GED Social Studies Practice Test: Democratic Principles

Direct Democracy

The most basic principle that influenced the creation of the United States Constitution is known as direct democracy. Direct democracy is when the citizens run the government/country by majority vote. For example, if a national law is proposed to ban the use of cell phones in cars, then, under direct democracy, the people would vote and the majority vote would win. This type of democracy gives the most power to citizens as it is they who directly decide on the laws, not government officials. As enticing as this may sound, the United States does NOT have direct democracy, except in a few cases such as the election of Senators. However, its basic principle of the citizens taking part in government decisions did impact something called representative democracy, a fundamental foundation of the United States Government. It’s also important to note that the United States did not invent the concept of democracy and surely wasn’t the first nation to use it. The ancient Greek city state Athens first developed the concept of democracy at around 400 BC. While used in ancient times, the philosophy partial got lost during the Middle Ages and then began to reemerge during the enlightenment period in the 1600s. While a borrowed idea, the United States did come to perfect it.

Direct Democracy: The Citizens Make the Law

Direct Democracy: The Citizens Make the Law

Representative Democracy

A representative democracy is a system in which citizens vote for government officials to represent them in government. These representatives then create and vote on laws. This is more of a limited democracy in that citizens do not actually vote on laws, but rather the politicians whom they elect make the big decisions for them. For example, the fictitious town of Naples may elect a government official to represent them in Congress. When making laws, that elected official will base his/her decisions on what’s in the best interest of the citizens of Naples. In this, the citizens still play a role in decision making, just an indirect role. In general, the United States is a representative democracy at almost every level of government.

Representative Democracy: Representatives Make the Law

Representative Democracy: Representatives Make the Law

Why not direct democracy?

Simply put, direct democracy would put too much power in the hands of the citizens. The founding fathers (the guys who created the U.S. Constitution), did not believe that the average citizen was wise enough to have direct control over the government. As education wasn’t mandatory in the 1700s, literacy rates among citizens throughout the colonies was relatively low and academic knowledge wasn’t something stressed upon in most households. Due to this, the average citizen wasn’t a “learned” person and, in the eyes of the academic minded founding fathers, simply did not have the intellect to effectively run the government through direct democracy. This lack of education, however, played a shadowing role to one of the more important reasons the fathers did not want direct democracy: mob rule.

The “mob” is the population, the citizens. Just imagine if every American American in 2016 voted on every single law. That would be over three hundred million votes on every proposed law. Just imagine how long it would take and the vast differences of opinions that would be shown just on a single law. So many people would be involved in the law making process that it simply wouldn’t be possible for even a small fraction of opinions and concerns to be heard, let alone those of the whole country. This would probably create intense frustration, restlessness, and uncontrolled chaos among the population as not everyone is going to agree. Furthermore, it would allow for widespread discrimination of any minority group whether it be in the form of gender, race, or even religion. The majority of the population would probably always vote in a way that would serve them best, while discriminating against the minority in the process. The founding fathers felt that such a style of government would be ineffective, unstable, and even dangerous. Laws being passed wouldn’t necessarily be rational or in the best interest of the whole county. In his view of mob rule, James Madison wrote “Democracies have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” When referring to democracy he’s referring to direct democracy, mob rule. This is the true definition of democracy. In modern times, the use of the word is sometimes inaccurate as the United States is not a democracy, in the truest sense of the word. The United States, however, is what’s known as a democratic republic.

To ensure that the mob did not have direct control over the country the founding fathers established a style of representative government within the U.S. Constitution. This way, elected government officials would represent the people in the law making process, thus allowing the government to be run in a more orderly fashion. This is called a democratic republic. While the people still influence laws, they don’t necessarily have a direct say in which laws get passed and which ones do not. Although there are minor exceptions to this concept, such as the referendum, the United States is a democratic republic at almost every level of government.

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