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Explaining the Riddle of America: What Europeans Should Know about Madisonian Democracy

Laurence E. Lynn

Abstract


Abstract
Long a puzzle to both its admirers and detractors across the world, the United States of America has, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, become more puzzling than ever. A variety of explanations has been proposed for America’s paradoxical combination of apparent “statelessness” and its capability to produce positive policy outcomes. This essay will argue that, properly understood, the structural features of America’s constitutional scheme of governance, largely credited to founder James Madison, provide a necessary but insufficient explanation of the “riddle of America”. The success of America’s “compound republic” (in Madison’s words), was intended to depend not only on the capacities of its basic governing structures – separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and pluralism – but, in extremis, on the inherent fairness of “the people”, both of which have been achieved in American history but neither of which can be guaranteed. The source of authority and, of equal importance, the legitimacy of American governing institutions and their outcomes is the faith placed in them by citizens, elected officials, and judges, requiring a sense of responsibility on the part of all to the principles that protect all. That the sense of responsibility on the part of some, as America’s recent political crises demonstrates, can fail, jeopardizes not only domestic liberty and justice but threatens the well being of peoples far distant.

Key words: James Madison, checks and balances, structures of governance, U.S. Government

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