Liberalism vs. Democracy

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In writing the Constitution the founding fathers attempted to synthesize the calls of the Declaration of Independence—ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to protect individual rights with the desires of democracy to develop collective self-government. The intricate system of checks and balances was designed for the purpose of preserving this sense of equilibrium between liberalism and democracy; however, as the nation has matured—through refoundings and periods of crisis—this stability has often vacillated. Today, Milkis and Landy suggest that the public faces distinctive challenges in balancing liberalism and democracy resulting from a new sense of factionalism and a growth in the administrative state. These challenges have manifested themselves through the political culture, the evolved and competitive roles of institutions to protect individual liberties, and through the impacts of crisis situations; American history has been a narrative describing how these forces and institutions have abetted the competition between liberalism and democracy. New factionalism and the growth of the administrative state have tipped the scales in favor of liberalism to the point where Milkis and Landy question if we have lost our ability to conduct democracy. Although an increased awareness of individual rights hinders collective self-government, it does not erase the fundamental principles that maintain a proper balance between liberalism and democracy. As the events of 9/11 have demonstrated, democratic principles still play an integral role in protecting the common good.

America will always face the challenge of mediating the wants of collective self-rule and liberalism due to the very nature of American political culture. The character of the citizenry of the United States was founded upon the revolutionary principles: a fierce sense of individuality and a sense of distrust towards governmental authority. Without the people’s tenacity to pursue liberalism, “the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of an eminent tribunal” (532). Yet were America’s founding principles based solely upon liberalism, the rise of factions—“A number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (68)—would cause what the founding father’s feared most: tyranny of the majority. This would occur because in pursuing their own interests, without considering the common good, majorities would suppress the liberties of other citizens by advancing only their own rights. As Landy and Milkis suggest, a balance between liberalism and democracy is imperative to prevent factionalism so that collective self-rule can facilitate the protection of individual liberties and ensure the lasting power of representative democracy. The brilliance of the Constitution is that the system of checks and balances tempers the wills of tyrannical majorities. The way in which the Constitution’s design fosters the balance between liberalism and democracy lies in its foundations upon the people. Under this system, the rights listed in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence were supreme but the citizenry still recognized the democratic needs of the government to protect the common good: “They sought to craft a constitutional system that followed the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which taught that interests could be compromised but that the rights of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; were sacred and must be inoculated from interests and democratic sentiments” (534). Milkis and Landy hold that this balance between the competing notions of liberalism and democracy has shifted back and forth over time; however, since the New Deal, the scales have been tipped in...
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