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Foundations of Democracy

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Erin Elliott

on 5 October 2017

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Transcript of Foundations of Democracy

U.S. Constitution
United States Constitution
was ratified in 1790, the oldest written document still in use, and without it, the American government would be powerless. Getting to this point however, was the result of tedious negotiation and power struggles. The British laid the groundwork for American democracy and individual freedom nearly 800 years ago with the Magna Carta and this was a source of inspiration for American colonists.

However, the first attempt at forming a central government was a document called the
Articles of Confederation
, introduced within days of the
Declaration of Independence
. In 1781, the Articles were ratified by all 13 states, five years after it was introduced.

The Articles created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments. The need for a stronger Federal government soon became apparent and eventually led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which resulted in the U.S Constitution.

The Threat of Tyranny
Both Federalists, and Anti-Federalists write about the threat of tyranny, which Tocqueville speaks to in your reading this week.

is usually thought of as cruel and oppressive, and it often is, but the original definition of the term was rule by persons who lack legitimacy, whether they be malign or benevolent. In this sense, the fear was that one power hungry group would rule over the people unjustly. However, Federalists thought that the checks and balances of each branch of government would alleviate the threat of tyranny.

Hamilton on Voting
Alexander Hamilton stated, “
A share in the sovereignty of the state
, which is
exercised by the citizens at large
, in voting at elections is one of the most important rights of the subject, and in a republic ought to stand foremost in the estimation of the law." -Alexander Hamilton, 1784

Sovereignty means “supreme power and authority,” so what did Hamilton mean by citizens "share in the sovereignty of the state?”
James Madison on Knowledge
"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and
a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives
." -- James Madison to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822


How can the people “arm themselves” with knowledge?

What does Rick Shenkman say about this in the video you watched this week?
Democracy at Risk
Tocqueville observed that democracy requires diligent leadership and the right mix of institutions. In your reading, you learned that Tocqueville thought that it was
Americans propensity for civic associations that prevented the fragmentation of society.

Civic associations according to Tocqueville are
voluntary, non-political social organizations that strengthen democracy preventing a tyranny of the majority
. They can be “religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive”, and
protect diversity by uniting equal but weak individuals into powerful groups.
Recently, the U.S. has seen a decline in engagement which we will further explore this term.


What examples of civic associations can you think of off the top of your head?

What associations are you a part of?

Importance of Civic Association
According to Tocqueville, associations are important because they:

• Force people to consider the affairs of others and work with their neighbors

• The equality and individualism fostered by democracy convinced people that they need nothing from anyone and owe nothing to their neighbors, this without civil society, they would isolate themselves from community

• Civil society fosters the social norms and trust (social capital) necessary for people to work together, and teaches people how to use their liberties.

• Associations are “labs” for teaching democracy

• Thus, they promote democracy and prevent despotism (despotism= absolute power or control, tyranny)

Civic Engagement Defined
Civic engagement can, for example, mean participation in formal government institutions, but it may also involve becoming part of a group or organization in civic associations, protesting or boycotting, or even simply talking to a neighbor across the backyard fence (Citizenship and the Constitution, 2015).

Civic Engagement Defined:

“Creating opportunities for ordinary citizens to come together, deliberate, and take action collectively to address public problems or issues that citizens themselves define as important and in ways that citizens themselves decide are appropriate and/or needed” (Cynthia Gibson, 2006).

Civic Engagement on the Decline
As you will explore in Week 3, civic engagement is on the decline in the U.S. but is necessary for creating healthy democracy, cultivating shared notions of the common good, and preventing despotism.

Americans have turned away from politics and the public sphere in large numbers, leaving our civic life impoverished.

Citizens participate in public affairs less frequently, with less knowledge and enthusiasm, in fewer venues, and less equally than is healthy for a vibrant democratic polity

Citizens need public information, but the number of civics courses taken in public schools has declined by two-thirds since 1960, and, at least by some measures, college graduates nowadays know as much about politics as the average high school senior did fifty years ago.

In 2012 voter turnout was down to 58% -- 93 million eligible Americans did not vote for president

The Foundations of Democracy: A Brief Refresher
What does Civic Engagement Have to Do With It?
What does this have to do with me?
The Citizen and the Constitution
John Adams on Education
“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend upon spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences.” – John Adams, The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1779

(Northern Illinois University, Citizenship and the Constitution, 2015)

Jefferson on Attention to Public Affairs
“Cherish, therefore, the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature." - Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787


What are the consequences to an “inattentive” public?

How can the public’s “attention” to “public affairs” be cultivated?
We will explore the answers to THIS question throughout this course.
Before exploring Tocqueville’s argument regarding tyranny, let’s explore the checks and balances of American Democracy.
The entire system of the Constitution is based on a system of checks and balances
- that is, each of the three branches of government has controls to prevent any one branch from holding too much power. This is called
the separation of powers.

Executive Branch-
The power of the Executive Branch is vested in the President of the United States, who also acts as head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress and, to that end, appoints the heads of the federal agencies, including the Cabinet. The Vice President is also part of the Executive Branch, ready to assume the Presidency should the need arise (White House.gov)

Legislative Branch-
Established by Article I of the Constitution, the Legislative Branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the United States Congress. The Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation and declare war, the right to confirm or reject many Presidential appointments, and substantial investigative powers. (WhiteHouse.gov)

Judicial Branch-
Where the Executive and Legislative branches are elected by the people, members of the Judicial Branch are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the Judicial Branch, leaves Congress significant discretion to determine the shape and structure of the federal judiciary. Even the number of Supreme Court Justices is left to Congress — at times there have been as few as six, while the current number (nine, with one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices) has only been in place since 1869.

Federalists V. Anti-Federalists
Opinions regarding the Constitution were widely divided. Farmers in the West were afraid urban cities would get all the attention while they were taxed through the roof, while city dwellers worried the federal government would be too centralized and that power would be taken from the states.

Those who supported the constitution became known as the Federalists,
supporting a strong central government, with shared powers between the states and the national government. The three main Federalists were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Their essays, published under the pseudonym Publius (a reference to the founder of the Roman Empire), are known as the Federalist Papers which lay out the foundational principles of the Constitution.

Anti-Federalists published their own series of essays to argue for a looser coalition of the states and a weaker national government.
They argued that representatives must be a true representation of the people and that only smaller governments could truly understand the desires of its people

James Wilson on Public Service
Need I infer, that it is the duty of every citizen to use his best and most unremitting endeavours for preserving it [the Constitution] pure, healthful, and vigorous? For the accomplishment of this great purpose,
the exertions of no one citizen are unimportant
Let no one, therefore harbour, for a moment, the mean idea, that he is and can be of no value to his country:
let the contrary manly impression animate his soul. Every one can, at many times, perform, to the state, useful services; and he, who steadily pursues the road of patriotism, has the most inviting prospect of being able, at some times, to perform eminent ones." – James Wilson, Independence Day speech, July 4, 1788

Question: What “useful services” can citizens provide to serve the common good?
America's founding principles assume the active involvement of its people in civic life.
Popular sovereignty, for example, means that the people have ultimate governing authority, which carries with it
the responsibility to exercise that authority knowledgeably to balance individual interests and the common good
. Protection of individual rights requires people to be
guardians of their own rights
and to be
willing to defend the rights of others.

The Preamble to the Constitution states:

We the People
of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What did Adams
mean by “spreading
the opportunities”?
(Northern Illinois University, Citizenship and the Constitution, 2015)
(Northern Illinois University, Citizenship and the Constitution, 2015)
(Northern Illinois University, Citizenship and the Constitution, 2015)
(Pace, K., 2015, Meanings of Civil Society)

• First, civic engagement enhances the quality of democratic governance. More voices are better than less.

• Second, the promise of democratic life is not simply that government by the people yields the most excellent governance. It is also—and perhaps mainly—that government is legitimate only when the people as a whole participate in their own self-rule.

• Third, participation can enhance the quality of
citizens’ lives. Civic engagement has the potential
to educate and invigorate.

• In sum, when citizens are involved and engaged
with others, their lives and our communities are better.
Not only do people “feel” better but they produce a wide variety of goods and services that neither the state nor
the market can provide.

(Northern Illinois University, Citizenship and the Constitution, 2015)
(Northern Illinois University, Citizenship and the Constitution, 2015)
Civic Engagement is Essential to American Democracy!
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