Democracy?In any system which claims to be democratic, a question of itslegitimacy remains. A truly democratic political system has certaincharacteristics which prove its legitimacy with their existence. Oneessential characteristic of a legitimate democracy is that it allowspeople to freely make choices without government intervention. Anothernecessary characteristic which legitimates government is that every votemust count equally: one vote for every person. For this equality tooccur, all people must be subject to the same laws, have equal civilrights, and be allowed to freely express their ideas.
Minority rightsare also crucial in a legitimate democracy. No matter how unpopulartheir views, all people should enjoy the freedoms of speech, press andassembly. Public policy should be made publicly, not secretly, andregularly scheduled elections should be held. Since “legitimacy” may bedefined as “the feeling or opinion the people have that government isbased upon morally defensible principles and that they should thereforeobey it,” then there must necessarily be a connection between what thepeople want and what the government is doing if legitimacy is to occur.
The U.S. government may be considered legitimate in some aspects, andillegitimate in others. Because voting is class-biased, it may not beclassified as a completely legitimate process. Although in theory theAmerican system calls for one vote per person, the low rate of turnoutresults in the upper and middle classes ultimately choosing candidatesfor the entire nation. Class is determined by income and education, anddiffering levels of these two factors can help explain why class biasoccurs. For example, because educated people tend to understandpolitics more, they are more likely to vote. People with high incomeand education also have more resources, and poor people tend to have lowpolitical efficacy (feelings of low self-worth). Turnout, therefore, islow and, since the early 1960s, has been declining overall.
The “winner-take-all” system in elections may be criticized for beingundemocratic because the proportion of people agreeing with a particularcandidate on a certain issue may not be adequately represented underthis system. For example, “a candidate who gets 40 percent of the vote,as long as he gets more votes than any other candidate, can beelectedeven 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 theClassical Liberals. Because in the U.S. there is no national disciplineto force citizens into identifying with a political party, partisanidentification tends to be an informal psychological commitment to aparty. This informality allows people to be apathetic if they wish,willingly giving up their input into the political process. Though thisapathy is the result of greater freedom in America than in othercountries, it ultimately decreases citizens incentive to express theiropinions about issues, therefore making democracy less legitimate.
Private interests distort public policy making because, when makingdecisions, politicians must take account of campaign contributors. An”interest” may be defined as “any involvement in anything that affectsthe economic, social, or emotional well-being of a person.” Wheninterests become organized into groups, then politicians may becomebiased due to their influences. “Special interests buy favors fromcongressmen and presidents through political action committees (PACs),devices by which groups like corporations, professional associations,trade unions, investment banking groupscan pool their money and give upto $10,000 per election to each House and Senate candidate”(Lind, 157). Consequently, those people who do not become organized into interestgroups are likely to be underrepresented financially. This leads tofurther inequality and, therefore, greater illegitimacy in thedemocratic system.
The method in which we elect the President is fairly legitimate. Theelectoral college consists of representatives who we elect, who thenelect the President. Because this fills the requirement of regularlyscheduled elections, it is a legitimate process. The President isextremely powerful in foreign policy making; so powerful that scholarsnow speak of the “Imperial Presidency,” implying that the President runsforeign 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 Presidents power since World WarII. This abundance of foreign Presidential power may cause one tobelieve that our democratic system is not legitimate. However,Presidential power in domestic affairs is limited. Therefore, thoughthe President is very powerful in certain areas, the term “ImperialPresidency” is not applicable in all areas.
The election process of Congress is legitimate because Senators andRepresentatives are elected directly by the people. Power in Congressis usually determined by the seniority system. In the majority party(the party which controls Congress), the person who has served thelongest has the most power. The problem with the seniority system isthat power is not based on elections or on who is most qualified to bein a position of authority. Congress is also paradoxical because, whileit is good at serving particular individual interests, it is bad atserving the general interest (due to its fragmented structure ofcommittees and sub-committees).
The manner in which Supreme Court Justices are elected is notdemocratic because they are appointed by the President for lifelongterms, rather than in regularly scheduled elections. There is a”non-political myth” that the only thing that Judges do is apply rulesneutrally. In actuality, they interpret laws and the Constitution usingtheir power of judicial review, the power explicitly given to them inMarbury v. Madison.
Though it has been termed the “imperial judiciary” by some, the courtsare the weakest branch of government because they depend upon thecompliance of the other branches for enforcement of the laws.
The bureaucracy is not democratic for many reasons. The key featuresof a bureaucracy are that they are large, specialized, run by officialand fixed rules, relatively free from outside control, run on ahierarchy, and they must keep written records of everything they do. Bureaucracies focus on rules, but their members are unhappy when therules are exposed to the public. Bureaucracies violate the requirementof a legitimate democracy that public policy must be made publicly, notsecretly. To be hired in a bureaucracy, a person must take a civilservice exam. People working in bureaucracies may also only be firedunder extreme circumstances. This usually leads to the “PeterPrinciple;” that people who are competent at their jobs are promoteduntil they are in jobs in which they are no longer competent.
Policy making may be considered democratic to an extent. The publictends to get its way about 60% of the time. Because one of the keylegitimating factors of government is a connection between what it doesand what the public wants, policy making can be considered 60%legitimate. Furthermore, most of what the federal government does neverreaches the public. Public opinion polls represent the small percentageof issues that people have heard about.
Though the individual workings of the American government may not beparticularly democratic, it must be somewhat legitimate overall becausewithout legitimacy, government fails. However, “the people who run forand win public office are not necessarily the most intelligent, bestinformed, wealthiest, or most successful business or professionalpeople. At all levels of the political system,it is the mostpolitically ambitious people who are willing to sacrifice time, familyand private life, and energy and effort for the power and celebrity thatcomes with public office”(Dye, 58-59). The legitimacy of the UnitedStates government is limited, but in a system of government which wasdesigned not to work, complete democracy is most likely impossible.
BibliographyDye, Thomas R. Whos Running America? The Clinton Years. EnglewoodCliffs, NewJersey: Prentice Hall, 1995.
Lind, Michael. The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and theFourth American Revolution. New York: The Free Press, 1995.
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