Proportional representation systems, in which the percentage of votes translates into a percentage of legislative seats for parties meeting a certain minimum threshold of the vote, tend to produce a greater variety of parties; the result sometimes requires parties to form a coalition to have a majority for passing legislation.

The United States has a single-member system for its national and state legislatures.  With a single-member system – in which most contests are often decided by candidates gaining a plurality of (the most) votes – it can be difficult for additional parties to gain enough support to win office, especially at the national level.  Although other factors can also influence outcomes, this element has a significant influence.  In addition, the way that major parties respond to newer and smaller parties also inhibits the chance for multiple parties to win office.

As chronicled in James Sundquist’s influential work Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties, when third parties have sprung up – such as the Farmer or Populist parties in the late 1800s – they have not been able to gain enough traction to win office.  Sometimes these parties agreed to be part of a fusion ticket with major parties, in which both party names appeared for the candidates, which ultimately benefited the major part.  In other cases, the major parties saw the value of some or all of the minor party’s platform and co-opted it, taking the steam out of the support for the alternate group; however, those parties still play a role in shifting the focus of the larger system.  The last time a new party came on the scene and had a national impact by winning seats in Congress, the Republican Party simply displaced the Whigs as the second contender in the system.  But the lack of shifting parties does not mean that the system stays stagnant.

As Sundquist and others note, realignments in party systems occur when there is a change in the parties regularly competing for and winning office.  This change can result from several factors.  Most obviously, realignment occurs when one party replaces another.  However, realignment can also occur, as it has since 1860, by changes in the parties’ issue stances, or in the groups of voters that align with the parties.  Moreover, the change can focus on a specific election – a “critical election” such as 1932 – or happen more gradually in a “secular” realignment.  This spring’s arc of From the Field will explore not only the contours of the American party systems but also their insights for the current state of party politics.

Looking at the timeline, it is clear that the current party system, which launched in the late 60s, before suffering a decline in the 80s and then a resurgence in the 90s, has been the longest-lived; but one might wonder whether it has outlived its effectiveness.  As scholar Morris Fiorina, one of the most influential American electoral scholars has noted in his writings, neither party has been able to gain and sustain a majority over the last 25 years.  (For further details on electoral trends, Change and Continuity in the 2016 and 2018 Elections, as well as editions for prior elections, offers a wealth of data and analysis.)

The parties have compounded their problems by legislating towards their base, despite the fact that marginal supporters/independents and moderates compose at least as large, if not a greater, portion of the public than those groups that solidly support one of the two major parties.  This “overreach” – as Fiorina calls it – has resulted in a lot more instability of voting blocs within the public.  Fiorina sketches the reasons for this trend in this video from PolicyEd, a series produced by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University,

With a two-party system, in order to represent enough of the public in order to govern with legitimacy, parties typically must be what Otto Kirchheimer[2] called “catch-all parties” that appeal to broader groups.  If they fail to do so, not only can it produce political instability, but also seriously undermine the representative function of political parties, which, in turn, can lead more and more voters to question the legitimacy of the system.  However, as noted by historian David Moss in this episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, situations such as these can end constructively.   How – and to what extent – does examining realignments of past systems help us understand the possible developments of the present? Read on and see…


About the From the Field blog editor (Dr. Robin Lauermann):  I currently serve as a Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, which hosts this blog site. I have specific expertise in two sub-fields.  Within American politics, I teach and research on topics related to political institutions, public policy, and political behavior, with special consideration as to how they impact the functioning of our political system.  Within Comparative Politics, I look at many of the same themes, but within the regional areas of Latin America and Europe.  Above all, my passion and work focus on empowering people – students, colleagues, and citizens – to be able to better understand our political system in order to navigate it and evaluate it constructively.  With this series, I hope to provide such a forum, which can serve as a resource for citizens in evaluating policy, candidates and our system.

[1] Duverger, Maurice. Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. Methuen, 1959.

[2] Kirchheimer, Otto. “The Transformation of the Western European Party Systems.” Political Parties and Political Development 6 (1966): 177-200.


The last Civic Mind post, which focused on the general nature of our political system – a democratic republic a.k.a. representative democracy – ended by highlighting the role of citizens in the process. Over the last couple of centuries, our opportunities for participating have increased constitutionally, legally and practically.  Often, our attention tends to focus on the ability to participate in the system through the election process.  However, voting is just one of several options available to us as citizens; there are also notable time gaps between each election.  So how do we fill those gaps?

In my own research on representation, I sketch a basic frame of how the representational relationship works.  First, a representative must be elected into office, revealing the consent by the people for that person to serve; for most elections for Congress and the state legislatures, candidates win office when they are “first past the post” and gain the most votes (at least a plurality).[2] Once in office, legislators serve the people whom they represent in various ways – they can be responsive by policy votes, individual assistance, funds for their district, and sharing more general concerns of the people.  When the next election cycle rolls around, we have the ability to hold members accountable for their actions.  Given that citizens have at least two years between elections before they can formally vote again – more for the upper houses of Congress and state legislatures – it can easily feel like members can get detached from the people whom they represent.  As we consider the various actions of responsiveness – or lack thereof – during a member’s term, we need to remember that we are not powerless to act in-between our votes.

Between elections, among other forms of political participation, citizens can communicate to representatives, collectively in the form of demonstrations, and individually through visits, letters and other forms of contact. Although the power of many, seen in protests, seems more forceful, the power of many individuals can also carry an impact.  However, how we approach that contact affects how our members receive that message, including impacts on their thinking and decisions.

A word first: Most members represent a constituency (their people) that includes individuals from varied areas and perspectives.  The average district for the U.S. House is over 700,000 people, though each state receives one representative regardless of is population size; senators, who represent the states’ populations at large, represent people with an even broader range of experiences.  (For more information on the setting of US House districts – called apportionment – check out this helpful brief from the United States Census Bureau, from which the district size statistic is drawn.)

Even though representatives can only take one action or cast one vote, policy is nuanced.  Communicating with members helps them to develop their perspectives and take those of others into view; contacting them also allows them to see whether there might be a more effective or fair way (means) to achieve a goal (end) through policy.  As my research and that of others shows, if enough people contact their representatives with a consistent message, the members do recognize the importance of that message for future elections.

Before contacting your member, it is helpful to gain some background on the issue at hand.  Doing so will help you develop more knowledgeable and effective points to share.  In addition, it will help you see how other individuals, with different life experiences, might see the issue; in that process, you might be able to identify some options on which people from different stances might agree.  Reviewing a few sources from varying perspectives can be helpful, but those that focus on civic education will typically provide a more rounded background and discussion.  These civic affairs resources previously shared in the welcome post for Civic Mind, provide a good starting point.  This list is by no means exhaustive but offers a reasonable number of credible options, including some that provide access to government documents.

If you are unfamiliar with your representatives, it also helps to gather some information on them.  Although not without problematic sources, the internet does make it much easier to identify your member and to learn some basics beyond what may appear in newsletters (which tend to cast members in a positive light) or political ads (which are tilted either for or against a candidate or opponent).  These sources allow you to find your U.S. House, U.S Senate or state legislators. The site Ballotpedia, sponsored by the Lucy Burns Institute, also offers the opportunity to look up a number of your representatives, as well as a wealth of other information.  Open Secrets and Project Vote Smart offer information on voting records for state and federal officials, along with campaign finance and other resources. With your informed thoughts and experiences at hand, you have several options to contact your member.[1]

One of the most effective options due to direct contact, though more time-consuming, is a personal visit.  Members have offices in their home districts, as well as at the capitol. Depending on the feasibility of traveling, identify which location works for you.  Contact the office to make an appointment.  Using the information you have gathered and your relevant experiences, formulate a message, using evidence to support your points.  Preparing your message ahead of time will help you communicate more clearly, lessening the chance for confusion or misinterpretation.

Be specific in your message, but also be aware of opposing points.  Personal examples work well to give a specific story, but be sure not to try to generalize from just one experience; data from credible sources will help you know the extent to which others share your experience.  Identify a specific action that you would like your member to take; policy decisions are very specific.  As you prepare your message, also be sure to anticipate responses that you might receive, especially if you believe your member’s views may not align as closely with yours.  Showing that you have tried to listen/ understand to another perspective can create greater receptivity.  After your visit, be sure to follow-up with your member’s office.

Contacting representatives by mail or email can also be effective when you take several factors into account.  Be sure to address materials appropriately; for example, when contacting a member of Congress send to The Honorable [ full name ] U.S. House of Representatives Washington, DC 20515 or The Honorable [ full name ] United States Senate Washington, DC 20510.  Include a reference line that indicates the specific issue about which you are contacting your member, as well as the stance that you wish them to take.  Be sure to include your contact information – the business letter approach is best – and make sure that it is legible so that you can receive a reply from the office.

In writing the letter/ email, be sure that you have done the same homework as you would for a personal visit, including weaving in a story that shows personal/ district impact of the issue – again recognizing that others may have differing views and experiences.  Make sure to clearly connect these points to your stance and to the action that you wish the member to take. Because writing allows you to more carefully craft your message, make sure that it is organized, formal and respectful.  With written forms of communication, it is easy to misinterpret tone and content, so consider having someone else review it, perhaps someone whom you know that thinks a little differently than you do.

Finally, calling or faxing offers a concise and speedy means of contact. If calling, you can draft a brief statement that you read in advance, such as “Hello, my name is [Your name] I’m one of [rep’s] constituents from [Your town and zip code]. I’m calling to ask [rep] to support/ oppose [bill/ issue that is relevant then]. Would you please pass along my message?” Keep in mind that the telephone may not always lend itself to the detail of a letter.  However, you can also fax, especially at busy times. Faxzero offers an efficient way to send a fax if you do not have access directly to fax services. Best of all, you can attach a letter to the fax.  Some contacting apps exist but do not often offer the ability to add the detail needed to make your contact more compelling, so they are not a recommended option despite their seeming convenience.

As citizens, we have a wealth of opportunities to express our ideas and concerns constructively. Recognizing that policy-making is complex, we also have a responsibility to approach the various issues that affect us in a critical (evaluative) manner, especially if we want effective solutions to problems. By contacting our elected officials, we have the exciting ability to contribute in ongoing ways to the functioning of our political system.

[1] Some content for this post was developed in collaboration with a former student who interned for a semester in a US senator’s DC office.

[2] Louisiana has one alternative that requires a candidate to win an absolute majority of votes.  If no one does so on the initial ballot, the top two vote-getters face off in a run-off election that occurs at a later date.  Local elections tend to be more varied in type.

For the last several months, a large trophy has sat in front of our fireplace.  My husband bowls through a league set up by his last employer that allows current and former employees to compete; he has participated for over 20 years.  He currently serves as the secretary for “The Shots” who won the league championship last spring.  That trophy will now sit in our family room until the end of this season – unless the team wins again.  Why am I discussing bowling in a blog about Tocqueville?  Because another scholar has connected his ideas to the value of participating in a bowling league.

From my vantage point as a political scientist, I can conceive of few stronger thought connections than those between Tocqueville and the work of Robert Putnam.  As a well-known scholar within the field of political science, Putnam’s contributions have shaped important ideas over course of the last three decades.  His work has not only made significant contributions to political science, but to other related fields as well.  Beyond his continuous attention to this issue, he has been heartily involved in efforts to make the fruits of his work – how we can make democracy work, and work better – useful to practitioners in government and the larger society.

Among his many contributions, Putnam is perhaps most associated with the term “social capital’ – a term that has revolutionized our understanding of the relationship between social and political systems.  This term refers to the “trust, norms and networks” that people develop as a result of ongoing civic interactions (aka longer term social involvement).[1] Although Putnam did not coin the idea of “social capital” his work has made it relevant to a broad audience, building on the work of James Coleman and Glenn Loury, connecting the sociological term to its influence on the well-being of our political system.  His first book Making Democracy Work, identified the ways in which governments in Northern and Southern Italy differed based on variations in their civil society – how people relate to each other in their day to day lives.  He found that those areas with more healthy civic sectors had stronger communities and more democratic political structures.

Although his research on the relevance of social capital to effective democracies began abroad, Putnam is most known for his assessment of this relationship within the American context in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In this text, his earliest work on American civil society, Putnam noted that the participation in bowling leagues has declined, reducing the opportunities for people to develop their relationships as they have played individual games of bowling more frequently.  As a neo-Tocquevillean – someone who has applied his ideas in current times – Putnam seizes on a key insight related to civic engagement, particularly the role that civic associations have played in moving people from their focus as individuals, to a more communal orientation. In other words, a common good.

The American system, imperfect in its execution, has long focused on twin – and sometimes competing – ideals of freedom and equality.  Tocqueville discusses the tendency for the political equality within democracy to produce an emphasis on individualism which, if too widespread, can weaken our pursuit of common goals.[2] However, we also have the ability to counter these effects.  Civic associations provide a way to build bonds between individuals for collective purposes, as we need to work together to achieve ends because of minimal individual power.[3] In his time in America, Tocqueville was sincerely taken with the extent of civil associations and the ways that they helped people learn to cooperate for personal and communal reasons – this ability to cooperate and contribute to the common good promotes a strong backbone in our democracy.

The research of Putnam, and the tens of thousands of scholarly works that have, in turn, cited his work have demonstrated the enduring goods that come from civic engagement and the resulting social capital, such as strong political engagement, as well as the lackluster results when societies, including ours, lack them.  The central lesson is that the extent to which we are regularly involved with various organizations – and not simply by giving money – the more connected we become with one another; the more connected we are, the more likely we are to trust and cooperate.  Moreover, Putnam has not only made a splash in our way of thinking about healthy society, but in how government responds.  He founded the Better Together Initiative and the Saguaro Seminar, which have generated best practices for social and political decision-making.  He has even testified before Congress to make recommendations on how to generate social capital.  I encourage you to look into these resources and think about ways in which you can begin or continue to connect in your own communities.

Joining a bowling league – goofy shoes and all – provides an opportunity to connect regularly with the same people and build relationships over time.  In the time that my husband, a somewhat introverted individual, has been involved with his team and league, I have seen an illustration of these general trends first hand.  (I have also seen them in my own connections, but we are going with the bowling theme here.)  Just recently, another former member of the team, who had retired and moved out of the area, passed away after a long illness. My husband and his teammates have made annual visits to see him every year, and will make this last journey of several hours out to and back from the services, even amidst a busy time at work and preparing for the upcoming holiday.  That willingness to do so is social capital.  It may look different in practice than during the time of Tocqueville’s visit, but the social and political benefits still remain.

[1] Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 167.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. (New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 2001), Book II Section 26.

[3] Ibid, Book II Section 29.

Welcome to the blog series Tocqueville Capital, which will connect the writings of a Frenchman who spent 9 months in America during the early 1800s to more current works in a variety of fields. Alexis De Tocqueville journeyed here as a means of gathering information from the just decades-old U.S. government, which offered a new experiment of indirect democracy in its constitution, albeit one that, at that time, did not include all those born in its lands as full citizens.  Coming from France, recovering from the French Revolution and its aftermath, he sought to discern the transferable pieces of this new form of government for his native land.  Many other sources have covered his history and the general context for Democracy in America, which is not my purpose in this series, so I have linked to a reasonable-length summary on this credible site.

Although some historic writings keep their importance because of the ideas or information that they convey about the time in which they were written, Tocqueville’s work provides even more reasons to care about his writing today.  The book itself has come out in dozens of editions – 67 by a count of Google Scholar, as of the writing of this post.  Moreover, the application of his work continues.  To this day, researchers continue to test many of his observations about the nature and function of democracy as well as human behavior, specifically within America but also with relevance to other countries as well.  Books and articles of the very present-day add to the sizeable list of 20,000+ works – 23249 by a count of Google Scholar, as of this post – that connect the value of his ideas to our current society.  His ideas have become a form of intellectual capital for our continued work in a variety of fields – from political science to communication to organizational psychology and others.

This series will explore the ways in which Tocqueville’s intellectual capital impacts our current understanding of the world.  Each month the posts will explore an aspect of his work as it relates to a specific book or article.  Readers might be surprised at all of the relevant connections that exist!  The first full post will focus on the work of Robert Putnam, a Neo-Tocquevillean – yes, that’s a term – who has done extensive research and applied work on the topic of social capital.




About the Tocqueville Capital blogger (Dr. Robin Lauermann):  I currently serve as a Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, which hosts this blog site. I have specific expertise in two sub-fields.  Within American politics, I teach and research on topics related to political institutions, public policy, and political behavior, with special consideration as to how they impact the functioning of our political system.  Within Comparative Politics, I look at many of the same themes, but within the regional areas of Latin America and Europe.  Above all, my passion and work focus on empowering people – students, colleagues, and citizens – to be able to better understand our political system in order to navigate it and evaluate it constructively.  I teach a First Year Seminar grounded in Tocqueville’s work and integrate his writing into other courses.  My research on representative democracy also draws heavily on his work.  With this series, I hope to share the ways in which ideas can spread across time and fields, building our common good.



Some conversations about the American system may seem like a scene from the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon episode, the one in which Bugs and Daffy Duck, with Elmer Fudd looming nearby, argue over whether it is Rabbit Season or Duck Season.  Those in dispute trade retorts without supporting their points, and in some cases without engaging the complexity of reality, all in an effort to protect their self-interest.  Likewise, the conversation regarding our structure of government has reflected a similar lack of evidential argument on the nature of our structure of government.  Republic? Democracy?  Try both! Regardless of the term that we use to describe these systems, we should focus on what makes them endure and do our part to promote their success.

When our founders first established our wildly innovative constitutional system, they were looking to balance the sovereignty (ultimate authority) of the people with the moderation of its passionate (a.k.a. impulsive) swings.  In fact, in Federalist #10 – one of the 85 papers which circulated to explain the rationale of the Constitution’s provisions – James Madison noted that the structure of our representative government was to “refine and enlarge the public view, by passing it through the  medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”  This body would, however, be elected by the people (or, in the case of the Senate until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, by the state officials who were selected by the people).  Our system is indeed considered to be a republic.

If we are a republic, how can we also be a democracy?  In the discipline of political science, which focuses its study, among other topics, on the nature and functioning of government, we formally classify our system of government as a type of republic that is a representative democracy.    Republics are a larger class of governments that may include institutions that are accountable to the people through elections as well as those which are appointed to serve in other manners; the structure was a reaction and alternative to the more common monarchies at the time.  This concept is echoed in Federalist #39.  Those republican governments which have free and fair elections to select officials are representative, or indirect, democracies.

Although our founders were concerned with the idea of democracy, as were classical philosophers like Plato (The Republic) and Aristotle (Politics), their wariness rested on a very primitive conception of this form: a structure in which the people directly determined policy and who did so from a point of self-interest and not from that of the larger good.  What the founders sought to limit was this impulse; democracy thus also refers to the structures or reforms which provide for accountability to the people by those who represent them.

This interpretation – that systems like ours are considered representative democracies – is consistent throughout political science, which holds the utmost authority on this subject, and appears throughout the vast literature on democratic development.  Some governments falsely use these terms to describe themselves despite the fact that they do not have the ultimate authority of the people at their core; we should not be misled in our understanding of the nature of republics or democracy because of this distortion, nor because doing so suits a particular political outcome.

For centuries now, observers have analyzed various democratic systems to determine which features are essential for a government to legitimately be counted democratic. Accountability to the public through elections, along with the political equality of all citizens in contributing to the vote, provides a fundamental element.  Free and fair elections provide a starting point but are far from complete.  Even non-democratic countries can claim to hold elections, but those events typically occur for symbolic reasons and lack voter choice, a secret ballot or other characteristics that make them free and fair.

So what other factors do analysts take into account when evaluating a country’s status?  A number of entities study and track country status.  The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Accountability provides one of several credible sets of criteria and data.  Examining this infographic from the institute, we see a variety of factors: participatory engagement, representative government, fundamental rights, checks on government and impartial administration.  Each of these spheres has related sub-factors, which reveal the complexity of an effectively functioning democracy.  Although the institute’s index is one of several well-respected resources, its criteria share much in common with the others, as well as with the fruits of research on democratic development.  We also see in common across these measures that researchers do not simply identify whether a country is a democracy or not, but rather have a complex index that places countries on a range from more democratic to less so.  Healthy democracies may vary in other characteristics – presidential or parliamentary, as well as unitary or federal are just two of the possibilities.

Despite the extensive growth of democracy over the last two centuries, it remains at risk as a system.  It might be easy to be optimistic about political development, presuming that once enacted, democracy will persist.  However, a segment of research on democratic development focuses not only on why it emerges (transition) and endures (consolidation), but also why it breaks down (reversal).  Among the many works that have addressed this area, Samuel Huntington’s The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991) offered a historical view of the expansions (flows) and declines (ebbs) of democracy across the world and, in doing so, refined how we think about this process.  Much as with his analysis of the first two waves (1828-1932 and 1945-1962) and the ebbing of democracy that followed each, subsequent developments have shown that democracies can and do decline, even in the present age.

The potential for reversing course in a democratic government is the focus of this year’s American Democracy Lecture, which will be held on Monday, October 28, 2019, and is sponsored by the Messiah College Center for Public Humanities.   Professor Steven Levitsky will share remarks related to his co-authored book How Democracies Die.  This book, which builds on the extensive literature on democratic transition and consolidation from across the globe, shares an accessible discussion of essential features that distinguish democratic and authoritarian governments, as well as evidence of how democracies have thrived or withered when those facets are compromised.  These considerations provide valuable insights that allow us to learn from history and to respond to contemporary developments in light of it.

In our representative democracy, citizens play a significant role in promoting its success, from selecting its leaders to evaluating the impact of their policies and holding them accountable.  We can contribute in many ways; exercising our right to vote and contacting our elected officials are among the most common, and yet not the only, ways in which we can participate.  Gaining a foundation in the nature and function of our system allows us to more effectively engage the system and, hopefully, encourages us to equip ourselves to make more informed evaluations of it.

Welcome to the blog series Civic Mind, which focuses on unpacking the American political system to help citizens become better informed and more deliberative in their roles as participants in the political system.  The goal of this series, one of three that this blog will launch this year, is to unpack events, processes, and policies so that people can be in a stronger position to evaluate them.  Doing so can help us better understand the impact that they have on our lives and empower us to engage in the system in more valuable ways.

One resource that I have found particularly helpful in thinking about what helps us be more evaluative rather than emotional in our political interactions is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  A psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002), Kahneman is most known for his work distinguishing between what he calls System 1 (impulsive) and System 2 (deliberative) thinking.  As he explains in this short interview segment, using System 2 is more likely to produce outcomes with which we are satisfied because it lessens the chance of errors that come from us acting on impulse – whether in our personal circumstances or as we work together in larger groups.   Casting votes as citizens and making collective decisions in policy certainly fall into the latter category.

In today’s online environment, we have a quandary– we have access to a raft of information, but not all of it will help us become more careful consumers of it.  In other words, just because we can “Google it” does not mean that a search result is credible.  I will share more tips on effectively navigating online resources in some future posts.  As a starting point, my librarian colleague Michael Rice and I have curated a manageable list of sources produced by nonpartisan and mostly non-profit organizations, who also share a goal of helping the public to access educational resources.  We have placed it as a library guide within the college library’s webpages so that it is more broadly available for access.  This blog series will periodically highlight sources as they are relevant to the focus of a given post.

The first full post of this series will discuss the foundations of democracy, as a way for us to consider our roles as citizens within this system.  The series will post monthly, with special additional content available.




About the Civic Mind blogger (Dr. Robin Lauermann):  I currently serve as a Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, which hosts this blog site. I have specific expertise in two sub-fields.  Within American politics, I teach and research on topics related to political institutions, public policy, and political behavior, with special consideration as to how they impact the functioning of our political system.  Within Comparative Politics, I look at many of the same themes, but within the regional areas of Latin America and Europe.  Above all, my passion and work focus on empowering people – students, colleagues, and citizens – to be able to better understand our political system in order to navigate it and evaluate it constructively.  With this series, I hope to provide such a forum, which can serve as a resource for citizens in evaluating policy, candidates and our system.