Democracy is rule by the people. Simple.
But not so simple in operation.

Table of Contents

  1. The United States is a Representative, Constitutional, Presidential, Federal, Liberal Democracy
    1. Representative Democracy
    2. Constitutional Democracy
    3. Presidential Democracy
    4. Federal Democracy
    5. Liberal Democracy
  2. Vulnerabilities and Flaws of US Democracy
    1. Tyranny of the Majority
    2. Problems with Voting by District
    3. Elections Vulnerabilities
    4. Voter Cheating
  3. Threats to Democracy
    1. A president remaining in power after losing the election
    2. An Authoritarian Takeover
    3. Disinformation
  4. Protecting Democracy
    1. Through Legislation
    2. Through the Courts
    3. Making Voting Easier
  5. States’ Power over Elections
    1. ArtIcle 1, Section IV, Clause 1 of the Constitution
    2. States decide who the “people” are
    3. States decide procedures for determining an election’s outcome
    4. States draw congressional districts
    5. States decide procedures for distributing Electoral College votes
    6. States conduct elections
  6. Evolution of US Democracy
    1. Expansion of Suffrage
    2. Democratization of Electoral Systems
  7. Addenda
    1. ‘Democracy’ or ‘Republic’
    2. Tyranny of the Majority
  8. Tyranny of the Majority: Quick Take
The United States is a Representative, Constitutional,
Presidential, Federal, Liberal Democracy
Representative Democracy
  • The US political system is a representative democracy, with government decisions, laws, and policies made by officials who:
    • represent the “people”
    • are accountable to them
    • are elected by them through frequent, free, and fair elections.
  • Versus direct democracy.
    • Direct democracies may operate through an assembly of citizens or by means of referenda and initiatives in which citizens vote on issues instead of for candidates or parties. (Britannica)
    • Direct democracy operates at state and local levels when citizens vote on:
      • referenda
      • propositions
      • constitutional amendments
      • bond issues.
  • Institutions of Representative Democracy, Robert Dahl, Britannica
    • Representation
      • All major government decisions and policies are made by popularly elected officials, who are accountable to the electorate for their actions.
    • Free, fair, and frequent elections
      • Citizens may participate in such elections both as voters and as candidates
    • Freedom of expression.
      • Citizens may express themselves publicly on a broad range of politically relevant subjects without fear of punishment
    • Independent sources of information.
      • There exist sources of political information that are not under the control of the government or any single group and whose right to publish or otherwise disseminate information is protected by law; moreover, all citizens are entitled to seek out and use such sources of information.
    • Freedom of association. 
      • Citizens have the right to form and to participate in independent political organizations, including parties and interest groups.
Constitutional Democracy
  • A constitution defines the “fundamental norms governing the political community and determining the relations between the rulers and the people and the interaction among the centers of power. ” (Britannica)
  • Like most democracies, and unlike the UK, Israel, and New Zealand, the United States has a written constitution.
Presidential Democracy
  • In a presidential democracy the executive branch is elected separately from the legislative branch.
  • In a parliamentary democracy political power is vested in an elected legislature, which chooses the chief executive (e.g. the prime minister).
Federal Democracy
  • In a federal political system power is shared between a central and regional governments.
  • In a unitary political system governing power is concentrated in a centralized government.
Liberal Democracy
  • An inherent weakness of democracy is the risk of the tyranny of the majority, that an elected majority can pass laws oppressing those in the minority, e.g. by making behavior of which they disapprove a crime, e.g. contraception, abortion, and same-sex sexual relations.
  • The risk of the tyranny of the majority is intrinsic to the concept of democracy. Democracy is rule by the people. But the people collectively can oppress people individually.
  • View Tyranny of the Majority
  • A liberal democracy protects individuals against tyranny, specifically tyranny of the majority, by:
    • guaranteeing individual rights
    • distributing the power of federal government among three branches
    • having checks and balances among the branches of government
    • insuring equal protection under the law
    • voting by supermajority on important matters
    • dividing power between the federal government and the states
    • having staggered elections and terms of office.
  • The most important of these is protecting individual rights.
  • The Bill of Rights guarantees individual rights
    • The first amendment establishes the rights Dahl recognized as essential for democracy by prohibiting laws abridging
      • freedom of speech (freedom of expression)
      • freedom of the press (independent sources of information)
      • the right of the people peaceably to assemble (freedom of association)
    • Other amendments establish rights against the government, for example:
      • the right against unreasonable searches and seizures
      • the right to due process
      • the right to a fair trial
      • the right against excessive bail
  • The Ninth Amendment implies there are rights not enumerated in the Constitution
  • Checks and balances among branches of government:
    • Checks
      • One branch of government can check (prevent) the action of another.
    • Balances
      • The powers of the branches are balanced against each other.
      • John Adams
        • “It is by balancing each of these powers against the other two, that the efforts in human nature toward tyranny can alone be checked and restrained, and any degree of freedom preserved in the constitution.” (Letter to Richard Henry Lee)
    • The Constitution provides these checks and balances:
      • The Supreme Court can render legislation null and void.
      • The President can veto legislation
      • Congress can override a presidential veto
      • Congress has the power of oversight and investigation
      • Congress can impeach members of the executive and judicial branches
      • Executive appointments require the consent of Senate
      • Only Congress can appropriate funds
      • Congress initiates amendments, perhaps reversing decisions of the Supreme Court.
      • The House and Senate must be in agreement to pass legislation.
      • The Senate approves treaties.
      • The President appoints the members of the Supreme Court but only with the consent of the Senate.
  • The courts provide equal protection under the law.
      • The mechanism, process, institution, practice, or norm that supports the equality of all citizens before the law, secures a non-arbitrary form of government, and more generally prevents the arbitrary use of power.
  • A supermajority is required for:
    • Amending the Constitution
    • Overriding a presidential veto
    • Ratifying a treaty
    • Convicting an impeached official
    • Ending a Senate filibuster
Vulnerabilities and Flaws of US Democracy
Tyranny of the Majority
Problems with Voting by District
Elections Vulnerabilities
Voter Cheating
Threats to Democracy
A president remaining in power after losing the election
An Authoritarian Takeover
Protecting Democracy
Through Legislation
Through the Courts
Making Voting Easier
States’ Power over Elections
ArtIcle 1, Section IV, Clause 1 of the Constitution
  • The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.
States decide who the “people” are
  • States decide who the “people” are, i.e. who can vote (within the constraints imposed by the Constitution and federal law).
  • Constitutional amendments and federal law have put constraints on states’ power to decide who can vote.
States decide procedures for determining an election’s outcome
  • Systems for determining the outcome of an election: A candidate wins if they get:
    • A plurality of votes
    • A majority of votes, using either
      • ranked choice voting (instant runoff)
        • or
      • possible runoff election
    • A supermajority of votes
    • A unanimity of votes
  • Georgia, Louisiana, and Maine elect officials by majority
    • Georgia and Louisiana conduct runoff elections if needed
    • Maine uses Instant Runoff Voting (Ranked Choice Voting)

View Electoral Systems

States draw congressional districts
  • In Rucho v. Common Cause the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering does not violate the Constitution.

View Gerrymandering

States decide procedures for distributing Electoral College votes
  • The winner takes all except in Maine and Nebraska.

View Electoral College

States conduct elections
  • Voter Registration
    • Specifying how and when voters can register, e.g. online
  • Vote Casting
    • Designating polling locations and hours
    • Specifying the kind of ID required
    • Making rules for early voting and voting by mail
  • Counting Votes
    • Specifying the procedure
    • Announcing the results
Evolution of US Democracy
  • From the Preface to The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, Sean Weilentz (Professor of History, Princeton University)
    • This book’s simple title describes the historical arc of its subject. Important elements of democracy existed in the infant American republic of the 1780s, but the republic was not democratic. Nor, in the minds of those who governed it, was it supposed to be. A republic — the res publica, or “public thing” — was meant to secure the common good through the ministrations of the most worthy, enlightened men. A democracy — derived from demos krateo, “rule of the people” — dangerously handed power to the impassioned, unenlightened masses. Democracy, the eminent Federalist political leader George Cabot wrote as late as 1804, was “the government of the worst.” Yet by the 1830s, as Alexis de Tocqueville learned, most Americans proclaimed that their country was a democracy as well as a republic. Enduring arguments had begun over the boundaries of democratic politics. In the 1840s and 1850s, these arguments centered increasingly on slavery and slavery’s expansion and led to the Civil War.
    • The changes were astonishing, but neither inevitable nor providential. American democracy did not rise like the sun at its natural hour in history. Its often troubled ascent was the outcome of human conflicts, accommodations, and unforeseen events, and the results could well have been very different than they were. The difficulties and the contingencies made the events all the more remarkable. A momentous rupture occurred between Thomas Jefferson’s time and Abraham Lincoln’s that created the lineaments of modern democratic politics. The rise of American democracy is the story of that rupture and its immediate consequences.
    • Democracy is a troublesome word, and explaining why is one of my book’s goals.
Expansion of Suffrage
  • Initially voting was restricted to white male landowners.
  • Suffrage was extended to all white male adults
    • Jeffersonian Era (1790s to 1820s) Wiki
      • At the beginning of the Jeffersonian era, only two states (Vermont and Kentucky) had established universal white male suffrage by abolishing property requirements. By the end of the period, more than half of the states had followed suit, including virtually all of the states in the Old Northwest.
    • Jacksonian Era (1828 to 1854) Wiki
      • Even before the Jacksonian era began, suffrage had been extended to a majority of white male adult citizens.
  • Suffrage was extended to Black males
    • Fifteenth Amendment (1870) Britannica
      • Guaranteed the right to vote could not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
    • Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) Britannica
      • Prohibited the federal and state governments from imposing poll taxes before a citizen could participate in a federal election.
    • Voting Rights Act (1965) Britannica
      • Overcame legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment.
  • Suffrage was extended to women
    • Nineteenth Amendment (1920) Britannica
      • Extended the right to vote to women.
  • Suffrage was extended to 18 year-olds
    • Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) Britannica
      • Extended voting rights to citizens aged 18 years or older.
Democratization of Electoral Systems


  • Wesberry v. Sanders (1964)
    • Congressional districts are required to have roughly equal populations


  • Senate representation results from a compromise at the Constitutional Convention
    • Failed Virginia (Large State) Plan
      • States should be represented in proportion to their populations
    • Failed New Jersey (Small State) Plan
      • States should be represented by the same number of representatives
    • Grand (Connecticut) Compromise
      • Virginia Plan for the House of Representatives
      • New Jersey Plan for the Senate
  • Constitution: Article I, Section 3, Clause 1
    • The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.
  • Seventeenth Amendment (1913)
    • The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. 

President and Vice President

  • Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution stipulates that
    • a state gets n electors, n being the total number of its Senators and Representatives
    • a state can choose its electors any way it wants
  • The 23rd Amendment (1961) allocates to the District of Columbia the number of electoral votes equal to the number of the least-populated state, meaning three.
  • The total number of electoral votes = 538 = 100 + 435 + 3.
  • Electoral College, Wikipedia
    • Initially, state legislatures chose the electors in most states.
    • In 1824, there were six states whose legislatures selected electors.
    • By 1832, only South Carolina selected electors by legislature vote.
    • Since 1864, electors in every state have been chosen based on the popular vote.
  • Except for Maine and Nebraska, the winner of the state’s popular vote gets all its electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska allocate one electoral vote to the winner of each House district and two electoral votes to the statewide winner.
‘Democracy’ or ‘Republic’
  • For James Madison, ‘democracy’ meant direct democracy, and ‘republic’ meant representative government.
    • Federalist 10
      • “… a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person…”
      • “A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”
  • Today the word ‘democracy’ includes both direct and representative democracies.  The word ‘republic’ refers to representative democracy.
  • ‘Republic’
      • A republic is form of government in which a state is ruled by representatives of the citizen body. Modern republics are founded on the idea that sovereignty rests with the people, though who is included and excluded from the category of the people has varied across history. Because citizens do not govern the state themselves but through representatives, republics may be distinguished from direct democracy, though modern representative democracies are by and large republics.
      • The term republic may also be applied to any form of government in which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch.
      • 1a(1): a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president
      • 1b(1): a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law
  • In Democracy in America (1840) Alexis de Tocqueville refers to the United States as a democratic republic.
    • “Until now, a great democratic republic has never been seen. It would do injury to republics to call the oligarchy that reigned over France in 1793 by this name. The United States alone presents this new spectacle.”
  • The U.S. Is Both a Republic and a Democracy, Eugene Volokh, The Volokh Conspiracy
    • [1.] I often hear people argue (often quite militantly) that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of “republic” is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them”—we are that. A common definition of “democracy” is, “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives” (AHD)—we are that, too.
    • [2.] And the same two meanings of “democracy” (sometimes direct democracy, sometimes popular self-government more generally) existed at the founding of the republic as well. Some framing-era commentators made arguments that distinguished “democracy” and “republic”; see, for instance, the Federalist (No. 10), as well as other numbers of the Federalist papers. But even in that era, “representative democracy” was understood as a form of democracy, alongside “pure democracy”:
    • Tucker’s Blackstone likewise uses “democracy” to describe a representative democracy, even when the qualifier “representative” is omitted.
  • ‘America Is a Republic, Not a Democracy’ Is a Dangerous—And Wrong—Argument, George Thomas Atlantic (George Thomas is the Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College)
    • Dependent on a minority of the population to hold national power, Republicans such as Senator Mike Lee of Utah have taken to reminding the public that “we’re not a democracy.”
    • The founding generation was deeply skeptical of what it called “pure” democracy and defended the American experiment as “wholly republican.” To take this as a rejection of democracy misses how the idea of government by the people, including both a democracy and a republic, was understood when the Constitution was drafted and ratified. It misses, too, how we understand the idea of democracy today
    • When founding thinkers such as James Madison spoke of democracy, they were usually referring to direct democracy, what Madison frequently labeled “pure” democracy. Madison made the distinction between a republic and a direct democracy exquisitely clear in “Federalist No. 14”:
      • “In a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”
    • Both a democracy and a republic were popular forms of government: Each drew its legitimacy from the people and depended on rule by the people. The crucial difference was that a republic relied on representation, while in a “pure” democracy, the people represented themselves.
    • The history of democracy as grasped by the Founders, drawn largely from the ancient world, revealed that overbearing majorities could all too easily lend themselves to mob rule, dominating minorities and trampling individual rights. Democracy was also susceptible to demagogues—men of “factious tempers” and “sinister designs,” as Madison put it in “Federalist No. 10”—who relied on “vicious arts” to betray the interests of the people. Madison nevertheless sought to defend popular government—the rule of the many—rather than retreat to the rule of the few.
    • American constitutional design can best be understood as an effort to establish a sober form of democracy. It did so by embracing representation, the separation of powers, checks and balances, and the protection of individual rights—all concepts that were unknown in the ancient world where democracy had earned its poor reputation.
    • In “Federalist No. 10” and “Federalist No. 51,” the seminal papers, Madison argued that a large republic with a diversity of interests capped by the separation of powers and checks and balances would help provide the solution to the ills of popular government. In a large and diverse society, populist passions are likely to dissipate, as no single group can easily dominate. If such intemperate passions come from a minority of the population, the “republican principle,” by which Madison meant majority rule, will allow the defeat of “sinister views by regular vote.” More problematic are passionate groups that come together as a majority. The large republic with a diversity of interests makes this unlikely, particularly when its separation of powers works to filter and tame such passions by incentivizing the development of complex democratic majorities:
      • “In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good.”
  • James Madison, Draft of a letter 1834
    • “the vital principle of republican government is the lex majoris partis , the will of the majority”
Tyranny of the Majority
  • An inherent weakness of democracy is the risk of the tyranny of the majority, that an elected majority may pass laws oppressing the minority, for example, by making behavior of which they disapprove—contraception, abortion, same-sex sexual relations—a crime.
  • John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America
    • If the majority were to control all branches of government, he declared, “debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on others; and at last a downright equal division of everything be demanded and voted.”
  • Alexander Hamilton, Constitutional Convention
    • “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well born; the other, the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second; and as they cannot receive any advantage by change, they will therefore maintain good government.”
  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
    • “The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.”
  • Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America,
    • “When an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority, and implicitly obeys its injunctions; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority, and remains a passive tool in its hands; the public troops consist of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain States even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the evil of which you complain may be, you must submit to it as well as you can.”
  • Quote
    • “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what they are going to have for lunch.”
Tyranny of the Majority: Quick Take
  • An inherent weakness of democracy is the risk of the tyranny of the majority, that an elected majority may pass laws oppressing the minority, for example, by making behavior of which they disapprove—contraception, abortion, same-sex sexual relations—a crime.
  • Rights protect individuals from the tyranny of the majority.

View full Tyranny of the Majority