On Democratic Stability
Prof. Patterson, PL SCI 110
Since Ancient Greece there have been numerous attempts at creating stable, long-lasting democracies. Men have tried to organize government in such a way so as to guarantee to all men equal treatment under the law and an equal right to create the law. As we study the history of civilizations we see that some have been successful, while others have failed. One of the chief concerns facing both the Americans and the French during their respective revolutions was what to do after the revolution had been won. What sort of government were these nations going to set up and how could they insure that this new government, too, would not become as corrupt as the one they sought to overthrow and separate from?
These same questions face us today, as modern Americans, as well. We have now been a democratic nation for over 200 years and we have tried in the last century to establish an American-like democracy in several other nations throughout the world; in Germany and Japan after World War II, in Korea, in Viet Nam, and currently in Afghanistan and Iraq. But do we as a people, as we continue to grow and accept immigrants from all over the world, believe that our democracy is stable? Do we believe that it is the best system of government, good enough to be used as a model for the rest of the world? And what factors, specifically, lead to this belief?
The examples we have of democracies which have been established in the past and the writings and philosophies of great thinkers help us to answer these questions. We must take into account as well what we know and understand about how man goes about instituting these social contracts. With all of this we recognize that a proper understanding of human nature by those involved in creating and running the government, an encouragement of the proliferation of factions and difference of opinions and ideas, and just and decent men to set a precedence in the shape and form of government are vital factors in the establishment of an enduring, stable democracy.
One of the most important factors in creating a stable democracy is an understanding of human nature and how peoples and societies think and behave. The word democracy itself comes from Greek and means, literally, rule of the people. Thus a rule of the people must of necessity know the people and how people are generally going to behave in certain situations and under certain governments. A society wishing to establish a government that rules by the will of the people must first ask itself if it believes that people are generally innately good, virtuous citizens, or if those citizens would much rather seek their own personal interest. If we set up a government and we expect each person to act for the greater good, and instead our citizens act entirely out their own self interest, then that government will not last very long at all; laws that are based upon the people obeying them without much coercion set up among people who only do what is best for themselves will be ignored or disregarded. But on the other hand a government that heavily enforces its laws with an iron fist among a people who are mostly law-abiding will be soon revolted against by the freedom loving people.
It is not such an easy thing, though, to accurately analyze and predict human nature. There are many differing philosophical views, but that does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. History teaches us that people are very different. Societies differ in what views and virtues they hold most important and what they expect of their citizens. In old Germanic tribes the three virtues extolled above all others were honor, loyalty, and hospitality. A German would much rather have lost his life than lose his honor by being disloyal or allowing harm to come to a guest lodged in his house, but other cultures do not hold these virtues as high in regard. Thus we see that not only must we have an understanding of human nature in general in order to set up a government to rule and be ruled by the people, we need to understand the specific society or culture among whom we wish to set up this government.
We can see this in action as we study the similarities and especially the differences between the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th Century. More specifically, when we look at the French document The Declaration of the Rights of Man and compare it with the American Bill of Rights we can see the different views these two nations had on human nature and what virtues and qualities they revered. In the French Declaration of the Rights of Man we see a greater focus on what duties are placed upon the individual citizens and how they are expected to contribute to the greater good. The American Bill of Rights, on the other hand, is much more focused on what rights the individual has and places strict limitations on what the government can do. The French people created a democracy that held the greater good in higher esteem than individual good, but just the opposite was the case in America. The American Constitution declares that the government only has those rights specifically enumerated and no other rights, thus preserving the individual rights of the people.
An understanding of human nature will also teach us another important factor leading to stability within democratic governments: the existence and encouragement of political factions and of differing opinions. James Madison, the chief architect of the American Constitution, strongly believed that most men would tend to seek their own personal interest and gain. As a result of this, any man given some small amount of political power would, by nature, seek even greater political power or influence. If this were left unchecked it would eventually lead one man or political entity assuming complete control of the entire government and instituting instead of a democracy, a tyrannical form of government. To guard against this Madison sought to divide the powers given to government among several different branches and rely on this very same desire for power, which would exist among all branches of government, to check and balance the power each individual branch could acquire or hold.
The best way, according to Madison, to protect against tyranny is to not only encourage differing opinions and factions, but provide them with the ability to compete. In the Federalist Papers, he wrote, “The great security against the gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist the encroachment of others. (Federalist Papers, # 51)” To stop one branch of government from accumulating too much power, the other branches of government must be constitutionally allowed to compete for power. And as we allow this competition the branches of government will be contending and no one can seize all power for itself, which will protect the stability of the democracy and rights of the citizens.
But it is not enough to simply understand human nature and allow it to work to keep government balanced. Once a government has been set up that takes into consideration these traits innate in the populous it governs leaders are then needed who also understand these characteristics of society and who will set a precedent for future generations to follow. In the United States of America we were fortunate to have General George Washington as our first president. President Washington was not a man who sought for power; in fact, at the Constitutional Convention where he was elected president he spoke very little and took a more behind the scenes approach to leading. We can also see that President Washington was not very much concerned with the office of president by the fact that he stepped down after only two terms, thus setting a precedent that would be followed for the next 150 years until Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to a third term, and would later be passed into law. Historian Joseph Ellis described the importance of this precedence which Washington set “that the office would routinely outlive the occupant, that the American presidency was fundamentally different from a European monarchy, that presidents, no matter how indispensable, were inherently disposable.”
That George Washington was willing to step down from the presidency is remarkable and tells us a great deal about his character. It would have been very easy for him to remain the chief executive of this new nation, accruing vast amounts of political power and influence, becoming almost as the monarchs and tyrants of Europe. It was even suggested once that he become a king of America, a position which he declined. Another man faced with such an offer might not have sought the greater good, but rather to further his own political aims. Another man might have remained president for years, gaining political allies and friends who would all have supported each other, all under the guise of a democracy yet with little actual resemblance to a government ruled by the consent of the governed. This strong, charismatic general was exactly the right man to be the first President of the United States of America, because he understood men well enough to govern them well and because he had the presence of mind to know when to hand the reigns of government back over to the people to elect a new president.
And today, more than 200 years later, we can see that these elements which exist in the government of the United States are still at work, helping us to continue to govern ourselves. The way in which the first few leaders of this nation governed led to precedents which help guide national policy even today. As Madison believed, a larger republic, with many differing factions and opinions is the only way to create a stable, enduring democratic government. And we also see that an understanding of the way in which people will think and act are all essential in creating government which can survive and still protect citizens’ rights.