Since the Declaration of Independence, American have been concerned with a philosophical question, to which they had an optimistic answer. The question is, how can the government claim the right to exercise power over its subjects? And the answer was, the right is given by the people, when they deem the government to be just (because it respects and secures their rights) and consent to its exercising power. This consent is thought to be conferred through elections. The very fact that the U.S. government holds elections is thought to certify its legitimacy.
For two centuries, except for the Civil War period, this has been thought to be unproblematic. The simple old answer to the philosophical question has been simplified further, to the formula "This is a democracy." It is an answer that flattens out all the refined reasoning of the founding generation of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, but it suffices for most people and pundits.
But this answer no longer satisfies is the way it used to. We have discovered that the mechanisms of democracy can co-exist with tyranny, just as political philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have warned. Moreover, the current discontents of Americans run deeper than any since the Civil War.
~ Joseph Sobran, "The Crisis of Statism," The Free Market, July 1, 1994