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.


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