Government Systems: Democracy
This paper will take a closer look at the concept of democracy, and provide examples of democracies in the post-industrial 21st century international community.
Keywords Authoritarianism; Democratization; Free Market; Regime; Stratification
In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson hosted a visit from the eminent German scientist and explorer, Baron Alexander von Humboldt. During his stay, Humboldt noticed a newspaper in Jefferson's possession. It was filled with venom, as the writers criticized Jefferson's performance and professional conduct as the nation's third president. The Baron was appalled to see such railings against the most powerful leader in the country. "Why do you not fine the editor, or imprison him?" he asked Jefferson. The President invited him to take the newspaper home with him, "and if you hear the reality of our liberty or our freedom of the press questioned, show them this paper and tell them where you found it."
Indeed, the American Revolution, in which Jefferson played an integral role, was not a revolution in the traditional sense. After all, while the War for Independence was clearly a military endeavor, the Revolution was truly about replacing the British Empire's form of regional government with a set of democratic institutions and infrastructures that would truly represent the interests of the American
Government of the People
Throughout history, the philosophy of democracy and the practical application of it have proven hard to balance. In the 5th century BC, ancient Greeks explored how to make their government institutions more representative of the people. Political leaders and political philosophers of the time were distrustful of the idea of giving great power to the masses out of fear of ignorance and inexperience. In fact, many philosophers viewed the fledgling notion of democracy as corruptive, whether it was giving power to the uneducated masses or those masses giving legitimacy to imperialists. It was the philosopher Plato who would ultimately suggest that the issue with implementing a democracy was that a balance needed to be struck: power, knowledge, and philosophy, he said, needed to be brought together in order for the notion of a people's government to be successful (Net Industries, 2008).
More than two thousand years later, there remains a philosophical and sociological link between democratic governments and the societies they represent. Thomas Mann, however, would claim that although there are elements that could corrupt a democratic system, there is great potential with implementation of a democracy, "Democracy is timelessly human," he wrote, "and timelessness always implies a certain amount of potential youthfulness" (Columbia World of Quotations, 1996).
To study democracy is to study the societies and cultures that implement them. To be sure, there are fundamental characteristics inherent in democratic institutions: leaders are elected by popular vote, basic human rights are guaranteed, and human liberties (such as the freedom of religion) are not just encouraged, they are protected under law. However, a society's distinctive social and cultural composition means that its system of democratic representation will reflect that distinctiveness and, therefore, democratic systems are often different in many ways from one another. Some differences are semantic (Great Britain's House of Commons versus the United States House of Representatives). Others are more significant, such as an emphasis on law and order or individual rights.
This paper will next turn to an analysis of these varying elements between democratic systems as well as the sociological forces that create them.
It can be said that the Bill of Rights as it appears in the U.S. Constitution was not simply crafted by the framers of that great document — it was demanded by the people of this fledgling nation. For nearly two centuries of living within the British Empire, American colonists endured a number of inequities, including a lack of political representation, overtaxation and social stratification. British leadership applied tax rates without consultation with the citizens, suspected criminals were searched and detained without proper due process and social order was maintained with an iron fist.
When the British were expelled from the newly formed United States of America, therefore, it was no surprise that individual liberties took center stage as the Constitution was being formed. One of the most prominent advocates was James Madison, who in 1787 and again in 1788 argued that the federal government's powers should be limited to avoid threatening individual liberties in the manner by which the British crown ruled (Bowling, 2007).
Limited government is a familiar theme in democracies, for less government intrusion means greater civil liberties. Affording people the right to exist without fear of repression or repercussion has helped facilitate political equality, and it has allowed many individuals to prosper socially and economically (Forbath, 2008).
Undoubtedly, the United States Constitution has been an iconic vehicle for others to emulate in terms of strengthening democratic governments by underscoring the importance of human rights. Many newly independent nations throughout the 20th and early 21st century have followed suit in emphasizing the basic rights of the individual. Australia, for example, ratified its Constitution in 1901. However, that document did not include a Bill of Rights in the vein of its U.S. counterpart. Still, the fact that a Bill of Rights did not exist in the Australian Constitution does not mean that this important component of a democracy was eschewed by its framers. Rather, the Australian people, who as a collective culture believe strongly in human rights, had faith that the Ministers of Parliament they sent to Canberra and the Australian common law they serve would be sufficient to protect the rights of the people of that nation (Roberts, 2007).
In a typical democracy, government is established based on the social constitution and culture of the country in question. In South Africa, the adoption of a democratic system and a revised Constitution were spurred by a desire to move away from a long-standing social order and culture. Decades of apartheid meant that millions of black South Africans were disenfranchised from their government and relegated to a consistently lower social and economic stratum than that of the white ruling regime.
In 1994, the regime left power in a major electoral shift. Within two years of that change, a new Constitution was in place. However, the South African people, especially blacks who had become newly empowered, were understandably cynical about the leadership who would represent them in Parliament. After all, the South African government infrastructure was still in place, and was based on a model introduced by the British system in which that legislative body held total power in making new laws.
South Africans' response to this skepticism was to install within that infrastructure protections that Ministers of Parliament could not easily undo. The 1996 Constitution featured an extensive Bill of Rights, which gave all South Africans a wide range of civil liberties they could not enjoy under the previous regime. South Africa now defers to the Constitution, not the Parliament, as the ultimate authority in protecting the interests of the citizens of the reemerging nation (Country Profile: South Africa, 2005).
An interesting characteristic of democracies is that they are a dynamic lawmaking infrastructure. Because the people are heavily invested (and participate in large rates) in democratic institutions, they look upon their elected officials to respond to their needs and demands. An important characteristic in democracies, therefore, is that such systems are rooted in service to the people,...
(The entire section is 3523 words.)