Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The truth of democracy

The US was conceived by its founders as a constitutional oligarchy embedding rule of law and civil liberties

It is often asserted that India is the world’s largest democracy, while the US is the world’s oldest democracy. This statement is at best a half-truth: the first half is true, and will remain true for the foreseeable future—unless China democratizes in the very near term. Yet, the second half, if by it one means that the US was born a democracy, and thus is the world’s oldest, is patently false, even though it is widely believed.

A truer statement would be that India is not only the world’s largest democracy, it is also one of the world’s oldest democracies in the specific sense that it was born a democracy the moment it emerged as a nation-state from the post-colonial womb. By contrast, every other major democracy was first born something else, and democratized in fits and starts until achieving fuller democracy—in some cases, quite late into the 20th century. Yet another, Pakistan, was born a putative democracy—cleft from the same post-colonial interstice that gave birth to India—has lapsed periodically into authoritarianism, and recently regained some measure of democracy, or at least its facade.

As discussed in this space a fortnight ago, India remains unique among the world’s major democracies in that its founders opted for universal adult franchise from the very moment that the republic came into being, with the promulgation of the Constitution on 26 January 1950. While the Indian experiment has faltered on numerous scores—most notably, via a failed but lengthy tryst with socialism and by wearing a meretricious garb of ersatz secularism, which cloaks a peculiarly schizophrenic blend of majoritarianism yoked together with various brands of minoritarianism—our early and full-hearted embrace of democracy has been our most signal success as a nation-state, without doubt. While historically disadvantaged groups lag on economic and social indicators, to be sure, their political empowerment has transformed the Indian polity, and that all is to the good. India’s bet on democracy truly was the audacity of hope, to borrow a well-known phrase.

So, what of the US?

Far from being a democracy when the Constitution was proclaimed in 1789, it is more accurate to say that the US was born—and, indeed, was conceived by its founders—as a constitutional oligarchy embedding the rule of law and other civil liberties. (These latter were enshrined in the first 10 amendments, known as the “bill of rights".) James Madison and the other authors of the celebrated Federalist Papers adhered to a form of classical liberalism then in vogue in the Anglo-American world, which assigned primacy to individual rights and liberties, the rule of law, protection of private property and so forth, but not to the democratic franchise.

Right from the inception of the new republic, franchise remained highly restricted in the US, well into the 20th century. It is only with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the unwinding of institutionalized racism in the south that one may legitimately claim that the US enshrined universal franchise in practice and not just in theory.

More broadly, democratization writ large came much later to the US, and also to Britain, the mother country. Indeed, in the US itself, vestiges of oligarchic republicanism exist to the present day, principally on view in the arcane selection process for the president. Unlike in other presidential republics such as France, the US president is not directly elected by voters in a national election—but, rather, by members of an electoral college, who in turn are elected by voters in a state by state, not national, contest.

In their original conception, the founders intended the electoral college as a buffer between the untutored instincts of the mass of voters and the election of the nation’s chief executive. Madison and the others believed, perhaps with some justice given the events that were about to unspool in France, unfettered democracy could degenerate into mob rule. As the Office of the Federal Register, an official US government agency, frames matters, somewhat more tactfully, on its website: “The founding fathers established [the electoral college] in the Constitution as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens."

What is more, even today, again according to official information on the Office of the Federal Register, “[t]here is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires Electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their States"—although, in practice, almost all electors’ votes are pledged to their parties.

Likewise, well into the 20th century, the two major political parties’ presidential candidates were essentially anointed by party bosses. And, even today, major donors have an outsized influence on the nomination process. Controversial though they may be, if Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders win their respective parties’ presidential nominations, and one of them wins the general election, that would represent a further democratization of American politics.

Those who dismiss Trump or Sanders—or for that matter, Narendra Modi—as unfit to govern, might as well admit that they prefer oligarchy to democracy.

Every fortnight, In the Margins explores the intersection of economics, politics and public policy to help cast light on current affairs.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com. To read Vivek Dehejia’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/vivekdehejia

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