October 2, 2017

May Britain Trump America When It Comes to Democracy?

By René Reyes

It is a truism among many Americans that theirs is an exceptional country.  This is particularly so with respect to freedom and democracy, which have long been described as being part of a distinctive American experiment.  Indeed, from its very beginnings as a nation, America has emphasized the contrasts between its approach to government and the example set by its British predecessor.  The Declaration of Independence asseverates that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and casts the nascent country as one formed in search of freedom from “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations” suffered at the hands of the British King, “all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” The Constitution drafted in the years following the American Revolution furthered and formalized the contrast with the British model: it was ordained and established by “the People” themselves; it provided for an elected president rather than a hereditary monarch; and it invested the legislative authority of the upper chamber in a Senate rather than a House of Lords.
So began America’s proud history of democratic exceptionalism—at least according to the traditional narrative.  But does the traditional narrative obscure more than it reveals?  Just how democratic is America relative to Britain as a matter of historical constitutional structure and contemporary political reality?  This Essay explores those questions through the lens of national elections in the United States and the United Kingdom in 2016 and 2017.  The Essay argues that contrary to conventional assumptions, many structural features of the U.S. Constitution are strikingly undemocratic in comparison to the U.K. constitution.  As a result, the “consent of the governed” may actually play a far larger role in electing national leaders and defining national priorities in the very country against which the Framers rebelled.

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