The United States of America, the biggest democracy in the world, was born as such in 1787, when 55 representatives of each state gathered in Philadelphia in order to achieve a compromise, a union within states.
When we talk about America, what crosses our mind is the idea of greatness, strength and power, an enormous power of an enormous country, and its distribution is one of the major issues in American politics, whether it is an elitist or a pluralist distribution of power. Nevertheless, it is worth first of all turning one’s attention to the history of the United States and this will perhaps allow us better to understand and analyse the American power.
Let’s go back to the eighteenth century, when Americans were unfairly treated by the English Crown, they contributed to the metropolis and they were torn apart in every decision that concerned them so that by the middle of the eighteenth century, a negative atmosphere against Great Britain was starting to flourish. As a consequence, the War of Independence broke out in 1775; it was a revolution, a desire of freedom, and the American people, all together, achieved their independence. On 4th of July of 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed by John Hancock, Jon Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to name just a few; and the new states formed a Republic made up by a president and a congress or assembly, this is when a democratic regime is set up in the United States. A good example of this political transformation is this quote of John Adams:
“Let it be known, that the so called elitist’s liberties are not the grants of princes or parliaments. That many of our rights are inherent and essential. Agreed on as maxims and established as preliminaries even before government existed. We have a right to them, derived from our maker. Our forefathers have earned liberty at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasures, and their blood. Liberty is not built on the doctrine that a few nobles have the right to inherit the earth. It stands on this principal that the meanest and the lowest of people are by the unalterable, indefeasible laws of God and nature as well entitled to the benefit of the air to breath, light to see, food to eat, or clothes to wear as the nobles, or even a king. That is liberty, and liberty will reign in America!” (Speech by John Adams, HBO’s John Adams Series)
Moreover, the Constitution of 1787 reflects for the first time the principles of political liberalism, inspired by ideals of freedom and equality against the elitist political power of Great Britain at the time. Therefore, a federal government was created, formed by a president of the Republic, the Congress with two legislatives chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the Supreme Court. However, each state had its own government with competences in internal policy. Nevertheless, this separation of power first came from Montesquieu who suggested three different functions for the government: legislative, executive and judicial. He finds liberty in the distribution of power into several hands; if two functions were held in the same person, it could lead to tyranny.
That being said, it is worth now analysing briefly the three branches of the American government. As for the Legislature (Congress) split into House of Representatives and the Senate, its main feature is to make law. According to the Founding Fathers, the Congress was supposed to be the centre of the governmental power; just to name a few competences, the Congress can declare war, confirm treaties or impeach the president. Today, because it is considerate as the symbol of the nation, the centre of government lies in the Executive (President) who represents the enforcement of law, having the power of veto, the grant of pardons or the nomination of judges to the Supreme Court. And finally, the Judiciary (Supreme Court) whose main feature is the interpretation of law.
In the Federalist No.51, the fourth president of the United States and the ‘Father of the Constitution’, James Madison, wrote about the American power and its distribution. He said: ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary’. Therefore, a government is needed to maintain freedom and equality in the Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’ in which the stronger oppresses the weaker and as a result, the interests of the individuals are reduced.
But James Madison designed a federalist government in order to get ‘privet rights and public happiness’. He planned a double security, that way, ‘the power surrendered by the people would be first divided between two distinct governments’. These two governments are the State and the Federal government; then, the civil rights of the people will be preserved. Madison made sure of that by establishing a system of checks and balances in order to keep any institution from becoming more powerful. Some of these checks and balances are the nomination of judged to the Supreme Court made by the President which are confirmed by the Congress or the judiciary reviews made by the Supreme Court. That fear of power is also reflected in the Bill of Rights, which controlled the federal power by providing each state with federal representation.
So, going back to the question proposed, is the American distribution of power elitist or pluralist? As I may have mentioned briefly at the beginning of this essay, and referring again to the past, American people wanted freedom and equality, but where these ideas came from? The European ideals and values of the eighteenth century got to the American society, let’s remember that some years after the War of Independence, in 1789 the French Revolution shook the French Crown and also European governments; in 1802, the Spanish War of Independence and the posterior European Revolutions in 1820, 1830 and 1840.
With the purpose of suggesting America as a pluralist country let me analyse the political thought of the most influential authors of the time who were Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the figures who brought new values to the ‘New World’.
In Hobbes’ State of Nature, all that reigned was chaos, anarchy and insecurity. Men were dangerous to themselves. The only way to get through that situation of insecurity was by given up people’s authority in order to lay their power on the government, so there could be order and people’s rights could be preserved. Here, is when the Locke’s Social Contract comes, people devote their power to governors who have the duty to protect their rights, nevertheless, if governors stopped doing this, people would have the right to rise up against the power. As we have seen in the last few years, the American society power has forced some presidents to resign; the Watergate case in which the republican president Richard Nixon got involved, led him to his resignation.
With the Social Contract, the government is created and its legitimacy is based on the protection of the rights of the people, who form the government, and it takes decision in a democratic manner, being the popular sovereignty one of the main principles of the State.
Locke considered that the human being had some rights derived from the Maker, derived from God, and those were survival, liberty and the right of property. This can be reflected on the previous quote of John Adams.
In short, American society has been forged in those values, the Constitutional principles, its individualism and natural liberty characterize it, because each person is the owner of oneself and every citizen makes the decision of participating and collaborating in the political life, because he or she is free to do it. In the end, the smallest state in political terms that we could think of is the individual, who is mobilized and organized by political parties; they play a very important role in American political life as well.
Basically, political parties take part in the puzzle of the American policy in a complex manner. That is to say that, for instance, when there are presidential elections in the United States, the political parties get involve a lot more than in the Congress elections. The President, as I may have mention before, has become the ‘nation’s sense of identity’ (Carl N. Degler, History Counts: The Burden of American Politics), people see in him the role of the leader who can only be Democratic or Republican. On the other hand, in Congress, there could be two parties, the Democratic and Republican leading the legislation together, in a higher or lower percentage of members but still, that is another argument for the pluralism of the United States.
All in all, the United States of America conform the biggest democracy in the world, and as such, people have an important role in American political life, therefore, I would add a new branch in the American distribution of power: The Congress, the President, the Supreme Court and the people, because after all, the American Constitution of 1787 says “We the People”; and if Congress plays the legislative role, the President the executive and the Supreme Court the judicial, people are responsible of supporting them, because they are the base of the American political system. Even though it is not possible for them to reach the ‘elite’ that leads the Congress, the Presidential figure or the Supreme Court, by accepting their authority and leadership, they make every political mechanism work.
One example of what I have said before is the speech of the President Harry S. Truman in 1947 directed to Congress:
“At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. Our way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression… I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures… The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world -and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this Nation. Great responsibilities have been placed upon us of this Nation by the swift movement of events”. (Quote taken from the R. J. Johnston’s The American Century)
Also, the John Kennedy’s quote “Ask not what you country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” or the Obama’s “Yes, we can” show that, as Pablo Gonzalez Casanova asserts, America is made of many Americans; and “if in the past, the government could be of the people and for the people”, now, despite of the enormous influence of the minority upon the majority, the majority’s interest still prevails.
In conclusion, after this brief analysis of the American distribution of power through the history of the United States in which the War of Independence, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were incredibly important and also the influence of some philosophers of that time like Hobbes, Locke or Montesquieu who brought new values and principles to the American society, it would be possible to consider the United States’ distribution of power as pluralist. Indeed, the facts that characterize Western democracies, according to Darryl Baskin in his critique about ‘American Pluralist Democracy’ are: social diversity and balance, subsystem autonomy and separation of powers. I would like to finish off this essay with another quote, this time of Carl N. Degler (History Counts: the Burden of American Politics): “What I am talking about here are not politicians and parties but the character, the historical nature, if you will, of the American people. For it is they who have created and sustained the politics of this country from the beginning right down to the present”.