Tag Archives: oligarchy

The United States is Not a Democracy

We do not think of our Constitution as something that we can alter to improve its procedures, to meet our own needs, or to assert our rights.  Americans, alone in the world, declare our constitution to be sacred and unchangeable, with only a handful of amendments in 223 years.  When someone brings up democracy in the United States, somebody will pull out that tired cliché, “the [slider title = “Founders”]The Founders were the men who wrote the Constitution of the United States. They included future presidents like James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, as well as Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and less well-remembered statesmen like Gouverneur Morris.[/slider] established a republic, not a democracy.”  And they would be right – the United States has claimed the mantle of democracy without actually achieving it, but this is not the whole story.  The Founders did talk about founding a “republic,” even though they did not have any good idea what that meant, besides not being a democracy.  They wanted an [slider title = “oligarchy”]An oligarchy is a government ruled by a small class of people, usually the wealthy.[/slider]; they didn’t want YOU to govern yourself. These Founders, we have been repeatedly told, sat down in Philadelphia, in 1787, with august wisdom and omnipotent foresight, to draft the Constitution of the United States that would last forever.  But, in fact, this was not predetermined, and the eleven years that passed between the Revolution and writing of the Constitution was one in which our democratic forefathers and the aristocrats we call the Founders struggled for supremacy. read more »

What is Democracy?

Democracy isn’t what it used to be. Our contemporary nations are considered ‘democratic’ pretty much by changing the meaning of the word. For most of human history, those who thought about such things identified a democracy as a state in which the majority of the people ruled, in all the political institutions of that state. The common example, which persisted from the ancient world until the last decades of the eighteenth century, is the Athens of ancient Greece. The contemporary definition of democracy is very different.  For example, some so-called democracies are content with deviations from democracy (like hereditary monarchy, as in Great Britain), acceptable as long as the undemocratic elements (like the British queen) are kept in the background.  And never mind the social conditions that make democratic institutions a sham (like various social inequalities). The shift in meaning of democracy occurred sometime in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the United States and Great Britain at least, the term ‘democracy’ was appropriated by populist and liberal reformers as the right to vote slowly expanded to include all white men and abolished the requirement of owning a certain amount of property to qualify for voting. However, institutions designed for oligarchy, or rule by the few, in the United States and Europe, remained; for example, the Senate of the United States.  Political mechanisms once recognized as oligarchic became democratic merely through wordplay. read more »