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Podium: America - the first nation to democratise before it industrialised

us Democracy triumphed without much resistance because the wealthy did not feel threatened by it. After the Civil War, however, when democracy came to embrace an industrial proletariat in the North and a rural proletariat in the South, the wealthy moved to restrict the franchise. And a weak working-class proved incapable of safeguarding universal suffrage.

Democracy in America developed within a constitutional structure designed to prevent majority rule. The republicanism of the Founding Fathers survives in the checks and balances of the Constitution, but also in the realm of attitudes: in antipathy to political parties, distrust of universal suffrage, and the belief that good government depends on the civic virtue and engagement of patriotic individuals.

Many still believe that too much democracy is a dangerous thing if the wrong sort of people vote. Renowned sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argued that the poorly educated, the socially isolated, and the economically insecure shared "unhealthy social attitudes". Better that such people remain politically inactive than be mobilised by rabble-rousing demagogues.

Samuel P Huntington – a scholar equally distinguished – complained that too many groups had been politicised during the 1960s, making too many unreasonable demands upon the government. Democracy needs a "measure of apathy and non-involvement" or it becomes unworkable.

If the Founding Fathers could observe, from their celestial seat, today's mass democracy, with its partisan fury and naked populism, they would doubtless be appalled. But if they could see how the Constitution they designed, even after 27 amendments, continues to check majority rule, I suspect they would be pleased. More people vote in presidential elections than at any other time. Yet no matter what the size of their majority, no president has a mandate for change – at least, not a mandate that the US Senate is bound to respect. As one writer put it: "The American majority has been an amiable shepherd dog kept forever on a lion's leash." Republicanism does indeed, so often, trump democracy.

Professor Adam Fairclough gave the 16th Raymond and Beverly Sackler Lecture on Human Rights at the University of Connecticut last week