The United States Is Not -Nor Has It Ever Been- a Direct Democracy

By grand design, we’re part representative/constitutional democracy, part republic and part plutocracy—and we shouldn’t be satisfied with that breakdown. 

Every election year, closed primaries, the two-party system and the electoral college—among other contentious elements of our democracy—come under fire.  Many detractors state that these facets of our system are not directly representative of the will of the people.

A representative democracy is a system in which elected officials represent the people, and a republic is essentially the same thing.  The Oxford Dictionary defines a republic as, “A type of government where the people and their elected representatives have the supreme power and there is an elected or nominated president.”  A constitutional democracy entails government officials operating within the constraints put forth by that nation’s constitution.  A plutocracy is when a country is ruled by the wealthy.  And a pure or direct democracy is a true, unencumbered representation of the people.

The U.S. is a quiche made from the first four ingredients and baked for 229 years and counting (it’s pretty dry) but we are definitely not a pure or direct democracy.  The public does not make laws, nor does it directly elect many government officials.  This is not to say that our voice and votes are irrelevant, in some circumstances they may be rendered as such, but, by-in-large they certainly still matter.

Our plutocratic-con-rep-dem-republic is functioning in the exact way it was crafted to function.  The Founding Fathers did not want a system in which all of the power was in the hands of the people, they wanted a system in which semi-democratically elected officials were the primary wielders.  It’s essentially rule-by-proxy; the idea is that each official is a direct extension of the people who elected him/her—although it does not always work out that way.  And, in the early days, voter eligibility was decided by each state, which left the country largely functioning as a plutocracy.

In many regions of the U.S., voting was a privilege extended only to land-owners and white males (other wise known as: the wealthy).  It wasn’t until the 15th Amendment (1870) and the 19th Amendment (1920) that women, African Americans and non-land owners were able to cast a ballot in all states.  In subsequent years, voter eligibility has spread, and our system grew to become a more representative democracy, but we’ve never left our plutocratic roots behind.  And in recent years, with campaign costs ballooning into obscenity, and the continual, massive influx of special interest group and super pac dollars, we are in danger of circling back around to the gold-lined, exclusive fields of plutocracy.  According to, total lobby spending has increased from $1.45 billion in 1998, to $3.21 billion in 2015, and interest group spending exceeded $1 billion in 2015-16.  As money in politics increases without a cap in sight, the influence of the wealthy upon the way government functions becomes all the more pervasive.

The framers of our constitution were not infallible human beings, and we should absolutely strive to craft a system that is more representative of its citizens.  All primaries should be open, period.  Forcing voters to register with a political party months before knowing much at all about the candidates is an unnecessarily exclusive process.  Moreover, super delegates and the entire operation therein should be abolished, as they have absolutely zero obligation to honor the will of the voters.  And lastly, let’s finally get rid of the limping dinosaur that is the electoral college—or at the very least restructure it.  As the Huffington Post pointed out via a study by Jesse Ruderman, a candidate can win the presidency with only 21.8% of the popular vote.  Now this scenario, due to time-tested voting preferences will never pan out, but there has been five times in our history where a candidate lost the popular vote and won the presidency: John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), George W. Bush (2000), and Donald Trump (2016).

Our issues in terms of representation lie more in our flawed election system than they do in the everyday machinations of the government.

We are not a pure democracy and will likely never be one—and I, frankly don’t think we should be.  But we can absolutely become a more inclusive democracy that reflects the will of the people more directly.  We should not simply drop our collective shoulders and embrace this structure as a stoic, unbendable form—we can do better than this.


by Jesse Mechanic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *