Democratic government requires popular control over public decisions and decision makers, and an equality of respect and the right to be heard between citizens in the exercise of that control. A constitutional democracy imposes codified legal limits on the powers of the government. A separation of powers, or an arrangement of checks and balances, exists between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
As an organizing principle, constitutional democracy designates a large political community and defines it as inclusive, open, and free. Nations governed by such a democracy are bound by widely accepted guidelines through what is usually a written public consensus. The shared core values include civil liberties, pluralism, tolerance, and wide access to expression in all forms of the media. Sometimes entrepreneurial markets and social rights are also embraced. Constitutional democracy is the most sensible countermeasure to authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, which owe their legitimacy to dynastic tradition, affirmation by religious establishments, or sheer coercion.
How best to conduct the public affairs of human societies has been a challenge throughout history, occupying the minds of important thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle, from ancient Greece on. Whether such affairs are conducted through providential inspiration, dictatorial rule, or a social contract, no system has been perfect. Any system that has emerged has needed reform to cultivate the goodwill of those governed in a dynamic world in which challenges and needs always change. The most effective way of quantifying public opinion is through popular elections held periodically in a free and fair manner. These elections sanction delegates through a widespread mandate to discuss and resolve important contemporary political, social, and economic issues of power and authority.
Democracy is rule by the people who reside in a particular political unit (such as the city-state, the Greek polis, especially during the eighth through fourth centuries bce). However, if democracy is taken to its logical conclusion, a majority of those people assembled in a meeting can reverse long-held traditions or, in extreme cases, arrest and even kill those people who oppose the will of the preponderance of participants—the feared tyranny of the majority. Therefore, the shared interest of free people, especially in entrepreneurial and peaceful settlements, dictates the establishment in a document of a set of fundamental principles that legitimizes and secures the continuity of liberty and civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights, and serves as the foundation of a viable state. Such a document articulates the standards and goals of a defined community with a publicly expressed affinity to certain human values and philosophical norms.
The viability of constitutional democracy is dependent on a deliberative body, for example, a congress or a parliament. In such a body the citizens of a country have representatives—in at least one legislative branch for each level of government within federal or unitary states—who are elected in free, fair, and periodic elections, and vested with the essence of sovereignty. This deliberative body engages in debates that routinely decide the level of taxation, allocation of budgets, domestic measures, security concerns, foreign relations, and all other matters of public policy. Constitutional democracy also endorses lobbying and petitioning of those people who hold elected positions.
Perhaps America will one day go fascist democratically, by popular vote.William L. Shirer (1904–1993)
Constitutional democracy is an antidote to both the oppressive, nondemocratic nature of rule by decree apparent in authoritarianism and the unlimited control inherent in unchecked forms of democracy such as majoritarianism (the practice according to which decisions of a group should be made by a numerical majority of its members). Constitutional democracy is a tolerant and pluralistic framework that prevents laws from depriving minorities or individual citizens or circumventing moral norms through positive law—statutes and ordinances that govern a state. Fundamental rights—such as freedoms of opinion, association, expression, religion and worship, due process in trial, and the ability to pursue personal choices—are guaranteed. This guarantee is made without discrimination on the basis of gender, class, nationality, creed, political opinion, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics that are irrelevant to individual merit.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) famously said that democracy, for all its faults, is still better than other political systems: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Constitutional democracy is a manageable alternative to the chaos necessitated by bringing every decision to the scrutiny of numerous people, except for in the smallest jurisdictions that might feasibly practice some form of direct democracy. It is also an antidote to the potential tyranny of decrees issued by kings, queens, generals, or presidents without the advice and consent of those in whose name they presume to govern. The balancing act of parliaments and the judiciary check the absolute powers that executive privilege might otherwise confer upon rulers.
In a constitutional democracy a legitimate regime can rightfully claim a monopoly on the publicly accepted use of coercion, including violence. Societies in which parliamentarianism prevails are governed by a relatively open political culture with elections contested by multiple parties and individuals. (In parlimentarianism, also known as the Westminster system, the executive branch’s political party, or a coalition of like-minded parties, must have a working majority in the legislature to remain in power.) Compromise is preferred over confrontation. Rules of conduct and debate and respect for fundamental human rights facilitate basic civil rights such as freedoms of expression, speech, assembly, ideology, affiliation, and religion.
John Locke (1632–1704), an influential English political theorist of the Enlightenment (a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical movement marked by a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and an emphasis on reason, rationalism, and the scientific method), argued that the proper function of societies and states must be based on compromise and freedoms, that is, civil equality. Deeming human civilizations as having emerged voluntarily from an idyllic state of nature, he would not lend credence to coercion or dynastic authority. Government originates in the consent of the people (the idea of the implied social contract) it presumes to lead and for their benefit alone; its legitimacy is dependent on continuous adherence to such principles.
Locke thus advocated sovereignty based on reciprocal equality—a balance of powers and jurisdiction between the judicial, legislative, and executive branches, prohibiting the subordination of any branch. The French political thinker Montesquieu (1689–1755) later articulated this more explicitly in his separation of powers theory. Locke opposed violence that merely enhances the authority of oppressive rulers rather than protect public order. These ideas, being the modern foundations of constitutional democracy, affected subsequent practices in the Western world, including British, French, and U.S. practices. Locke’s writings were particularly influential in the drafting of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, while Locke was personally involved in drafting the Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas.
It is widely thought that the idea and practice of democracy has its roots in ancient Greece around two-and-half millennia ago (c. sixth century bce). Oldest and best known of the Greek democracies is ancient Athens. Recent discoveries, however, suggest that some rudimentary form of democracy might have emerged centuries earlier in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1600–1100 bce) around Mycenae in the northeastern Peloponnese. Archaeological evidence from ancient Mesopotamia suggests that self-governing assemblies might have originated there and spread east toward the Indian subcontinent and westward to Phoenician port cities such as Byblos and Sidon, before arriving in ancient Athens.
Wherever the roots of democracy might lie, since people first assembled to decide matters of public policy, they have faced the dilemma of how best to maximize participation while introducing a convenient forum for managing affairs efficiently. Direct democracy sounds ideal. Reality, however, may be quite different. A deliberative, representative polity (political organization) may gain viability by establishing an institutional body for regular legislation by a limited amount of members, elected periodically and fairly.
In Greece the Athenian lawmaker Solon (c. 630–560 bce) presented an early version of a participatory constitutional democracy, blended with elements of social justice, in a commercial and cultural center. Earning his distinction as a poet, he purported to correct the excesses of exclusive and oppressive aristocratic control of government. Wealthy landowners used their leverage to exploit a severe economic crisis to deprive poorer town dwellers and peasants of their property and freedom or to force them into exile. Solon was chosen as a chief magistrate with broad authority in 594 bce by the ruling class that he subsequently challenged. His reforms aimed to improve a flawed system, with roots in the Draconian code (a severe code of laws held to have been framed by the Athenian lawmaker Draco) of 620 bce, by limiting the absolute power of the upper class.
Solon curtailed the influence of the rich and introduced a more humane and balanced legal code to help debtors. Enhancing the Assembly of the People by creating the Boule (a multiethnic council of middle-income citizens), he limited the authority of the aristocratic Council of the Best Men (Areopagus) and enabled all adult male Athenians to vote and be elected. This partial empowerment was a compromise between various classes and contesting interests and was in contrast to the conservative ways of Athens’s main rival, Sparta. Nevertheless, because he did not please a certain constituency, Solon became so controversial that he left Athens, and tyranny prevailed for decades.
Cleisthenes (c. 570–507 bce) continued Solon’s constitutional reorganization. He made the Assembly of the People the sole legislative body, subordinating magistrates to its jurisdiction, increased the influence of the Boule, deprived the Areopagus of effective power, and ensured wide and deep participation in public life. Cleisthenes made Athenian government more accountable to an inclusive, active political community and thus a role model for subsequent civilizations.
By modern standards Athenian democracy is not quite so democratic in terms of inclusiveness, participation, and the extension of suffrage. While there was not the explicit link between property holdings and democratic rights that would later emerge, there were considerable barriers to participation in Athenian democracy, which was exclusively the preserve of adult male Athenian citizens with military training. And in order to be eligible for Athenian citizenship, one generally had to be directly descended from Athenian citizens on both sides of the family tree. Also explicitly excluded from the practice of Athenian democracy were women, children, slaves and freed slaves, foreigners, and those citizens whose rights had been suspended for some sort of indiscretion.
Centuries later Britain’s Westminster tradition involved unwritten conventions, coupled with the constitutional monarchy variant of parliamentarianism. Beginning with the Magna Carta of 1215–1225 and culminating with the Glorious Revolution during the seventeenth century, a growing degree of universal suffrage for the middle class, independent judiciary, civil rights, and more open political practices replaced the rule of the monarchy and the aristocracy.
From a system prevailing only in Western countries, British (and, to a much lesser extent, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish) colonialism spread constitutional democracy in communities of European settlers to North America, Oceania (lands of the central and South Pacific Ocean), and southern Africa, although indigenous residents were usually deprived of its benefits. European colonialism also introduced constitutional democracy to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But due to the hardships of economic exploitation endured by the colonized, ideas of freedom and human rights reflected by constitutional democracy were tinged by suspicions of hypocrisy, as evidenced by charges against John Locke that he personally benefitted from the slave trade through investments in the Royal African Company.
The formative era of the U.S. version of an effective constitutional democracy is identified primarily with Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). His agenda of civil nationalism emphasized individual freedoms and the separation of church and state. The core of the 1776 Declaration of Independence was “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The apex of the formative era was the drafting of a constitution in 1787. The Constitution vested sovereignty in the U.S. people (excluding nonwhites, whose ability to be citizens was in doubt well into the twentieth century) through a hybrid of federal authority and individual states, created the presidency, and granted the federal government the ability to tax citizens and command troops.
The 1791 Bill of Rights assured individual rights and civil liberties such as freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly, and due process. The balance of powers (checks and balances) between the three branches of federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial) was consolidated in 1803 with the Marbury v. Madison decision rendered by the Supreme Court. That decision enshrined the doctrine of judicial review in U.S. law, providing an impartial judiciary with the ultimate authority.
In Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 shows how a country with more than a century of openness and liberty transforms its legal mechanism to address a political crisis. Canada has had a semblance of a constitutional democracy since the 1867 British North America Act. That act ushered in a degree of sovereignty, which gradually strengthened to amount to a full authority of the Canadian government, within a federal structure, ending British colonial rule. Nevertheless, during the 1970s a secessionist movement in Quebec, a primarily French-speaking province, challenged the legitimacy of Canada, a primarily English-speaking country, for allegedly excluding French-speaking citizens from basic rights on linguistic and ethnic bases.
On the eve of the 1980 referendum that would have allowed Quebec to commence on a path of independence, Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1919–2000) felt compelled to promise all Canadian citizens, especially those living in Quebec, that he would initiate comprehensive constitutional reforms that would enshrine a form of pluralistic democracy. Indeed, in 1982 Trudeau’s government revised substantially the Canadian constitution, guaranteeing federally, through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, all basic civil liberties while allowing provinces a strong degree of provincial autonomy. To date, this strategy has helped maintain Canadian unity.
Postcolonial India, the most populous country ever to have a constitutional democracy, is an example of how constitutional democracy can shape an emerging nation. After a painful struggle with the British and a war with Islamic communities, India rose to independence in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) was India’s first prime minister (1947–1964). Although Nehru deployed military force against opponents, he championed an inclusive, pluralistic, polyethnic, multicultural state. Nehru largely endorsed the nonviolent practices of the Indian nationalist Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869–1948).
By proclaiming a constitutional democracy, Nehru positioned himself, and the Congress Party he led, as the custodian of federal identity, mediating between contesting castes and ethnic, religious, and regional constituencies. The guarantee of freedoms played a major role in securing India’s viability in the face of internal separatist ethnic nationalism and external adversity. In particular Nehru tried to enlist the support of vulnerable groups of people such as women and untouchables through written rights that improved their legal status, although practical changes were slow to come.
Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (1917–1984), served as prime minister from 1966 to 1977. Concerned about India’s population growth, she pursued harsh sterilization policies. That pursuit led her to subvert democracy by introducing a state of emergency in 1975. Nevertheless, trying to legitimize her deeds, she felt compelled two years later to call parliamentary elections, which she lost. Gandhi surrendered power freely to her opponents; she returned to office in 1980. She was murdered in 1984 by Sikh extremists who purportedly acted to avenge the desecration of their holy sites in her fight to assert her control over all segments of Indian society.
As part of the U.S. war on terrorism after the terrorist attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001, the U.S. Congress enacted the controversial Patriot Act in November 2001. The act curtailed civil liberties for a limited time because of national security concerns, causing some people to be concerned about the long-term impact on constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression. The United States also attempted to introduce constitutional democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq after liberating the two nations from oppressive rule in 2001 and 2003, respectively. As of 2010 the outcome of those attempts remains uncertain. Some critics maintain that democracy cannot successfully be externally imposed. If it is to take root it must be implemented and owned by the people, for the people.