The Democratic Process

JOHN ADAMS, Thoughts on Government, 1776

American self-government is founded on a set of basic principles. Some grow out of the organic characteristics of the nation, and others have evolved from the practical application of the fundamental theses expressed in the preamble to the Constitution.

The judicial system is premised on a belief in the equality of all individuals, in the inviolability of human rights and in the supremacy of the law. No individual or group, regardless of wealth, power or position, may defy these principles. No person, for any reason, may be denied the protection of the law.

The incorporation of these and other fundamentals into an efficient and practicable pattern of self-government required the formulation of certain working principles. The nation's physical size and its large population made literal self-government an impossibility. In its place, the Founding Fathers elaborated the principle of representative government.

At regular intervals, the voters choose public officials to represent them in government. The voters delegate their authority to these officials, and to administrators appointed by them.

Public officials exercise the power given them by the people only so long as the people are satisfied with their conduct and management of public affairs. The people have a number of ways of expressing their will and of reminding officials that they are really public servants as well as leaders of the nation.

The essential control mechanism is the periodic election of the principal officers of the legislative and executive branches. Candidates for public office submit their platforms, or programs, to the voters for their scrutiny and approval. Elected officials can never forget they must face a day of reckoning at regular intervals.

The dialogue between the voters and their elected representatives is a continuing one. It includes the daily flow of mail, telegrams, telephone calls and face-to-face contact to which every elected official must respond. American voters are vocal about their views on public issues and do not hesitate to bring their opinions to the attention of their representatives. One study found that the average member of the U.S. House of Representatives received 521 pieces of mail per week, most of it from constituents. Some U.S. senators have reported receiving up to 10,000 separate communications in a one-week period.

It is also common for voters to visit their congressmen individually or in delegations to press for action on specific issues. When the legislature is not in session, it is a rare representative who does not return to his home district to sound out voters on upcoming legislative issues.

In these ways the voters maintain their control of the governmental process. In addition, the government is structured to prevent abuse of power by any single branch or public official. As has been noted previously, the three branches of the federal government -- legislative, executive and judicial -- are semiautonomous. Yet each has certain authority over the others. The pattern of checks and balances, implicit in the division of authority, guards against undue concentration of power in any one sector of the government at any level.

There is a price to be paid for maintaining these safeguards. A democratic government inevitably moves more slowly -- and sometimes less efficiently -- than a government where power is concentrated in the hands of one individual or a small group. But the American experience throughout history has been that hasty government action is often ill-considered and harmful. If the price of full public debate on all major issues is a relative loss of efficiency, it is a fair price and one the American people willingly pay. Moreover, in times of national emergency the government has proved it can move swiftly and effectively to defend the national interest.