Democracy: Blooming or Withering

'Every country has the government it deserves.'
                                         (Toute nation a le government qu'elle merite)
                                         ' Joseph Marie De Maistre (August 1811)   

Republic with Representative Democracy

United States is referred to as a federal republic, governed by representative democracy. The term republic comes from Latin word res publica meaning 'public affairs.' It is a broad enough term that includes monarchy, dictatorship or totalitarian, socialist (communist, e.g. former Soviet Union, Republic of China) or theocracy (e.g. Iran, Vatican) forms of government and still be called a republic.

In a 'representative democracy' the people elect their representatives to the government that will work as conduits to look after their interests. Democracy is an ever changing experiment but it is a living and breathing doctrine. It is felt that democracy becomes more and more difficult as the number of people in a country increases. The growing pains to maintain a meaningful democracy that is fair and balanced are well known. Minority rights (racial, economic or gender minorities) are the most difficult to protect. The majority can vote for changes advantageous to them, thus marginalizing the minorities.

The ideal form of democracy is perhaps 'direct democracy' wherein the citizens can change the laws governing them by initiatives and referendums as well as recalls that result in voting for or against these laws. The federal government in the United States is a representative democracy but many of the states function as direct democracy. More than half the states have citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives and the vast majorities of states have initiatives and or referenda.

Democracy with hope: Checks and balances

'Here, sir, the people govern;
here they act by their immediate representatives.'
-Alexander Hamilton in 1788, referring to the House of Representatives.

The checks and balances of the representative democracy (in the United States) are the responsibilities of the three branches of the government; executive, legislative and judicial branches. Though the concept of separation of powers was by Aristotle, many changes have taken place since then. By observing the British Constitution and noting its positive elements, Frenchman Charles de Montesquieu wrote his thoughts in a great work De l'esprit des lois (Spirit of the Laws 1748). James Madison was greatly influenced by the work of Montesquieu, and incorporated these ideas into the United States constitution. The list below is an overview of the constitutional powers afforded to each branch, with the authorities given to each branch as a form of checks and balances.

Branch : Executive
Constitutional Powers Executive Counterbalance Legislative Counterbalance Judicial Counterbalance
' Discretion over
   when to enforce
   the law 
' Discretion over
   how to run
' Sole power to
   wage war
   command of the
' Responsibility for
' Power to appoint
   judges, diplomats,
   managers, and
   executive advisers
' Power to arrest,
   detain, and search
' Civilian and
   military chains of
   constrain low-level
   executive officials
   to obey the
   policies of high-
   level officials.
' Power to
   determine what
   laws exist
' Power to write
   laws to constrain
   the internal
   operation of
' Power to write
   laws limiting
   searches, arrests,
   and detentions
' Power to make
   laws concerning
   what regulations
   may be declared
   by the executive
' Sole power to
   declare war
' Responsibility for
   ratifying treaties
' Responsibility for
' Power to set the
   budget of the
' Power to impeach
   and remove
   executive officers
' Power to set limits
' Acts as a neutral
   mediator when the
   executive brings
   criminal or civil
   actions, and has
   the power to stop
' Issues warrants
   for searches and
' May declare
   actions of the
   executive to be
' Determines which
   laws apply to any
   given case
Branch : Legislative

Constitutional Powers

Executive Counterbalance

Legislative Counterbalance

Judicial Counterbalance

' Power to write
' Power to tax,
   borrow money,
   and spend money
' Sole power to
   declare war
' Various other
   powers of the
' Subpoena power
' May veto laws (but
   this may be
   overridden by a
   two-thirds majority
   in both houses)
' May refuse to
   enforce certain
' May refuse to
   spend money
   allocated for
   certain purposes
' Sole power to
   wage war
   command of the
' Responsibility for
   declarations (for
   example, declaring
   a state of
   emergency) and
   lawful regulations
   and executive
' Executive Privilege
  (refusal to submit
   to legislative
' Each house is
   responsible for
   policing its own
' May declare laws
   and unenforceable
' Determines which
   laws apply to any
   given case
Branch : Judicial
Constitutional Powers Executive Counterbalance Legislative Counterbalance Judicial Counterbalance
' Sole power to
   interpret the law
   and apply it to
   particular disputes
' Power to
   determine the
   disposition of
' Appointed for life
' Power to compel
   testimony and the
   production of






* Table Source

' Responsibility to
   appoint judges
' Power to grant
' Sole power to
   amendments (by
   two-thirds majority
   and with the
   consent of three-
   quarters of the
' Power to
   determine the size
   and structure of
   the courts
' Power to
   determine the
   budgets of the
' Responsibility for
   confirming judicial
' Power to impeach
   and remove
' The appeals
   process enforces
   uniform policies in
   a top-down
   fashion, but gives
   discretion in
   individual cases to
   low-level judges
' May only rule in
   cases of an actual
   dispute brought
   between actual
' Polices its own

It is the brilliant system of oversight of one branch of government over another that makes democracy work. Reagan's famous 'Trust, but verify' fits the representative democracy well. The elected officials of the legislative and the executive branches, and the judicial branch of the government take this responsibility very seriously.

Wither Democracy?

'Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.' -John Adams, April 15, 1814

'I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilization, or both.'
- Thomas B. Macaulay, May 23 1857

Most modern democracies are referred to as liberal democracies. Here the power of the elected officials and representatives is tempered by the citizens' rights. Protected individual liberties in the constitution like the freedom of speech, assembly, religion and rights to private property and privacy are considered inalienable rights. Equality, due process and rule of law provide protection under the law. These laws are meant to protect the rights of minorities, who can be hindered by the majority rule.

But as a practical matter democracy may not work as it was meant to be. The representative democracy is not faultless. The problems of democracy are not unique to nascent democracies alone. Even mature democracies like England or the United States have their inherent problems. The government is controlled by political parties and interest groups have been exerting their influence on the parties and thus the ruling government. The concept of representative government blurs when the interest groups contribute money to manipulate legislation. Democracy that was intended to check abuse of power by anyone or any group can indirectly be a plutocracy, where wealthy individuals or groups wield financial pressures on governments to pass favorable legislation. The elected representatives will be influenced by the contributions (bribes?) and pass legislations adversarial to the people that elected them. The remedy is to take money out of politics but this has been a gargantuan task and has been a failure so far.

Voter apathy is a major problem. In a democracy where the people are affluent and for the most part contented, apathy of voters has created problems. It does not resemble a representative government of the people, if the people are apathetic towards electing officials representing them. In the United States hardly the majority of eligible voters go to the polling booths. Presidents are routinely elected by less than fifty percent of the electorates.

In 1787 when the United States drafted its constitution for a democratic government of the people, for the people and by the people, Professor Alexander Tyler (University of Edinborough 'circa 1787) wrote about the stages of birth and death of democracy. According Alexander Tyler it takes an average of two hundred years for a democracy to mature, reach its crescendo and then revert back to bondage.

There are eight stages of democracy he observed:

  • From bondage to spiritual faith;

  • From spiritual faith to great courage;

  • From courage to liberty;

  • From liberty to abundance;

  • From abundance to complacency;

  • From complacency to apathy;

  • From apathy to dependence;

  • From dependence back into bondage.

Nascent democracies in the past have had growing problems and trouble getting off the ground. Some countries have sea-sawed between autocracy and democracy (e.g. Pakistan). Iraq is struggling against all odds to provide freedom to its people after the fall of a brutal totalitarian dictator. Russia is still experimenting with its newly found freedom. Germany suffered set backs from fascism earlier in the 20th century. Japan emerged a free country after its monarchy. Iran's theocracy has a strong hold on its people thought there is a ground swell of discontent as people yearn for more freedom.

Yet, world's oldest democracies appear to be suffering form apathy, an insidious process that can have disastrous consequences. The democracy in United States is in the process of creating a dependency class because of voter complacency and apathy. Americans who cherish their liberty are now seeing it slowly being eroded by the government that they elected and created. Most defenders of democracy feel that democracy needs to be defended constantly. It cannot be taken for granted. It needs to be protected, nurtured, improved on and then passed on to the next generation.

The democratic process is a gamut that hits many bumps in its long journey. There are times when it looks hopeless and to be withering. But once the people have tasted freedom, it is hard to take it away. Unfortunately, the obstacles that prevent democracy from blooming, sometimes last for generations. Generations of people around the world have endured autocracy and dictatorship, totalitarianism, fascism, monarchy, oligarchy and even anarchy without knowing freedom.

The United States government and democracy has been in peril many times in its history. Many of its leaders and presidents were unsure about maintaining democracy and liberty during their tenures. Abraham Lincoln who avoided a division of his country into north and south had lamented, 'I am struggling to maintain the government, not to overthrow it. I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.' John F. Kennedy in his State of the Union address on January 30, 1961 said, 'Before my term has ended, we shall have to test anew whether a nation organized and governed as such as ours can endure. The outcome is by no means certain.' There always has been a pessimism regarding the endurance of democracy over many centuries.

Winston Churchill, in his speech to the House of Commons on November 11, 1947 said,

'Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except al those other forms that have been tried from time to time.'


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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