According to some headlines from about a year ago, a study found out that the US is no longer a democracy. However, what the study really attempted to figure out—with the application of quantitative methods—is which sectors and interest groups in the US exert the most power to affect policy. Not surprisingly to anyone familiar with the United States, it concluded that economic elites have much more impact than other sectors. More importantly perhaps, it found that “[w]hen a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”(1) According to the authors of the study, this implies that the US is no longer a democracy—at least according to the “populist” idea of what constitutes a democracy.
The most alarming aspect of this study to me is that whether the authors examined “populist” democracy or other ideas of what constitutes a democracy, they never wavered from the very myopic view that democracy is in some form a state with a government that carries out the policies that are in the interest of the majority of its citizens. They also implied that until recently the US was a democracy.
Indeed, it seems that not only in common perception, but also in the academia—and as far as I can tell in American historiography—the assumption is that democracy by and large translates to rule by the people. And since “the people” is in reality an impossible abstraction the best way to tell what “the people” want is to follow the will of the majority of the citizens. What this study best illuminated to me is that too little attention is given to whether such a definition of democracy proves useful. To what extent have we been uncritically employing a concept used by Americans to evaluate the political system they think they live in?
Furthermore, what to me, as an Americanist, seems even more perplexing is that we mostly tend to think of the US as having transformed into a full democracy during the removal of property restrictions to white male suffrage in what some still regard as “the era of the common man” in the late 1820s and 1830s. Thus, most Americans—and American historians it seems to me—think of the US since that period as a democracy, even though a majority of people living in America did not have the suffrage legally until the passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920. Indeed, even under the quite limited definition of democracy offered by most Americans the US was, for most of its existence, not a democracy. This certainly seems to be the case in early American history (my subfield), where the two most significant recent syntheses of the early republic period are titled The Rise of American Democracy and Empire of Liberty (though the latter title highlights liberty as a concept, the close link in American imagination between liberty and democracy render them almost synonymous).
To be sure, early American historians have carefully traced how notions of democracy changed over time. It is particularly common to examine the change of tone in the way contemporary Americans regarded the term between about 1790 and 1810. The transformation of the concept from a pejorative to a positive in public discourse is to most historians—I think quite accurately—a barometer of systemic changes in American politics, society, and culture. However, it seems to me that we have exerted too little effort to evaluate the concept critically and employ it more rigorously in an analytical capacity.
Before I offer a few suggestion as to how to go about this problem—assuming that you agree it is a problem—I thought to stop here and see if anyone would be interested in chiming in.
Do you think we need a better intellectual history of democracy?
If we need a new or better definition, what should it be, or better yet, what would be the pros and cons of different concepts of democracy?
 Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “Testing theories of American politics : elites, interest groups, and average citizens,” (2014), p. 576.
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