WMU News

Democracy isn't what it used to be

Sept. 4, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Americans are proud to call their government a democracy, but it's a far cry from what that political philosophy really is about, says Dr. Emily I. Hauptmann, assistant professor of political science at Western Michigan University and an expert in political philosophy. In fact, America's current system with two dominant political parties and a smattering of small, unpredictable independent parties resembles more of an aristocracy.

"In Greece, where the first incarnation of democracy existed, public officials were chosen by lottery. The Greeks believed that if people were serious about trying to achieve political equality, they had to use lotteries to select most of their public officials," Hauptmann explains. "Elections were something they associated with an aristocracy."

America's current political system is a republic, Hauptmann says, because public officials are elected and society is based on a system of laws. It wasn't until the 20th century that political figures became comfortable with describing America's system of politics as a democracy.

"The framers of the Constitution didn't call it a democracy," she says. "To them a democracy meant 'the rule of the ignorant mob'."

Hauptmann says this year in particular it's hard to resist comparing the U.S. system to an aristocracy.

"When you look at the ancestry of the two primary presidential candidates -- one is the son of a former senator, the other is the son of a former U.S. president and the grandson of a senator -- you can't help but think of aristocratic societies. It's interesting that in the current political culture of the United States people are able to think of us as a democracy even though there tends to be certain families who wield much political power. Americans don't seem bothered by that contradiction."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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