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1: The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System

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    Snapshot of Topic 1

    Explore the topic's sub-chapters to learn more about the philosophical foundations of the United States political system.

    Supporting Question

    • What were the roots of the ideas that influenced the development of the United States political system?

    Democracy comes from the Greek words "demos" and "kratos," meaning "rule by the people" (Defining Democracy, Museum of Australian Democracy). Although the term does not appear in either the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution, democracy is the foundation for government in this country. Americans believe in government of the people, by the people, for the people.

    Democracy, as a framework of government, has evolved over the centuries and now includes concepts that are the foundations of civic and political life in our country: freedom, justice, liberty, individual rights and responsibilities, shared power, and a system of checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government.

    But, as researchers with the Varieties of Democracy project have noted, there is "no single agreed-upon list of what are (or aren't) issues of democracy" (FiveThirtyEight, September 1, 2021). Some think about issues of electoral democracy such as the importance of free elections and a free press while others focus on social and economic democracy and issues around women's rights, civil liberties, economic justice, voting access, and overcoming the historical legacies of slavery and discrimination against people of color. Here you can find five types of democracy (electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian) and the issues associated with them.

    Democracies Around the World

    More than half the countries in the world consider themselves democracies, although not all are fully democratic (Desilver, 2019). In the modern world, contends one researcher, an "authentic democracy" includes the following structures, without which a democratic system cannot exist:

    • "free, fair, contested, and regularly scheduled elections";
    • "practically all adults have the right to vote and to participate in the electoral process";
    • "minority parties are able to criticize and otherwise oppose the ruling party or parties";
    • a constitution "guarantees the rule of law," established limited government, and protects individuals' rights of speech, press, petition, assembly and association. (Patrick, 2006, p.7)

    Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan (2020) has noted that democracy is not a binary concept; countries are not exclusively democratic or not democratic. Instead, democratic norms are always advancing in some places and eroding in others in response to current events. The organization Freedom House reported that even before the events of the 2020 presidential election and 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol, the United States was experiencing a decline in the index of democracy in the world, occupying a position between Italy and Argentina, well below the most democratic countries: Austria, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay.

    In the second decade of the 21st century, democracy and democratic institutions continue to be under assault around the world. The Autocratization Turns Viral: Democracy Report 2021 from the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gottenberg, Sweden notes that although the world is more democratic than it was in the 1970s or 1980s, democracy is on the decline worldwide and the level of democracy experienced by common citizens is at its lowest level since 1990. In many countries (Hungry, India, Cambodia, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey and more), liberal democracy is being replaced by electoral autocracy where political systems have an illusion of multi-party democracy, but free and fair elections do not happen. Instead, strongmen who do not value democratic norms have risen to power.

    The Nations in Transition 2020 report from Freedom House reviewed what it calls a "decade of democratic deficits," in which countries experiencing declines in democracy have exceeded countries with gains every year since 2010. In Central Europe, the report notes, there is a growth of "hybrid regimes" in Poland and Hungry where authoritarian leaders have created quasi-autocracies by undermining the independent judiciary, attacking the free press, curtailing civil liberties, and spreading disinformation and propaganda to inflame people's attitudes toward outsiders such as immigrants and asylum-seekers. Despite these developments, the Freedom House report notes, citizen protests against corruption and for environmental protections, particularly in Ukraine and Armenia, represent a significant counterweight to anti-democracy in the region. Democracy - Our World in Data and Democracy 2019,The Economist magazine’s annual index offer additional perspectives on the place of democracy in the world today.

    Topic 1 of the eBook

    Topic 1 explores the philosophical and historical origins of the United States system of democratic government, beginning with Ancient Athens and the Roman Republic and including how Enlightenment thinkers, North American colonial governments, and First People tribes influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the structure of U.S. government.

    The governments and politics of Greece and Rome profoundly influenced America's founding generation. Comparing the educational backgrounds of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, historian Thomas E. Ricks (2020) found Greco-Roman learning was "part of the culture; a way of looking at the world and set of values."

    Ricks notes further influences from Greece and Rome. The United States "Senate" meets at the "Capitol." Our political parties are "Republicans" or "Democrats." The Supreme Court's architecture recalls a Roman temple. Latin phrases are familiar parts of the legal and political vocabularies. The Roman word "virtue" (which in the 18th century meant putting the common good above self interest) appears some 6000 times in the writing of members of the Revolutionary generation. At the same time, the Founders, as with their ancient world predecessors, accepted human slavery and built that acceptance into the structures of American government as well as the fabric of American life.

    Foundations of the U.S. Political System: Media Literacy Activities Choice Board

    (make your own copy of this choice board to remix/share/use)

    • 1.1: The Government of Ancient Athens
      Parallels between ancient Athens and America, in the context of democratic ideals. The role of athletic competitions in ancient Greece and America, particularly the performance of Native American athletes in running. How school classrooms can become more democratic spaces.
    • 1.2: The Government of the Roman Republic
      The influence of the Roman Republic in America's system of government. Slave revolts in ancient Rome and in the Americas, including the Haitian Revolution. The continued influence of Latin in modern-day English.
    • 1.3: Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government
      The ideas contributed to principles of American government by Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Female writers and activists from the Enlightenment era who are often overlooked, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges. Women from many eras who profoundly affected the fields of science, math, or politics.
    • 1.4: British Influences on American Government
      British influences on American government, in the form of the Mayflower Compact, colonial governments, and who was allowed to vote in early America. The role of dissent in American politics, as modeled by early religious dissenters such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer. Modern discussions about lowering the voting age.
    • 1.5: Native American Influences on U.S. Government
      Governing principles of the Iroquois Confederacy and the ways in which they might have influenced concepts in the U.S. Constitution. The differing accounts from settlers and Native Americans regarding the conflict known as either the Peskeompskut-Wissatinnewag Massacre or the Battle of Great Falls. Evaluating the modern-day legacy of Jeffrey Amherst, originator of the idea of distributing "smallpox blankets" to Native Americans.

    Thumbnail: The Goddess of Democracy Statue, Portsmouth Square, San Francisco.

    This page titled 1: The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert W. Maloy & Torrey Trust (EdTech Books) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.