Pluralism and Democracy
Compared with other democracies, the United States has a very decentralized structure of government. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution were extremely wary of the potential dangers of concentrating power in any single political institution, and so deliberately undertook to divide authority among different branches and levels of government. The decentralized American system contrasts with the strict "majoritarian" model of democracy, which holds that government should enact legislation and pursue policies that are immediately responsive to what the majority of the people want.
The American model of democratic government, pluralist democracy, has a number of advantages over the majoritarian model, and these reflect the Founders’ vision for America. Pluralist democracy requires government power to be dispersed and authority to be decentralized. According to this model, democracy exists when government authority is divided among multiple centers of power that are open to interests of various groups—for example, labor v. management, farmers v. food stores, coal companies v. environmentalists. Groups like these compete against each other in a pluralistic society.
The dispersion of authority in pluralist theory prevents government from taking hasty, possibly imprudent action, but it also can prevent any action if important power centers disagree. Although decentralization of power characterizes American government, some institutional features tend to centralize power, enabling government to act even while lacking universal agreement on policy. This essay describes how key features of the U.S. political system contribute to achieving a balance of decentralization and centralization of political authority.
Distrust of Central Authority
As subjects of King George III, the people in the original 13 British colonies distrusted the strong central government that directed their lives from abroad, and they rebelled against British rule in 1775. Their Declaration of Independence of 1776 charged the King with "absolute tyranny over these States." While fighting their war of independence, the colonists formed the United States of America under the Articles of Confederation, a document that created little more than an alliance among the rebel states. The colonists won their independence in 1781—the same year the Articles were finally ratified and took effect.
The confederation's governmental weaknesses became apparent after the war. Power was too dispersed: The confederation itself had no authority to tax; it had no leader with executive powers; it could not regulate commerce; and unanimous consent was needed to amend the document. In 1787, delegates gathered in Philadelphia to revise the Articles, but they wrote an entirely new charter, the Constitution of the United States of America. The Constitution did not create a government with strong central authority, however. The delegates still sought a decentralized government but one with more central coordination than granted under the Articles of Confederation. The new governmental structure struck a balance between centralization and decentralization—resulting in a lasting government that has worked well for over 200 years.
Many features of the American political system promote the decentralization of power. Four of the most important features embedded in the Constitution are (1) federalism, (2) separation of powers, (3) a bicameral Congress with chambers of equal weight, and (4) the electoral systems—for there are two different systems.
The Framers of the Constitution replaced the confederation model of government with a federal model. Whereas the Articles of Confederation promised a "perpetual Union" of states that retained their "sovereignty, freedom, and independence," the Constitution does not mention sovereignty at all. It begins, "We the people of the United States," implying that the new government represented individuals rather than states. Under the concept of federalism, two or more levels of government exercise power and authority over the same people and the same territory. For example, the national government provides for defense against foreign enemies while state governments exercise "police power"—safeguarding citizens' health, morals, safety, and welfare. The national government can act in these areas only with state cooperation. The national government might offer funds for state highways built to national standards, or grant funds for education if state schools followed certain procedures. Because the police powers are decentralized among the states, the power of the national government is limited in building highways, improving schools, or in regulating marriage, divorce, and criminal punishment—all of which, among other matters, are decentralized under state control.
(2) Separation of Powers
The Constitution created a structure that separated political powers among three branches of government. It invested "all legislative Powers" in the Congress, "the executive Power" in the President, and "the judicial Power" in a Supreme Court and in inferior courts established by Congress. In addition, the Constitution decentralized authority further, devising ways by which each branch could check the other branches. One example: Congress was granted the power to make laws, but the president was empowered to veto laws; whereupon Congress could by a two-thirds vote pass a law over a presidential veto. Another example: Only the president can negotiate treaties, but treaties cannot be put into effect unless approved by two-thirds of the Senate. Yet one more example: While Congress determines the Supreme Court's structure and the president names the Court justices, the Court can invalidate acts by Congress and the president if the Court judges that the acts conflict with the Constitution. As regards this last example, it is important to note that the Court's power to invalidate acts by Congress and the president was not expressly provided for in the Constitution; this became accepted practice only following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Marbury v. Madison, decided in 1803.
This complex separation of powers contributes to the decentralization of government authority in the United States. The president may propose a governmental program but Congressional legislation is generally required to enact that program into law. Even then, the Supreme Court has the power to reject the law if it comes before the court. Enacting permanent law in the United States is a complicated process. Lawmaking is simpler in nations with parliamentary systems—which are far more common among the world's democracies. The dominant party or coalition in parliament usually passes legislation proposed by government ministers, and most courts have limited power to invalidate the legislation.
(3) A Bicameral Congress
Decentralization of power in the U.S. legislative process is furthered by a bicameral Congress. Many nations also have bicameral legislatures—legislatures with two chambers (often called lower and upper houses)—but few countries have two chambers that are virtually equal in power. The House of Representatives qualifies as the lower house because its 435 members are elected from districts based on population size. The smaller Senate (100 members) qualifies as the upper house because its members must be older (at least 30 compared with age 25 for the House) and are elected for longer terms: six years instead of two. Although senators are popularly elected, two are chosen (in staggered terms) from each of the 50 states, regardless of population.
According to the Constitution, the two chambers do have minor differences in powers. All revenue bills must originate in the House, and only the Senate approves treaties and presidential appointments. These differences fade in comparison with their equal powers in enacting legislation. Before a bill can be presented to the president for signature, it must pass each chamber in identical form. As a result, power is not concentrated in one chamber more than the other (as in most nations) but apportioned equally to each chamber.
(4) Electoral Systems
The United States has not one electoral system, but two—one for the president and one for members of Congress. Both systems contribute to the decentralization of power. Let's consider the presidential system first. The presidential election is not a "national" election that a candidate wins by taking a majority of the popular vote across the nation. It is a federal election that awards the presidency to the candidate who wins a majority (270) of 538 electors in the "electoral college." (The number 538 derives from the sizes of the House of Representatives and Senate plus three votes held by the District of Columbia.) States have one electoral vote for each of their electors, and each state has as many electors as seats in Congress. The smallest states (with only one representative and two senators) have only three electoral votes. The largest state, California, has 55. Voters in presidential elections actually vote for party slates of electors in each state. After the election, the electors in each state meet in their state capitols to choose a president. (The electoral college never meets as a whole.) A candidate who wins a plurality of a state's vote wins all the state's electors. Therefore, presidential candidates decentralize their campaigns, directing them at individual states, not the nation as a whole.
The electoral system for Congress also encourages decentralization. Most other democracies elect legislators using proportional voting: Votes are cast for parties, and legislative seats are awarded in proportion to the party vote. The United States elects members of Congress using majority voting: Multiple candidates contest for a single seat, and the seat goes to the candidate who receives the most votes. Because they win office by winning elections on their own, members of Congress cater to their states and districts to be re-elected, which encourages them to serve local interests if they conflict with national interests.
Federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism, and the electoral system all contribute to the decentralization of power in the United States, which serves the model of pluralist democracy. Dividing political authority, however, carries risks that government may be unable to act at all or will act to serve the interests of organized minorities rather than the majority of the people. As noted earlier, the Framers of the Constitution were primarily concerned with dividing and checking government authority. Over time, certain institutional changes took place that they may not have t anticipated, and which contributed to a greater centralization of governmental authority. Three such institutional changes deserve special notice: (1) the presidency, (2) the two-party system, and (3) the Supreme Court.
(1) The Presidency
The Framers of the Constitution devoted more than 2,200 words to the legislative branch in Article I. They describe the executive branch with barely 1,000 words in Article II. The presidency was viewed by many of the Framers primarily as an administrative office needed to execute laws conceived and passed by Congress. Over time, however, the presidency became the central focus of American government. The president now defines national goals, proposes legislation to achieve those goals, sends Congress a budget to fund national legislation, and, of course, speaks for the nation in global affairs. Responding to national and international crises, presidents have—usually with the cooperation of Congress—expanded the powers of the office so that now it is the institution most attentive to national public opinion. In that sense, the presidency functions more in keeping with the majoritarian model of democracy.
(2) The Two-Party System
Political parties did not exist in 1787. In fact, the Constitution awarded the presidency to the candidate who won a majority of the electoral votes and the vice-presidency to the runner-up. Two party groups had formed in Congress by the election of 1796, and they backed opposing presidential candidates. The winner, John Adams (a Federalist), had to accept his opponent, Thomas Jefferson (a Democratic Republican), as his vice-president. A constitutional amendment in 1804 recognized the rise of parties by requiring that electors vote separately for president and vice-president, which led to party "tickets" for both offices. Moreover, the development of opposing parties in both houses of Congress encouraged coordination between the chambers. The party that claimed the president promoted coordination between the presidency and Congress. That only two parties have dominated American politics for most of its history also contributes to the centralization of power. American politics revolves around the Democratic and Republican parties, which serve alternatively in government and in opposition. Because minor parties wield very little power in the United States, the two-party system contributes to the centralization of authority.
(3) The Supreme Court
The Framers of the Constitution provided for a Supreme Court but did not have a clear vision of how it would function in their new government. Its description in Article III consists of fewer than 400 words and does not say much about the Court's power. In 1803, the Court in a unanimous decision asserted the power of judicial review—the authority to review laws passed by Congress to determine whether they are in keeping with the U.S. Constitution. As a result of this decision, the Court's status rose within the political system. It also gave the Court the last word about controversial governmental action. The court has contributed to the centralization of authority by acting as the final arbiter of decisions in a system of divided powers.
Because power is so decentralized among government institutions, the U.S. system can be said to fall short of the highest standard of majoritarian democracy. Because of the decentralization of power, however, the United States admirably fulfills the gold standard of pluralist democracy, which assumes multiple centers of power. The U.S. political system is open to competing groups seeking to be heard in the democratic process, and arguably yields policy outcomes that, over time, more effectively take the interests and concerns of different groups into account than do systems founded on the strict majoritarian principle.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.