The US


The U.S. – A Legitimate Democracy? Essay, Research Paper

In any system which claims to be democratic, a question of its

legitimacy remains. A truly democratic political system has certain

characteristics which prove its legitimacy with their existence. One

essential characteristic of a legitimate democracy is that it allows

people to freely make choices without government intervention. Another

necessary characteristic which legitimates government is that every

vote must count equally: one vote for every person. For this equality

to occur, all people must be subject to the same laws, have equal

civil rights, and be allowed to freely express their ideas. Minority

rights are also crucial in a legitimate democracy. No matter how

unpopular their views, all people should enjoy the freedoms of speech,

press and assembly. Public policy should be made publicly, not

secretly, and regularly scheduled elections should be held. Since

“legitimacy” may be defined as “the feeling or opinion the people have

that government is based upon morally defensible principles and that

they should therefore obey it,” then there must necessarily be a

connection between what the people want and what the government is

doing if legitimacy is to occur.

The U.S. government may be considered legitimate in some

aspects, and illegitimate in others. Because voting is class-biased,

it may not be classified as a completely legitimate process. Although

in theory the American system calls for one vote per person, the low

rate of turnout results in the upper and middle classes ultimately

choosing candidates for the entire nation. Class is determined by

income and education, and differing levels of these two factors can

help explain why class bias occurs. For example, because educated

people tend to underezd politics more, they are more likely to vote.

People with high income and education also have more resources, and

poor people tend to have low political efficacy (feelings of low

self-worth). Turnout, therefore, is low and, since the early 1960s,

has been declining overall. The “winner-take-all” system in elections

may be criticized for being undemocratic because the proportion of

people agreeing with a particular candidate on a certain issue may not

be adequately represented under this system. For example, “a candidate

who gets 40 percent of the vote, as long as he gets more votes than

any other candidate, can be elected?even though sixty percent of the

voters voted against him”(Lind, 314).

Political parties in America are weak due to the anti-party,

anti-organization, and anti-politics cultural prejudices of the

Classical Liberals. Because in the U.S. there is no national

discipline to force citizens into identifying with a political party,

partisan identification tends to be an informal psychological

commitment to a party. This informality allows people to be apathetic

if they wish, willingly giving up their input into the political

process. Though this apathy is the result of greater freedom in

America than in other countries, it ultimately decreases citizens?

incentive to express their opinions about issues, therefore making

democracy less legitimate. Private interests distort public policy

making because, when making decisions, politicians must take account

of campaign contributors. An “interest” may be defined as “any

involvement in anything that affects the economic, social, or

emotional well-being of a person.” When interests become organized

into groups, then politicians may become biased due to their

influences. “Special interests buy favors from congressmen and

presidents through political action committees (PACs), devices by

which groups like corporations, professional associations, trade

unions, investment banking groups?can pool their money and give up

to $10,000 per election to each House and Senate candidate”(Lind,


Consequently, those people who do not become organized into

interest groups are likely to be underrepresented financially. This

leads to further inequality and, therefore, greater illegitimacy in

the democratic system. The method in which we elect the President is

fairly legitimate. The electoral college consists of representatives

who we elect, who then elect the President. Because this fills the

requirement of regularly scheduled elections, it is a legitimate

process. The President is extremely powerful in foreign policy making;

so powerful that scholars now speak of the “Imperial Presidency,”

implying that the President runs foreign policy as an emperor. The

President is the chief diplomat, negotiator of treaties, and

commander-in-chief of the armed forces. There has been a steady growth

of the President?s power since World War II. This abundance of foreign

Presidential power may cause one to believe that our democratic system

is not legitimate. However, Presidential power in domestic affairs is

limited. Therefore, though the President is very powerful in certain

areas, the term “Imperial Presidency” is not applicable in all areas.

The election process of Congress is legitimate because

Senators and Representatives are elected directly by the people. Power

in Congress is usually determined by the seniority system. In the

majority party (the party which controls Congress), the person who has

served the longest has the most power. The problem with the seniority

system is that power is not based on elections or on who is most

qualified to be in a position of authority. Congress is also

paradoxical because, while it is good at serving particular individual

interests, it is bad at serving the general interest (due to its

fragmented structure of committees and sub-committees).

The manner in which Supreme Court Justices are elected is not

democratic because they are appointed by the President for lifelong

terms, rather than in regularly scheduled elections. There is a

“non-political myth” that the only thing that Judges do is apply rules

neutrally. In actuality, they interpret laws and the Constitution

using their power of judicial review, the power explicitly given to

them in Marbury v. Madison. Though it has been termed the “imperial

judiciary” by some, the courts are the weakest branch of government

because they depend upon the compliance of the other branches for

enforcement of the laws.

The bureaucracy is not democratic for many reasons. The key

features of a bureaucracy are that they are large, specialized, run by

official and fixed rules, relatively free from outside control, run on

a hierarchy, and they must keep written records of everything they do.

Bureaucracies focus on rules, but their members are unhappy when the

rules are exposed to the public. Bureaucracies violate the requirement

of a legitimate democracy that public policy must be made publicly,

not secretly. To be hired in a bureaucracy, a person must take a civil

service exam. People working in bureaucracies may also only be fired

under extreme circumezces. This usually leads to the “Peter

Principle;” that people who are competent at their jobs are promoted

until they are in jobs in which they are no longer competent.

Policy making may be considered democratic to an extent. The public

tends to get its way about 60% of the time. Because one of the key

legitimating factors of government is a connection between what it

does and what the public wants, policy making can be considered 60%

legitimate. Furthermore, most of what the federal government does

never reaches the public. Public opinion polls represent the small

percentage of issues that people have heard about.

Though the individual workings of the American government may

not be particularly democratic, it must be somewhat legitimate overall

because without legitimacy, government fails. However, “the people who

run for and win public office are not necessarily the most

intelligent, best informed, wealthiest, or most successful business or

professional people. At all levels of the political system,?it is the

most politically ambitious people who are willing to sacrifice time,

family and private life, and energy and effort for the power and

celebrity that comes with public office”(Dye, 58-59). The legitimacy

of the United States government is limited, but in a system of

government which was designed not to work, complete democracy is most

likely impossible.

Dye, Thomas R. Who?s Running America? The Clinton Years. Englewood

Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Lind, Michael. The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the

Fourth American Revolution. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

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