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20 Feb 2004
What Is Democracy?
Democracy and Power
For authoritarians and other critics, a common misapprehension is that democracies, lacking the power to oppress, also lack the authority to govern. This view is fundamentally wrong: Democracies require that their governments be limited, not that they be weak. Viewed over the long course of history, democracies do indeed appear fragile and few, even from the vantage point of a decade of democratic resurgence. Democracies have by no means been immune to the tides of history; they have collapsed from political failure, succumbed to internal division, or been destroyed by foreign invasion. But democracies have also demonstrated remarkable resiliency over time and have shown that, with the commitment and informed dedication of their citizens, they can overcome severe economic hardship, reconcile social and ethnic division, and, when necessary, prevail in time of war.
It is the very aspects of democracy cited most frequently by its critics that give it resiliency. The processes of debate, dissent, and compromise that some point to as weaknesses are, in fact, democracy's underlying strength. Certainly, no one has ever accused democracies of being particularly efficient in their deliberations: Democratic decision-making in a large, complex society can be a messy, grueling, and time-consuming process. But in the end, a government resting upon the consent of the governed can speak and act with a confidence and authority lacking in a regime whose power is perched uneasily on the narrow ledge of military force or an unelected party apparatus.
Checks and Balances
One of the most important contributions to democratic practice has been the development of a system of checks and balances to ensure that political power is dispersed and decentralized. It is a system founded on the deeply held belief that government is best when its potential for abuse is curbed and when it is held as close to the people as possible.
As a general term, checks and balances has two meanings: federalism and separation of powers.
Federalism is the division of government between the national, state or provincial, and local levels. The United States, for example, is a federal republic with states that have their own legal standing and authority independent of the federal government. Unlike the political subdivisions in nations such as Britain and France, which have a unitary political structure, American states cannot be abolished or changed by the federal government. Although power at the national level in the United States has grown significantly in relation to state authority in the 20th century, states still possess significant responsibilities in such fields as education, health, transportation, and law enforcement. In centralized, or "unitary," systems, these functions are administered by the national government. For their part, the individual states in the United States have generally followed the federalist model by delegating many functions, such as the operation of schools and police departments, to local communities. The divisions of power and authority in a federal system are never neat and tidy--federal, state, and local agencies can all have overlapping and even conflicting agendas in such areas as education, for example--but federalism does maximize opportunities for the citizen involvement so vital to the functioning of democratic society.
In its second sense, checks and balances refer to the separation of powers that the framers of the American Constitution in 1789 so painstakingly established to ensure that political power would not be concentrated within a single branch of the national government. James Madison, perhaps the central figure in the drafting of the Constitution and later fourth president of the United States, wrote: "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands...may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
Separation of powers is in some ways a misleading term, because the system devised by Madison and the other framers of the Constitution is more one of shared rather than separate powers. Legislative authority, for example, belongs to the Congress, but laws passed by Congress can be vetoed by the president. The Congress, in turn, must assemble a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to override a presidential veto. The president nominates ambassadors and members of the cabinet, and negotiates international treaties--but all are subject to approval by the Senate. So is the selection of federal judges. As another example, the Constitution specifies that only the Congress has the power to declare war, although the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces--a source of tension between the two branches that was apparent during the protracted Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s and in the brief Gulf conflict of 1990- 91. Because of the need for congressional approval to enact a political program, political scientist Richard Neustadt has described presidential power in the United States as "not the power to command, but the power to persuade."
Not all the checks and balances within the federal government are specified in the Constitution. Some have developed with practice and precedent. Perhaps the most important is the doctrine of judicial review, established in an 1803 court case, which gives the U.S. Supreme Court the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional.
The separation of powers in the American system is often inefficient, but it provides an important safeguard against the potential abuse of power by government--an issue that every democracy must confront.
Prime Ministers and Presidents
Among a democracy's most important decisions is the method of electing its leaders and representatives. In general, there are two choices. In a parliamentary system, the majority party in the legislature, or a coalition of parties, forms a government headed by a prime minister. This system of parliamentary government, which first evolved in Great Britain, is today practiced in most of Europe, the Caribbean, Canada, India, and many countries in Africa and Asia (often former British colonies). The other major method is direct election of a president independently of the legislature. This presidential system is practiced today in much of Latin America, the Philippines, France, Poland, and the United States.
The chief difference between parliamentary and presidential systems is the relationship between the legislature and the executive. In a parliamentary system, they are essentially one and the same, since the prime minister and members of the cabinet are drawn from the parliament. Typically, the government's term of office will run for a specified period--four or five years, for example--unless the prime minister loses a majority in parliament. In that case the government falls and new elections are held. Alternatively, another party leader is offered a chance to form a government by the head of state, either a president or constitutional monarch, whose role is chiefly symbolic.
The separation of powers characteristic of the American-style presidential system is lacking, since parliament is the preeminent governing institution. Instead, parliamentary systems must rely much more heavily on the internal political dynamics of the parliament itself to provide checks and balances on the power of the government. These usually take the form of a single organized opposition party that "shadows" the government, or of competition among multiple opposition parties.
In a presidential system, both the head of government and the head of state are fused in the office of the president. The president is elected for a specified period directly by the people, as are the members of the congress. As one element of the separation of powers, members of the president's cabinet are usually not members of congress. Presidents normally can be removed from office before finishing their terms only for serious crimes or malfeasance in office. A legislative majority for the president's party can ease passage of his political program, but unlike prime ministers, presidents do not depend on such majorities to remain in office.
Another important decision of any democracy is how to organize elections. The fundamental choices are again two: plurality elections or proportional representation. Plurality elections, sometimes referred to as "winner-take-all," simply mean that the candidate with the most votes in a given district wins--whether a plurality (less than 50 percent but more than any rival) or a majority (more than 50 percent). Presidents are elected in a similar fashion, but on a nationwide basis. Some systems provide for runoff elections between the top two candidates if no one receives an outright majority in the first round. Plurality systems tend to encourage two broadly based political parties that dominate the political scene.
By contrast, voters in a system of proportional representation, such as that employed in much of Europe, usually cast ballots for political parties, not for individual candidates. Party representation in the national legislature is determined by the percentage, or proportion, of votes received by each party in the election. In a parliamentary system, the leader of the majority party becomes the prime minister and selects the cabinet from the parliament. If no party has received a majority, the parties engage in intensive negotiations to form a ruling coalition of parties. Proportional representation tends to encourage multiple parties that, even though each commands the loyalty of only a relatively small percentage of voters, often find themselves negotiating for a place in a coalition government.
Parliaments and Presidents
A principal claim for parliamentary systems, which today make up the majority of democracies, is their responsiveness and flexibility. Parliamentary governments, especially if elected through proportional representation, tend toward multiparty systems where even relatively small political groupings are represented in the legislature. As a result, distinct minorities can still participate in the political process at the highest levels of government. This diversity encourages dialogue and compromise as parties struggle to form a ruling coalition. Should the coalition collapse or the party lose its mandate, the prime minister resigns and a new government forms or new elections take place--all without a crisis threatening the democratic system itself.
The major drawback to parliaments is the dark side of flexibility and power sharing: instability. Multiparty coalitions may be fragile and collapse at the first sign of political crisis, resulting in governments that are in office for relatively short periods of time. The government may also find itself at the mercy of small extremist parties that, by threatening to withdraw from the ruling coalition and forcing the government to resign, can make special policy demands upon the government. Moreover, prime ministers are only party leaders and lack the authority that comes from being directly elected by the people.
Another concern is the lack of formal institutional checks on parliamentary supremacy. A political party with a large enough majority in parliament, for example, could enact a far-reaching, even anti-democratic political program without any effective limits to its actions, raising the prospect of a tyranny of the majority.
For presidential systems, on the other hand, the principal claims are direct accountability, continuity, and strength. Presidents, elected for fixed periods by the people, can claim the authority deriving from direct election, whatever the standing of their political party in the Congress. By creating separate but theoretically equal branches of government, a presidential system seeks to establish strong executive and legislative institutions, each able to claim its electoral mandate from the people and each capable of checking and balancing the other. Those who fear the potential for executive tyranny will tend to emphasize the role of the Congress; those concerned with the potential abuse of a transient majority in the legislature will assert the authority of the president.
The weakness of separately elected presidents and legislatures is potential stalemate. Presidents may not possess the votes to enact their program, but by employing their veto power, they can prevent the congress from substituting its own legislative program.
Presidents, by virtue of their direct election, may appear more powerful than prime ministers. But they must contend with legislatures that, whether or not controlled by the opposition, possess an election base independent of the president's. Party discipline, therefore, is considerably weaker than in a parliamentary system. The president cannot, for example, dismiss or discipline rebellious party members as a prime minister usually can. A prime minister with a firm parliamentary majority is assured of passage of the government's legislative program; a president dealing with a congress jealous of its own prerogatives must often engage in protracted negotiations to ensure a bill's passage.
Which system best meets the requirements of a constitutional democracy: parliamentary or presidential? The answer is the subject of continuing debate among political scientists and politicians, in part because each system has unique strengths and weaknesses. It should be noted, however, that both are compatible with constitutional democracy, although neither guarantees it.
The Rule of Law
The Culture of Democracy
Politics, Economics, and Pluralism
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