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News Report on Public Confidence
in the State of the Nation
2013
Foundation Project I:
American Democracy in a Dangerous World

Part 1: What is Democracy? The Birth of the Democratic Idea

Part 2: The Shaping of the Modern Democratic State

Part 3: The "Four" Branches of Government

Part 4: Exporting Democracy: Is America Still a Beacon to the World?

Foundation Project I:
American Democracy in a Dangerous World

       “It is the policy of the United States,” President Bush stated in his 2005 Inaugural Address, “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

       If the goal of U.S. policy is to spread democracy around the world, what precisely do we mean by democracy? What are its essential ideas and institutions? Are free elections enough to ensure democracy? Is democracy a universal idea, or is it rather the product of a particular kind of culture? When the United States was founded in 1789, slavery was legal and widespread, women lacked the right to vote, and presidents were not popularly elected. Was the United States a democracy then in the sense that is today?

       At a time when the goal of “exporting democracy” lies at the center of our foreign policy--and the superiority of democracy as a form of government is our clarion call to the world--it is important for Americans to renew their understanding of what democracy is all about.

       This project area focuses on the nature of democracy and explores the prospects for its survival in the future and its spread across the globe. The initial works will tell the story of democracy’s origins, show how American democracy evolved into its modern form, and explain how it is continuing to evolve to meet new challenges. The project will examine the prospects for exporting democracy to lands and cultures lacking in democratic experience or traditions, whether through converting nations to democracy by example or by overthrowing undemocratic regimes by force. The future of democracy as a global force will be considered through the prism of America’s present status as the world’s sole superpower and whether the shifts in global politics are likely to alter America’s role and status in the future.

Part 1: What is Democracy?
The Birth of the Democratic Idea

       Part 1 will bring to life the leaders, thinkers, and ideas that formed the modern conception of liberal democracy. It will touch on the ancient origins of the democratic idea in sources as diverse as Athenian democracy, the Roman concept of citizenship, and Anglo-Saxon common law. It will show how modern ideas of democracy took root in the soil of Europe’s bitter religious struggles, and especially the English Civil War. It will trace the new idea of the state as a “social contract” in the work of Thomas Hobbes and show how the English philosopher John Locke reshaped Hobbes’s social contract to include notions of toleration and universal individual rights that provided a blueprint for Thomas Jefferson’s later writing of the Declaration of Independence. It will explain how the American Framers--and especially the three great authors of the Federalist Papers--struggled to solve a series of age-old political dilemmas in their effort to construct a “republic” that would endure. This work will culminate in the Constitutional struggle over slavery, and show how Abraham Lincoln, in effect, “re-founded” the American state as a “more perfect union” based on a principled view of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”--setting the nation on a course that consigned to history the antebellum South’s vision of an aristocratic Athenian- or Roman-style “democracy,” ruled by a privileged landed class supported by slavery. Lincoln brought forth a new understanding of democracy based on more consistent and universal principles of human freedom and dignity. A renewed United States emerged, baptized by the blood of Civil War.

Part 2: The Shaping of
the Modern Democratic State

       Until the Civil War, the name “United States” was normally treated as a plural noun. Americans said the United States are. After the Civil War, Americans said the United States is. Yet this new, or renewed, United States, was in some respects far from “democratic” by our present standards. Though technically free, African-Americans (except for a brief period of Reconstruction) would effectively be denied the vote in parts of the North and nearly all of the South for another hundred years. Women did not have the right to vote. Still unsettled through much of the West, the United States was a rough-and-ready, free-wheeling country where minorities ranging from Native Americans and African-Americans to immigrants from Europe and Asia routinely suffered discrimination, exploitation, outright persecution, and in the case of Native Americans decimation approaching genocide.

       Part 2 of the “Meaning of Democracy” will tell the story of the emergence of modern liberal democracy out of this coarse soil. It will trace the deepening and broadening of the understanding of rights--the growing recognition that political and civil rights to be meaningful must be complemented by economic rights, and that the full rights of citizenship must be extended to all citizens, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. It will trace the reforms of the Progressive Era under Theodore Roosevelt, the rise of the women’s suffrage movement culminating in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, the Great Depression and the birth of the modern American Welfare State under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the Civil Rights struggle climaxing in the 1960s. It will review where the struggle to fulfill the idea of democracy stands today. Part 2 will conclude by outlining the key institutions and principles of democracy in its modern form. These include:

Political Institutions

1) Elected officials
2) Free, fair, and frequent competitive elections
3) A legislature that deliberates openly
4) An executive with limited powers
5) A judiciary that protects political and civil rights

Essential Political and Civil Rights

1) Equal voting rights for adult citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender
2) Equality before the law regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or official position
3) Freedom of expression, assembly, and religion
4) Freedom of the press in an environment that fosters vigorous competition over ideas
5) Guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure
6) The right to due process

       Beyond this threshold, democracies in the modern world vary greatly in defining rights. These differences are most pronounced in the realm of private and economic life--the realm of citizen-to-citizen transactions, as opposed to transactions between citizens and government. To take a simple example, in most of Western Europe it is perfectly legal for an employer to list an age requirement in a job listing; in the United States not only is such a practice illegal; even an inquiry about the age of a prospective employee is treated as illegal age discrimination. The American concept of “discrimination” guarantees citizens certain rights in employment and housing, and over time the concept of discrimination has been extended in different areas to include discrimination not just on the basis of race, but also gender, age, and, most recently sexual orientation. The right to form labor unions is recognized by most democracies, but protections of this right are notably weaker in the United States than in much of Western Europe. Most modern democracies, on the other hand, consider health care a right, whereas in the United States health care is largely treated as a private matter, subject to contracts between employers and employees. Part 2 will point out that much of the debate that occupies modern democracies concerns where democracies draw the line on these extended rights and the extent to which they recognize and try to protect them.

Part 3: The "Four" Branches of Government: Their Historic
and Current Roles in Building Democracy, Freedom, and Responsibility

       The Presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court and the Media play central roles under our Constitutional system to achieve the proper balance between freedom and responsibility in our democracy. Part 3 will describe the different ways in which each of these four branches of government has fulfilled its responsibilities in our nation’s history. It will highlight the controversies that have existed over the decisions of each in the past as an introduction to the modern debate both within and outside Washington about how each one can best fulfill its role in the future.

Part 4: Exporting Democracy:
Is America Still a Beacon to the World?

       President Woodrow Wilson told Americans that they fought World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.” At the end of World War II, America actually imposed democratic governments on its vanquished former enemies, creating constitutional democracies in both West Germany and Japan--in large part to ensure that these old empires never threatened us again. Since 9/11, President Bush’s administration has taken the process a step further. The United States went halfway across the globe to invade Iraq, partly to bring about what U.S. officials called “regime change”--to replace a dictatorship with a democratic form of government. Is it possible, or wise, to spread democracy out of the barrels of guns? Today the situation in the Middle East remains ambiguous. On the one hand, U.S. action in Iraq seems to have awakened a new interest in democracy among certain sectors of Arab and Muslim societies. On the other hand, America’s standing in the Middle East and throughout the world is at a historic low, largely because the invasion of Iraq was considered by much of the world as lacking legitimacy. The future of Iraqi democracy, meanwhile, remains uncertain. Can the United States bring about a democratic world through force and pressure? How does the world perceive our democratic institutions? Do we present an attractive model to developing states? Can democracy be instituted in a matter of a few years in nations with little or no history of democratic governance? What are the essential institutions and political and civil rights that must exist for states to become real democracies? How easy will it be for states with little or no history of democracy to adopt them? Does current administration policy represent a far-sighted strategy or will it prove to be an ill-fated return to imperialism? Part 4 will explore the debate over putting the “export” of democracy through force of arms at the center of U.S. foreign policy and consider other public policy alternatives for the U.S. in today’s global community.

Foundation Project I:
American Democracy in a Dangerous World

Part 1: What is Democracy? The Birth of the Democratic Idea

Part 2: The Shaping of the Modern Democratic State

Part 3: The "Four" Branches of Government

Part 4: Exporting Democracy: Is America Still a Beacon to the World?

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