- Interestingly, democracy in the sense as we know it is more of a set of utopian ideas than a description of real societies. Athens of the 15 Century, for example, is often cited as the purest form of democracy that ever existed.
Written By Lawerence Mantey - The ‘people’, the keyword embedded in the concept of democracy, is what makes the practice of such governance system difficult though it is regarded the world over as the best form of government and also cherished by varied societies all over the world.
The practice, originally from ancient Greece, represents an important departure from governance practice prior to it.
The central idea in democracy is that the ordinary people want to rule themselves and they are capable of doing so.
Inherent in the idea of self-rule by the ordinary people is the understanding that government must serve all its people, and that ultimately none but the people themselves can be relied upon to know, and hence, to act in accordance with their own values and interests.
Interestingly, democracy in the sense as we know it is more of a set of utopian ideas than a description of real societies. Athens of the 15 Century, for example, is often cited as the purest form of democracy that ever existed.
There, all public policies were decided upon in periodic assembly of Athenian citizens. However many people, including women, slaves and immigrants were excluded from such assemblies.
The same can be said about US, as the foregoing reveals.
The reality is that most people, especially the privileged and powerful in democracies around the world, are generally not inclined with the idea that the many can and should rule themselves.
More often than not, they entertain the notion that governance is a difficult art, requiring the greatest sophistication, intelligence, character and training, definitely not the province of the ordinary people.
Though democracy is honoured and cherished by many, its practice has become a turbulent affair for many countries, because of suspicion and the fear of the ordinary people, the masses or the majority.
America is where the modern practice of democracy originates. Their political ideas and institutions have often provided inspiration for democratic movements in many countries across the world.
However, the fear and suspicion of the ordinary people or the majority keep interfering with their democratic practice, and that has been the case over the centuries.
The right to vote in an election, for example, is fundamental to democracy. The 15 Amendment adopted in 1870 is clear on that basic right.
“The vote cannot be denied to an American citizen on the basis of colour, race or previous condition of servitude,” it states.
Yet, many Americans won that right recently after a long struggle, with blacks being the latest, winning voting right only after 1965.
Without the power of the people’s will, which has caused series of Amendments to the Constitution including the addition of the Bills of Rights, the US Constitution as it stands now, places several roadblocks on the path of the majority.
Of the three organs of government, only a part of one is selected by the direct vote of the people. That is the House of Representatives (Article 1, Section 2, paragraph 1).
Currently, the democratic practice in America remains essentially as its original designers intended.
As a well-known political Philosopher, Robert Dhal, puts it, the framers of the US Constitution “deliberately created a government framework that was carefully designed to impede and even prevent the operation of majority rule”.
Provisions of the Constitution, designed to keep the majority in check, effectively provided minorities with disproportionate power in government.
Five times in US history, the world has witnessed elections where Presidents have taken office without having won a majority of votes.
John Quincy Adams (1825), Rutherford B. Hayes (1877), Benjamin Harrison (1889), George W. Bush (2001), and Donald Trump (2016).
Power to people
America has witnessed several turbulence in its democratic journey, particularly with the right place of the ordinary people in government and decision-making.
The country still maintains a strong and stable democracy, because the power of the people’s will has gradually transformed the original constitutional design through a series of amendments, judicial reviews and the changing political practices.
Governments in US have now transformed into a set of institutions that act in tune with the voice of the people.
Giving power to the people is the only means by which democracy can have its true meaning. As a deceptive concept in reality, democracy can only have its real meaning in practice, if only it is accompanied by constant struggle to perfect it by those who are the true owners of government – the people.
Like a cock, the will of the people in democracy cannot be suppressed forever, if the struggle continues. The will of the people will always prevail.
The writer is with the Institute of Current Affairs and Diplomacy (ICAD),