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The Key Features of Representative Democracy Essay

Describe and critically evaluate the key features of Representative Democracy created by the U. S Constitution with primary but not exclusive reference to E. Wood, ch. 7 “the demos versus ‘we the people’: from ancient to modern conceptions of citizenship” pg 204-237 especially 213-237 Representative democracy is a term inseparable from the U. S Constitution. Not only did the attendees of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 invent a very different form of government to anything that had gone before it, it went on to become probably the most influential of all governments and indeed forms of governance since its inception.

It was the beginning of the domination of representative democracy in international politics. There were two key features of representative democracy born out the constitution, firstly the rise of capitalism, by confining democracy to a purely political sphere. They introduced a clear and concerted separation of the economic sphere from the political one. Secondly, the advent of liberalism, which saw a focus on limited powers of government, securing ‘individual rights’ and ‘civil liberties’, essentially the freedom of the individual and their right to private property.

These two features are clearly closely linked and cannot exist or could not have come into existence without the other. Both are linked with the distancing of civic society from politics while still being a democracy- a representative democracy where participation in politics is indirect and removed from civic life or the economic sphere. Their relationship will examined further in this essay along with how they have come to define representative democracy. In doing so we will unravel what E. Wood is insinuating in his chapter heading ‘The demos versus “we the people”: from ancient to modern conceptions of citizenship’.

In order to best explore the key features of representative democracy created by the U. S constitution one must be given some perspective by comparing it’s birth to the birth of the democratic ideal in Athens. Democracy as a political concept and method of structuring a community first came about in Greece in around 508 BC and lasted till 322BC. The democracy Athenians knew would be known today as a ‘participatory democracy’, although it’s franchise was quite narrow, those with it had direct contact and effect on political affairs.

It was a form of rule for the people by the people, this is inherently obvious in the origins of its name itself. Democracy comes from the Greek word ‘Demokratia’ which means popular government. The word ‘Demokratia’ is born out of two Greek words ‘Demos’ roughly translating to “common people” and ‘Kratos’ meaning “rule and strength”. Moreover it has been contended by Pericles that democracy can only be democracy if the poor are included in the political community. It was a form of government borne out of a revolution in which a peasant majority sought to liberate themselves from the political domination of their superiors.

This must be used to contrast with what the men of the Philadelphia Convention set out to achieve, which could be more accurately described as a powerful, propertied minority looking to secure their property and ‘liberty’ against the threat of the masses. If the Athenian’s were freeing themselves from the powers of the wealthy by instigating a ‘Demokratia’ it could be said that in the same sense the American elite were attempting to free themselves from the powers of a poor, largely property less majority by inventing representative democracy.

Having just secured their property and prospects from the British crown in a bloody and expensive war, the propertied elite on the west coast of America were now having their wealth threatened by an increasingly politically active and aggressive majority. The experience of the American Revolution had politically activised the American people. The poor’s sentiment at the time was best personified by ‘Shay’s Rebellion’ of this General Henry Knox wrote to George Washington saying “The people who are the insurgents… ee the weakness of government; they feel at once their poverty, compared with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter, in order to remedy the former” (Quoted by Zinn, 1999: 95). It was the acknowledgment of the masses desire for equality, along with a huge national debt and need to successfully manage inflation which prompted the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 and from this the key features of representative democracy were borne out of the U. S Constitution.

The writer’s of the Constitution had had their hands forced. They sought to secure their wealth from any form of governance as well as quell a potential uprising of the masses if they didn’t introduce some kind of democratic rule. They were forced to introduce a democratic government but they set out to limit the powers of government and protect their individual interests and property rights from any form of governance. Logically, though, in a democracy the masses would subsequently look to balance society’s inequalities in some ways.

It’s certain prominent federalist Madison was aware of this stating “the most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society”. The worry for federalists was that this majority could come to power and overturn or alter in some way their rights of property. Therefore the protection of these rights in Madison’s words were “the first object of Government”.

This is where the constitutionalist nature of their government combined with the distinct and limiting separation of powers served to protect these libertarian rights. That being the structure and interaction of the U. S’s legislature, executive and judiciary means that it is very difficult to make a big or controversial change to the Constitution and therefore the nation’s laws. So the Federalists secured their rights to property in federal law. Here was the birth of liberalism in order to secure the rise of capitalism, enabled by their invented form of ‘democracy’- representative democracy.

B. Roper states the drafters of the constitution were all agreed upon the importance of entrenching and codifying the rights and liberties of property otherwise “their own wealth and privileges could be undermined, and the rapid expansion of capitalist agriculture, industry, commerce and banking would be impossible”. Here we have a key component of liberalism the ‘inalienable right’ to property being linked with the advancement of capitalism. E. Wood believes “Capitalism made possible the redefinition of democracy, it’s reduction to liberalism”.

So in a capitalist democracy it is the rights of the individual that become the focal point of citizenship, a society of individuals with private interests represented by a removed central government. In cementing capitalism as the desired economic model, The Constitution had justified doing so through a number of ideals that are now closely associated with liberalism. The dilution of power, separation of power and constitutionalism which characterise the semantics of American governance all served to protect the rights of the individual, outlined in and so central to the U. S Constitution, as well as make it difficult for the Constitution itself to be changed.

There was a clear effort within the constitution to keep the power of the state in check and prevent the state from intruding upon the ‘civil rights’ of the individual citizen. What was born out of the Philadelphia convention was a purely political form of democracy. There was a separation of the economic sphere, the nature of which makes it invulnerable to democratic power. Capitalism is at the core of America’s ideal that ‘all men are created equal’ and have the right to ‘life, liberty and equality’.

The clear cut difference between feudalism and capitalism is everybody owning their own labour capacity and property, and thus the existence of a free market. The right to own ones labour and property without interference from the state signalled the end of feudalism, obviously, but also caused a shift in power from those simply born into privilege (lordship) to those with wealth (property). In a society where, in political terms, everyone is equal with the same rights and privileges and the same capacity to vote or stand for election, the real source of power within a society became economic advantage.

In essence capitalism made civic equality partly redundant, there is a clear distinction between equality in the political sphere and equality in civic society. To quote E. Wood “political equality in capitalist democracy not only coexists with socio economic inequality but leaves it fundamentally intact”. The men of the Philadelphia convention were therefore successful on this front, they had given the masses there democracy and political equality while maintaining their own interests of protecting their vast private property and ability to trade and expand on it.

It is here that we come to the essence of what E. Wood means when he says “The demos Vs ‘We the people’”. Where democracy in Athens was defined by the direct political action of the people, in fact Aristotle defined it as a constitution in which “the free-born and poor control the government” as they are the majority. Whereas the American system of representative democracy equates to rule of the people by a sort of third party, a far off federal government, ‘representing’ their political interests.

The removal of the political sphere was intentional with federalists holding the belief that the poor masses were better served to be represented by the elite. Alexander Hamilton a leading federalist saw the idea of representation of all classes of people unrealistic. He contended they were to be best lead by representatives of the elite, the merchant being the best representative for mechanics and manufacturers, the large landholder was the best representative for the small landholder and highly educated professionals such as lawyers would gain the confidence of all eople. So we have two forms of democracy which are essentially the antithesis of each other. Rather than placing power in the hands of the people, representative democracy involves a transfer or sign over of power to a separated political sphere and it’s alienation of citizens from the political sphere.

Anti- federalists argued this meant that when the constitution states “We, the People” it symbolised something very undemocratic. Rather than it being an inclusive term that meant the citizens of the U. S they argued it vested sovereignty in the federal government on behalf of it’s citizens. So we have a democracy defined by it’s citizens exercising their political power- the demos and a democracy defined by it’s people passing their political power onto a third party, in order to be ‘represented’ in their democracy by ‘We the People’. The U. S Constitution effectively invented a new form of democracy which is in many ways the antithesis of what the Athenians, the inventors of democracy, practiced.

Representative democracy is personified by a separation of powers, limited government, the separation of the political sphere and the subsequent domination of the economic sphere. It is in many ways the product of capitalism and subsequently liberalism interacting under the banner of democracy. It has spread to many corners of the globe and is the most widely practiced form of democracy. In this respect has clearly been highly successful, however question marks linger over whether it is as truly equal and fair as the ‘Founding Fathers’ proclaimed.


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