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Voting in the American System of Government

Although voting is one essential feature of our political system, it is not the essence of the American system, nor is it sufficient to make a government morally legitimate.

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From the Editors:

In our ongoing series spotlighting A New Textbook of Americanism: The Politics of Ayn Rand, we are pleased to publish the chapter contributed by philosopher Gregory Salmieri, “On the Role of Voting in the American System of Government.” In it, Salmieri explains why it’s incorrect to call America a “democracy,” as if majority rule through the ballot box were the essential feature distinguishing the American form of government from others. 

“Voting certainly is one essential feature of our political system,” Salmieri writes, “but it is not the essence of the American system, nor is it sufficient to make a government morally legitimate. If it were, no essential difference would exist between the American system and the mob rule of ancient Athens, and nothing would be wrong with a political system under which people are routinely killed or exiled when the public mood turns against them.” He goes on to explain how a government’s moral legitimacy can be determined only by assessing its dedication to protecting individual rights.

Rand’s plan for the original “Textbook of Americanism” was to explain the vital principles needed to understand, appreciate and defend the American political achievement and the individualist political-economic system that the Founding Fathers created. Intending to present her views through a series of forty-one questions and answers, she wrote twelve of the answers herself before shelving the project (she died in 1982). A few years ago, Jonathan Hoenig asked a number of authors to answer the remaining questions Rand had mapped out for the original project. The resulting book includes her original questions and answers along with new answers from those other authors.

We have previously republished Onkar Ghate’s chapter, “On American Political Philosophy” (one part focusing on political principles and the other on economic principles), and Elan Journo’s chapter, “What Should a Distinctively American Foreign Policy Do?” Also, in case you missed Journo’s article describing the entire book’s many valuable chapters, you should be aware that it includes never-before-published material from Ayn Rand  —  eighteen pages of Rand’s previously unseen remarks given in a private workshop on ethics and politics that she conducted in 1971.

*   *   *

The United States of America is regularly described as a “democracy” in a way that implies that this word names the essence of our political system. By “essence,” I mean the fundamental feature that sets the American system apart from the systems by which other nations were governed in the centuries prior to America’s founding, and the feature that America has since inspired much of the rest of the world to adopt. Because of this, “democracy” is often regarded as our fundamental political value — as the basic thing that we should strive to achieve more consistently in our own government and to promote abroad. Our oldest surviving political party dating back to 1828 takes its name from the word. Since about that time, a host of measures have been championed as “democratic.” These include the extension of suffrage to African Americans in 1870 and women in 1920, late-nineteenth-century amendments to many state constitutions allowing laws to be passed by referendum, and the establishment of campaign finance laws in the late twentieth century. Throughout this period, the term “democracy” has been used to champion laws such as the antitrust acts and various taxation and welfare policies aimed at reducing economic inequality. With regard to foreign policy, America entered World War I, in Woodrow Wilson’s words, to “make the world safe for democracy,” and the guiding principle behind George W. Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks was the promotion of “democracy” in the Middle East.1

However, it is not always clear what “democracy” means, whether it always means the same thing, and, if not, which of its meanings refer to something that is both good and consistent with the American system of government. Recall that some of the most evil and repressive regimes of recent history have described themselves as democracies: the “German Democratic Republic,” which had to build a wall to prevent its oppressed citizens from escaping into West Berlin; “Democratic Kampuchea,” which killed millions of its citizens during its five-year reign; and the present-day “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” more commonly referred to as “North Korea.”

Some of the most evil and repressive regimes of recent history have described themselves as democracies.
The word originates, of course, in ancient Greece, where it referred to a political system, such as that of Athens, in which the power (crasis) resides in the people (demos) as a whole. This was literally true in Athens, where as many decisions as practicable were made by an assembly of all available male citizens (a category that excluded slaves and resident aliens). The remaining decisions were made by smaller groups or individuals selected either by vote or by lot. The majority was empowered to do whatever it pleased.

By its fickle will, prominent citizens were regularly ostracized and occasionally executed. Socrates’ execution in 399 B.C. for “impiety” is the most famous example, but the philosophers Anaxagoras and Aristotle each faced similar charges, in both cases shortly after political factions with whom they were associated fell out of favor. Athenian generals and orators were also regularly exiled, and sometimes recalled from exile, for similarly transient reasons. Ancient critics, including Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides, blamed democracy for a host of other rash and unjust decisions, including those that led to the decades of war with Sparta that ended Athens’ standing as a world power. As a system of majority rule, such democracy lends itself to the abuse of minorities of all sorts. In particular, the ancient critics point out, “democracy” is a system in which the wealthy are vulnerable to expropriation by the envious masses.

In eighteenth-century English, “democracy” was understood to mean a political system like that of Ancient Athens. America’s Founders were anxious to point out the differences between democracy and the system they were building at both the state and federal levels. In Federalist 63, James Madison writes that what distinguishes “the American Governments” from those of ancient city-states is “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity” from American government. Neither at the state nor the federal level did citizens vote directly on policies. Instead, policies were set by popularly elected representatives, and the system of representation was devised so as to hinder the formation of majority factions that could sacrifice the rights of minorities.

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Even apart from the historical examples, it should be easy to see the perils of “democracy” in its original meaning, which Ayn Rand glossed as follows: “unlimited majority rule, a social system in which one’s work, one’s property, one’s mind, and one’s life are at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority at any moment for any purpose.”2

The frequent appeals to “democracy” in our contemporary political rhetoric reflect and reinforce the misguided idea that voting is the essential feature of the American political system and the cause of its moral legitimacy.

The frequent appeals to “democracy” in our contemporary political rhetoric reflect and reinforce the misguided idea that voting is the essential feature of the American political system and the cause of its moral legitimacy.
Voting certainly is one essential feature of our political system, but it is not the essence of the American system, nor is it sufficient to make a government morally legitimate. If it were, no essential difference would exist between the American system and the mob rule of ancient Athens, and nothing would be wrong with a political system under which people are routinely killed or exiled when the public mood turns against them.

The myopic focus on voting fostered by the current use of the term “democracy” has had disastrous effects. Wilson’s attempts to promote democracy abroad helped set the stage for the formation of Communist Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany.3  America’s recent attempts to promote democracy in the Middle East precipitated the elections by which both the terrorist group Hamas came to power in the Palestinian Territories and Islamic theocrats came to power in Egypt. It also led to the chaos in Iraq and Syria out of which ISIS emerged. In each case, American policy opposed autocratic regimes in favor of alternatives that had more popular support, but our policymakers gave little thought to what sorts of governments the majorities among these populations supported.

Extolling “democracy,” as the term is presently used, leads to an exclusive focus on the question of who should govern (the majority or some special faction), ignoring the question of how people ought to be governed. But this latter is the fundamental question; by comparison, the issue of how specific officials and policies should be selected is a mere detail. Putting aside for the moment the question of who governs, we can see that certain ways of governing are better — more just — and others worse.

For example, a government that prohibits slavery is better than an otherwise similar government under which some people are allowed to  “own” others. Likewise, a government under which individuals cannot be punished until a jury of their peers has convicted them of violating a specific law that is objectively written and published in advance is better than a government under which the some people are empowered to summarily punish anyone they please. It is not the will of the people that makes objective law and the prohibition against slavery good. Quite the reverse: what makes a people good is recognizing and implementing such moral truths as that objective law is just and slavery is unjust. It is only on the basis of such truths that we can grasp why voting is essential to the moral legitimacy of a government.

This is the essence of the American system of government. Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, begins with a metaphysical and moral foundation, from which it first derives the proper function of government, and only then addresses the issue of how and by whom a government should be established or altered. It is this objective moral perspective rather than the subjective deference to majority rule that animated the American Revolution, including the process by which our state and federal constitutions were crafted.

The Declaration’s foundational premise is “that all men are created equal.” To claim this is to deny that there are any innate distinctions of rank, by which some individuals or groups have natural authority over others. Reflecting on the Declaration fifty years later, Thomas Jefferson described this fundamental premise as “the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.”4 It is “from that equal creation,” as Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration puts it, that human beings derive the “inalienable rights” among which the Declaration counts the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A government is good insofar as it serves to protect individual rights, and it is bad insofar as it jeopardizes them.
The finished draft of course says that men are “endowed by their Creator” with these rights, but the context makes clear that the Creator — whether a personal God or an impersonal Nature — endows us with rights precisely by creating us as equals. Each of us is equally a human being, who can and must lead his own life, using his own judgment to define and achieve his own happiness, rather than relying on anyone else to rule or to serve him. Because of this, each of us needs and has a right to lead his own life devoted to his own chosen ends, free from forcible interference by others. A right, as Rand aptly put it, is “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”5

It is “to secure these rights,” the Declaration tells us, that “Governments are instituted among Men.” The fundamental standard for evaluating a government follows from this statement of its purpose. A government is good insofar as it serves to protect individual rights, and it is bad insofar as it jeopardizes them.

Since government’s purpose is securing the rights of the governed, and since no one is by nature entitled to govern over anyone else, it is the individuals governed by a government who must judge whether it is fulfilling its purpose, and they must alter or replace it when it fails to do so. It is in this sense that the Declaration tells us governments derive “their just powers from, the consent of the governed” so that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [viz. individual rights], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

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Since none among the governed (much less anyone apart from them) has any natural authority over the rest, when making decisions about how to govern themselves, they must approach one another as equals. Voting is an indispensable means to decision-making among equals, since it distributes authority equally among all concerned. This is why voting is an essential component of a moral government. This does not mean, however, that individuals are morally entitled to vote for any system of government they please. An inalienable right is one that no one, and no group, may violate. Accordingly, there can be no right of any majority to structure the government in a way that sacrifices the rights of a minority.

The people have the right to institute only that form of government that they judge will best promote their safety and happiness by protecting the inalienable rights of all the individuals involved. It is the principle of rights, and not the mere will of the people, that makes a government legitimate. The people’s right and responsibility is to recognize and implement this principle, and each of the people has a moral responsibility to himself and his fellows to take this principle as his standard when casting his vote.

The passage we have been discussing from the Declaration of Independence concerns a people’s decision to fundamentally alter its system of government —  to establish a new constitution or amend an existing one. But the point that voters have a moral responsibility to vote only for those people or measures that they judge to be consistent with the government’s function of protecting individual rights applies also to all the votes within a proper political system. This includes both votes by individual citizens for representatives and votes by legislators for laws. The power that voters of both sorts properly have is not a power to impose their will on others; it is the power to use their judgment to determine how best to carry out the proper functions of government. As Rand puts the point:

Voting is merely a proper political device — within a strictly, constitutionally delimited sphere of action — for choosing the practical means of implementing a society’s basic principles. But those principles are not determined by vote.6

As we have seen, even in the case of voting to ratify or amend a constitution, the basic principles cannot be determined by vote. For it is only by recognizing that all human beings are equal with respect to their rights (so that none may subjugate others) that a people realizes the moral need for voting as part of the process of establishing or altering a system of government. It follows from this same principle that voting is not the source of individuals’ rights, but instead a means by which a society can work together to articulate and secure these rights.

Voting certainly is one essential feature of our political system, but it is not the essence of the American system, nor is it sufficient to make a government morally legitimate.
Some individuals will necessarily be subjugated by others in any society that does not implement what Madison called “the vital principle of free government” namely: “that those who are to be bound by laws ought to have a voice in making them.”7 For this reason voting is an indispensable part of any moral system of government. Its purpose is not to enable the majority to exercise its will, but to prevent anyone from being in a position to arbitrarily impose his will on others — as lawmakers would be if they were not answerable to the people. This is the genius of the system that Madison and America’s other Founders devised.

Leonard Peikoff explains:

By defining in detail the division of powers within the government and the ruling procedures, including the brilliant mechanism of checks and balances, they established a system whose operation and integrity were independent, so far as possible, of the moral character of any of its temporary officials — a system impervious, so far as possible, to subversion by an aspiring dictator or by the public mood of the moment.8

What does this imply about the questions surrounding the word “democracy” with which we began?

With regard to the terminological issue, we have seen why it is misleading to describe America as a democracy. Some of the defects of this description are remedied by the phrase “liberal democracy,” which The Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a democratic system of representative government in which individual rights and civil liberties are officially recognized and protected, and the exercise of political power is limited by the rule of law.”9 The phrase has gained currency over the past few decades, prompting its addition to the dictionary in 2010.

Describing America and similarly governed nations as “liberal democracies” is a marked improvement over describing them merely as “democracies.” However, both the phrase and its definition imply that this system of government is a species of the genus “democracy,” and that the feature of voting (which unites all the members of this genus) is fundamental to the feature of respecting individual rights (which sets liberal democracies apart from democracies of other sorts).

In fact, as we have seen, the reverse is the case: America was founded on the understanding that protecting individual rights is the purpose of government, and voting is merely a crucial means to this end. If the term “liberal” (here meaning “respecting individual rights”) is to be paired with the term “democratic” (meaning “involving elections”) to describe the American system of government, they should be paired in the opposite order: America has a democratic liberal system, not a liberal democracy.

In any case, once one has established that we have a system based on individual rights, it is redundant to add a term denoting the presence of elections because they are a necessary feature of any rights-respecting system. Moreover, the term “liberal” is itself vague, being associated with a nineteenth-century political movement that began as a defense of individual rights, but gradually transmuted, in the United States at least, into a movement that apologized for socialism.10 Unfortunately, there is no unambiguous name for the American system of government. The term “republic” was often used by our Founders, but this term too has often been used in other senses, as in the names of several Communist dictatorships mentioned earlier. Given this history, we might use the term “constitutional republic” or perhaps “individualistic republic” to name the American system.

Voting is essential to America and to any moral system of government, not because it enables the majority to assert its will, but because it protects each individual from being subject to the will of others. With this in mind, how should we evaluate the various policies that are promoted in the name of democracy? Those “democratic” reforms that extend the vote to previously disenfranchised individuals, such as African Americans and women, are morally good and represent a more consistent implementation of America’s founding principles. The same cannot be said of “democratic” reforms, such as constitutional amendments allowing referenda, that are intended to make the government more directly responsive to the will of the majority, nor can it be said of any measures that violate the rights of some in order to make people more equal in respects other than their freedom to lead their own lives by their own judgment.

With regard to encouraging “democracy” in other countries, we must recognize that, as Rand put it:

The right to vote is a consequence, not a primary cause, of a free social system — and its value depends on the constitutional structure implementing and strictly delimiting the voters’ power; unlimited majority rule is an instance of the principle of tyranny.11

The fact that a majority of us wants something is no reason to think that it is right for us to have it, much less that it is right for us to seize it by governmental force at the expense of some minority.
It is only to the extent that a society is committed to the principles articulated in America’s Declaration of Independence that it is capable of forming and maintaining a just government, and there has not yet been a society that has implemented these principles consistently. How a society with a substantial commitment to these principles, such as our own, should interact with one that has little or no recognition of them is a difficult question to which I do not have a complete answer. But part of the answer is that we must understand and promote what is good about our own form of government. This includes understanding the specific function elections properly serve in our system of government and encouraging other societies to hold elections when they will serve this function, rather than encouraging them even when they will be vehicles for majorities to tyrannize over minorities.

Above all, we must not let our own elections devolve into such vehicles. Every prominent figure in contemporary American culture encourages us to gang up on some minority group, be it the rich, immigrants, or others, and impose our will on them via the ballot box. In the face of this, each of us must remember that the fact that a majority of us wants something is no reason to think that it is right for us to have it, much less that it is right for us to seize it by governmental force at the expense of some minority. Every individual has an unalienable right to his life, his liberty, his property, and the pursuit of his own happiness. The sole purpose of a proper government is to secure these rights. We therefore have no moral right to vote for any person or any policy for any motive other than the sincere and reasoned conviction that it will serve this purpose.12

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  1. Wilson quoted from: Woodrow Wilson, War Messages, 65th Cong., 1st Sess. Senate Doc. No. 5, Serial No. 7264, Washington, D.C., 1917; pp. 3-8, <https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Wilson%27s_War_Message_ to_Congress>, accessed August 29, 2018. Bush quoted from: Maura Reynolds, “Bush says U.S. must spread democracy,” Baltimore Sun, November 3, 2003, <https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bal-te.bush07nov07-story.html> accessed August 29, 2018.
  2. Ayn Rand, “How to Read (and Not to Write),” in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, ed. Leonard Peikoff, (New York: Meridian, 1990), 133–34.
  3. “JFK: High Class Beatnik?” Human Events 17:35 (September 1, 1960), 393–394.
  4. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Roger Weightman, June 24, 1826.
  5. “Man’s Rights,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, 110; and in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 369.
  6. “Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?”, The Voice of Reason, 21.
  7. Madison’s 1821 note to his speech on the right of suffrage, “Second Note to Speech of Mr. Madison of August 7th, 1787, Found Among His Papers,” The Papers of James Madison vol. 3, (Allston Mygatt, 1842), Appendix, xii.
  8. Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, (New York: Meridian, [1982] 1993 trade paperback edition), 112.
  9. Oxford English Dictionary, <https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/liberal_democracy>, accessed August 29, 2018.
  10. On the evolution of liberalism, see Rand, “The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age” in Voice of Reason; Lewis and Salmieri, “A Philosopher on Her Times” in Gotthelf and Salmieri, eds., A Companion to Ayn Rand, 356–537; and Garmong, “The Arc of Liberalism: Locke, Mill, and Rand” in Salmieri and Mayhew eds., The Philosophy of Capitalism.
  11. “The Lessons of Vietnam,” The Voice of Reason, 140 (emphasis Rand’s).
  12. I’d like to refer readers to several sources from which I drew many of the ideas and historical information in this piece. On the history of the word “democracy,” see John Dunn’s Democracy: A History (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005). On the essence of the American system of government, see Chapter 5 of Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels. On rights and the purpose of government, see Ayn Rand’s articles “Man’s Rights” and “The Nature of Government,” both of which are included in both The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
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Gregory Salmieri

Gregory Salmieri, PhD in philosophy, is a senior scholar of philosophy in the Salem Center for Policy at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business. He holds the Brigham Fellowship for the Study of Objectivism and is the director of the center’s Program for Objectivity in Thought, Action, and Enterprise. He is co-editor of A Companion to Ayn Rand and Foundations of a Free Society and has published and lectured on epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophies of Aristotle and Ayn Rand.

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