Democracy in the governments of countries today is representative, meaning that the people rule indirectly through their elected public officials. Democracy today is also constitutional, meaning that government by the people’s representatives is both limited and empowered to protect equally and justly the rights of everyone in the country.
Representatives elected by the people try to serve the interest of their constituents within the framework of a constitutionally limited government. The constitution ensures both majority rule and minority rights.
The U.S. government is a prime example of representative and constitutional democracy. It is a representative democracy because the people, the source of its authority, elect individuals to represent their interests in its institutions. The formation and function of the government is based on majority rule. The people, for example, elect their representatives by majority vote in free, fair, competitive, and periodic elections in which practically all adult citizens of the country have the right to vote. Further, the people’s representatives in Congress make laws by majority vote. A chief executive, the President, elected by the people, then enforces these laws.
Representative democracy in the United States is constitutional because it is both limited and empowered by the supreme law, the Constitution, for the ultimate purpose of protecting equally the rights of all the people. The periodic election by the people of their representatives in government is conducted according to the Constitution and the laws made under it. The votes of the majority decide the winners of the election, but the rights of the minority are constitutionally protected so that they can freely criticize the majority of the moment and attempt to replace their representatives in the next election. From time to time, there is a lawful and orderly transition of power from one group of leaders to another. Legitimate legal limitations on the people’s government make the United States a constitutional democracy, not an unlimited democracy in which the tyranny of the majority against political minorities could persist without effective challenges.
In earlier autocratic governments, the unrestrained power of a king or an aristocracy had typically threatened liberty. However, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and other framers of the U.S. Constitution feared that a tyrannical majority of the people could pose a new challenge to liberty. Madison expressed his fear of majority tyranny in an October 17, 1788, letter to Thomas Jefferson:
Madison foresaw that in a representative democracy a threat to individuals’ liberty could come from an unrestrained majority. Unless they are effectively limited by a well-constructed constitution, which the people observe faithfully, the winners of a democratic election could persecute the losers and prevent them from competing for control of the government in a future election. This kind of danger to liberty and justice can be overcome by constructing and enforcing constitutional limits on majority rule in order to protect minority rights. – John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide