The idea of democracy is both vague and is often over-simplified to mean “majority rules”. In theory, such a notion sounds both just and efficient. However, in practice, the concept of “majority rules” is much more complex and often difficult to implement. Modern-day versions of democracy, such as the one utilized in the United States, simply guarantees a person’s right to voice his or her opinion in all matters involving the public. American democracy merely provides a forum for the expression of such viewpoints; it does not guarantee the ability of any individual to bring about change. The Federalists, who were greatly responsible for the ratification of the beloved Constitution of the United States, recognized the impracticality of Jefferson’s town-hall democracy and simple “majority rules” and settled on a type of government which could merely guarantee an individual’s right to representation. In some regards, the Federalists were pragmatic democrats-supporters of democracy who recognized the shortcomings of the voting public while at the same time suggested certain instruments to protect John Q. Public. The Federalists were opposite of idealists; they were realists. And it is this realism that is directly responsible for the success of democracy within the United States.
Democracy, the ideal, is held dear by most Americans. “What Americans would not do…for the vindication of a fundamental first principle: the right of the people to determine their own future,” comments Albert R. Papa in his article “The Allure of Civics Book Democracy”. While nearly all Americans recognize the benefits of a democratic nation, the Federalists maintain that often times, minority and majority “factions” of society act contrary to the good of the whole. Madison, a staunch Federalist, defines a faction in The Federalist Papers No. 10 as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” While Madison maintains that factions, by definition, are detrimental to the good of the whole, he does recognize their right to exist. What could be more democratic than allowing all groups to assemble, even those which violate public good? Never does Madison suggest restricting the rights of such groups; “Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency” writes Madison. The pragmatic nature of Madison realizes the corrosive function of “factions” and he explains within his writings why such entities will not pose problems for America- a larger Republic. He argues that in Republics composed of larger populations, “factions” fail to play significant roles because of their decreased ability to exert influence on others. “The smaller the society…the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression,” suggests Madison. Although Madison and most Federalists recognize that factions simply exist because of human nature and therefore cannot be eradicated, they believe the system set-up within the United States will prevent “factions” from dominating the political process.
The fact that Madison includes the line “whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole” in his definition of factions is quite significant. Can the majority ever be wrong? Since most Americans believe that democracy should serve the interests of the majority (majority rules), how can a majority “faction” ever represent views inconsistent with the good of the whole? Critics of the Federalists Papers argue that Madison’s definition of factions is extremely anti-democratic in nature. Even though a faction’s viewpoints may be destructive to the institution of American government, the government’s main role is to represent the will of the people regardless of subsequent effects. However, certainly one can understand Madison’s concerns regarding “factions” as he does not desire to see the government which the Constitution created, a government which is based upon many of his ideas, suffer irreparable harm.
Since the Federalists were not idealists and recognized the openness of representatives in government to corruption, the Federalists were strong supporters of a system of “checks and balances” to aid in minimizing this risk. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls on government would be necessary,” writes Madison over the necessity of monitoring and regulating government agents. A system of “checks and balances” prevents any one group in government from usurping power from another. The primary purpose of this elaborate system is to safeguard the American public from the ill-intended actions of power-hungry representatives. “The people can never willfully betray their own interests: But they may possible be betrayed by the representatives of the people; and the danger will be evidently greater where the whole legislative trust is lodged in the hands of one body of men, than where the concurrence of separate and dissimilar bodies is required in every public act,” is a logical statement Madison makes within the Federalist Papers. Representatives are elected first to serve the interests of their constituents, but secondly to safeguard the well being of the nation as a whole. Most often when a representative or representative body attempts to obtain an unequal share of power, they are acting in direct violation of the general public good. By involving several distinct governing bodies in the decision-making process, evil ambitions are easier to squelch.
Critics of the Federalist Papers draw upon the veto power of the President of the United States, the supposed representative of the entire nation, to prove errors in the Federalist system of “checks and balances”. In order to override a presidential veto, a two-thirds vote in congress is required. In essence, the president becomes more powerful than all the nation’s representatives as a two-thirds vote is extremely difficult to obtain. If the goal of the “checks and balance” system is to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a few, the presidential veto hardly accomplishes this goal. Although the president cannot create new law, his ability to prevent new law resembles the power held by a dictator. How democratic can one man’s vote be?
The Federalists believed in a form of government that is not consistent with the textbook definition of “majority rules”. They believed in a modified version of democracy- a pragmatic type of democracy. They believed in a democracy which sometimes neglects the majority vote in order to ensure the stability of American government. They believed in a democracy which does not blindly put all trust within its elected officials. They believed in a democracy which nurtures the free soul of the American public. Such a democracy is alive and well in the United States. Is America democratic?