Essay on Reconciliation of Democracy and Political Power

Published: 2021-07-16
1466 words
6 pages
13 min to read
University of Richmond
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Research paper
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James Madisons papers, which sought to offer support for the National Constitution, bring to the fore pertinent issues on the interaction between democracy and political power in Americas political discourse. Madisons observation that men are not angels formed the basis for the institution of checks and balances on powers of political leaders who have been given the privilege to govern with the anticipation that they would reciprocate by respecting the rights and freedoms of the givers of such powers through their support to governance systems and institutions. In some incidents, however, some leaders routinely ignore constitutional limits of their powers, and this deprives citizens their basic rights and freedoms (Zakaria, 1997; Diamond, 2015). This can be seen in the recent events in the US political discourse under the Obama and Trump administrations.

The practice of checks and balances has been at the heart of governance in the United States. Coined by the founders of the Union, this system sought to ensure that the federal government respected the rights of the states as well as created safeguards against abuse of civil liberties by egotistic leaders (La Porta et al., 2004). For example, the Executive branch can veto bills from the Congress, but members of the Congress have the powers to override such veto. The veto mechanism operates on the idea that, despite the president being a representative of the people, the pursuit of selfish interests may result in actions that endanger the interests of the citizens. This necessitates the presence of Congress to restrain such selfish attributes of occupants of the executive arm of the government.

The courts make a significant contribution to enforcing the checks and balances in Americas governance system. The operation of these checks and balances are seen when courts limit the powers of the executive and Congress by evaluating the constitutionality of laws and policies proposed by the said arms of government. This is guaranteed through constitution review and the independence of the judiciary. These mechanisms have yielded a wider space for democracy, respect for civil liberties and human rights (La Porta et al., 2004).Again, these checks and balances restrain the excesses of the president and those of members of the congress who may be representing the interests of a few members of the citizenry at the expense of the larger portion of the population.

Even in the presence of checks and balances, the rights and freedoms of the citizens can be abused (Diamond, 2015). This position is in line with Madisons observation that men are not angles and, as such, placing them in a position of authority to govern on behalf of the masses may not be sufficient in providing safeguards against violations of human rights and freedoms. For example, political developments that took place in the build up to the 2016 general elections and the eventual election of Trump as president have created tension between democracy and political power and this offers a lot of credence to what was envisaged by James Madison.

Trumps election pledge of solving the problem of immigration has brought the operation of checks and balances into sharp focus in the recent past. For instance, the decision to ban immigrants from predominantly Muslim nations has been challenged, and his executive orders reversed. For one, the immigration rules were disguised as a counter-terrorism strategy to prevent Muslims from entering the United States. This was a calculated effort to evade the constitutional threshold on religious discrimination (The Economist, 2017).Although the case was determined based on technicalities, the outcome demonstrated that the excesses of the executive arm of the government could be restrained through a judicial process. The result of the case highlights La Porta et al., (2004) assertion that the provisions of checks and balances elevate the judiciary above the executive and Congress due to the ability of this institution to conduct a constitutional review of Congress and executive decisions.

The repeated failure to repeal Obamacare perhaps remains one of the most explicit manifestations of the extent to which Congress can frustrate presidential decisions. Despite the majority representation that Trump enjoys in both houses of the Congress, he encountered several challenges due to a number of issues that touched on accountability of representatives before the people. In the several vetoes that the bill seeking a repeal of Obamacare faced, some Republicans were of the view that some of the provisions of the bill (as drafted by Paul Ryan) would not sufficiently reduce subsidies which are critical in helping the poor buy health insurance (The Economist, 2017).As a result, the president was dealt a blow in his health care reform agenda, forcing him to consider the support of some Democrats to pass the bill. These happenings mean that rights of citizens in regards to access to health care were defended and protected through the safeguards that Madison propagated.

The explosion of avenues of disseminating information has also provided citizens with new tools of fostering accountability among political leaders. In particular, the proliferation of social media has allowed citizens, through advocacy groups, to congregate and raise opposition to excesses of leaders whenever they see that systems and institutions have failed to work in line with the rationale for their design (The Economist, 2017). In this era of fake news disseminated through social media, it becomes more probable for leaders to fall victim to protests and harsh commentaries if the civilian population considers the conduct of such leaders as detrimental to individual rights and freedoms. Even though such tools did not exist at the time of Madison, social media has the ability influence leaders to comply with constitutional principles that were contemplated in Madisons view on separation of powers.

The rise of two dominant parties in US elections has further proved that men are not angles and, therefore need some form of checks and balances. Over the recent years, gerrymandering and redistricting have demonstrated that popular vote may not necessarily be reflected in happenings in Congress. These practices give incumbents undue advantage at the expense of candidates of smaller parties (The Economist, 2017). As a result, some representatives have remained permanent members of the Congress. The apparent permanence of some members raises doubts over the ability of such members to account before the citizens in matters of rights and freedoms. Partly, this problem can be worsened by party loyalty which is pursued at the expense of the interests of the people (Plattner, 2009). In other words, some leaders may not feel the pressure to address issues affecting the people because the dominance of a particular party in their areas of jurisdiction often favors their reelection.

Still, the dynamics of modern politics continue to provide political leaders especially the president with the opportunity to overreach his mandate as a peoples representative. No matter how loud NGOs and activities shout in the streets or on social media, it is evident that recent years have seen Madisons claim more apparent than before. This is because recent presidents have devised ways of mitigating the checks and balances that judges impose on the executive and Congress (The Economist, 2017).Even the well-rated Obama administration made several attempts to minimize the limitations Madisons idea of the powers of the presidency. The Obama administration created legal cracks on the principle of checks and balances on presidential powers. For example, during Obamas administration, the executive created a leeway for the president to order the killing of Americans secretly overseas or try foreign prisoners based on evidence that is only known to the state (The Economist, 2017). Evidently, the need for such powers undermines rights and freedoms of the citizens, but due to the small evil in men, checks and balance become a necessity.

Madison sought to suppress the human ego in order to create a balance between political power and democracy. It appears that this constitutional requirement has been responsible for the tensions that have often witnessed between the three arms of government. These tensions result from the fact that the behavior of elected men will always have a small element of evil which tends to fight these provisions extensively popularized by Madison and later enshrined in the US Constitution at the time of founding the nation. Despite the various attempts by political leaders to water down the principle of separation of powers, recent evidence on its effectiveness suggests that checks and balances as tools of taming excesses of political leaders remain as resilient as ever.


Diamond, L. (2015). Facing Up to the Democratic Recession. Journal of Democracy, 26(1), 141-155. doi:10.1353/jod.2015.0009

The Economist. (2017). Americas system of checks and balances seems to be working. The Economist.

La Porta, R., Lopez de Silanes, F., Pop-Eleches, C., & Shleifer, A. (2004). Judicial Checks and Balances. Journal of Political Economy, 112(2), 445-470. doi:10.2139/ssrn.410821

Plattner, M. F. (2009). Populism, Pluralism, and Liberal Democracy. Journal of Democracy, 21(1), 81-92. doi:10.1353/jod.0.0154

Zakaria, F. (1997). The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. Foreign Affairs, 76(6), 22. doi:10.2307/20048274

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