Chapter 1: Elements of Democracy
How did Vaclav Havel characterize democracy?
Vaclav Havel said, “ [a]s long as people are people, democracy, in the full sense of the
world, will always be no more than an ideal.”
Democracy in America has evolved over time—and continues to evolve.
American democracy has been remarkable open, over the long run, to expanding rights
and liberties for all its citizens—even if those rights and liberties have been achieved only
with struggle, sacrifice, and occasional failure.
How do direct and indirect democracies differ, and which type of democracy did the
framers believe was best for the new nation?
In a democracy, key political powers are placed in the hands of the people.
Direct democracy assumes that people can govern themselves. The people as a whole
make policy decisions rather than acting through elected representatives.
In an indirect democracy, voters designate a relatively small number of people to present
their interests; those representatives then meet in a legislative body and make decisions
on behalf of the entire citizenry.
Although the framers clearly opted for an indirect and representative form of democratic
governance, over the years the system they devised moved much closer to the Athenian
ideal of direct democracy.
What basic democratic ideals characterize the American polity, and what trade-offs
exist among these values?
America’s commitment to democracy rests on a profound belief in an idealistic set of
core values: freedom, equality, order, stability, majority rule, protection of minority
rights, and participation. Often it is impossible to maintain all of these values at once,
because actions in support of one value can violate another value.
The value of freedom and equality, central to a democracy, often stand in tension with the
state’s power to control its citizens. Every society, to be successful, must maintain order
and provide social stability, so that citizens can go about their business in a secure and
Even free and equality, two democratic ideals, stand in tension with one another.
Frequently, the more freedom citizens have, the less equality they are likely to achieve,
and vice versa. Each of these admirable ideals, when applied to real-world circumstances,
can produce contradictory results.
Decisions in a democracy should be made though majority rule. Yet, this system of
governance allows for a majority to take away the rights of a minority. Democracies must
strike a balance between majority rule (majoritarianism) and protection of minority