In struggling to determine whether or not the American political system is pluralistic, elitist, or a representative democracy one must first understand what these systems are. A pluralistic system of government focuses upon interest groups to convey the interests and views of public opinion. An elitist system focuses upon a small “elite” class to rule. Representative government relies upon the voting majority of citizens to reflect who’s best to rule.
The representative system of democracy was the intentional method of government initiated by the Founding Fathers (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin). They saw this as the antithesis of the English Parliamentary and Monarchical systems. Representation for the people by the people was the objective. Some two-hundred years later this system still exists after minor modification and adjustments.
With the twentieth century coming to a close one might make amends to say that our system of government has reverted to a more pluralistic system. Interest groups have gained so much power that it is unfair to say that they play no role in the validity of government. Our system has adopted pluralism instead of transforming into it. Today interest groups are a vehicle in which people can join and become a part of. They have the power to sway votes and change political action but do not dominate everyday life. They have merely become a part or extension of people’s everyday lives.
A truly democratic political system has certain characteristics (laws) which are guaranteed and enforced. These characteristics are defined in the Constitution. This contractual agreement between the people and government ensures that neither one can overpower or limit the other. The only way to change the characteristics within the constitution is through the use of representative government. Elected officials have the right to challenge and change the Constitution as time passes.
One essential characteristic of a valid and legitimate democracy is that it allows people to freely make choices without government intervention. Another necessary characteristic of representative 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. Failure to do so results in violation of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
The U.S. government may be considered representative in some aspects, and unrepresentative in others. Because voting is class-biased, it may not be classified as a completely representative 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 understand 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).
Minority rights are crucial in a representative 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 representative government may be defined as a constitutional system of government with defined laws and institutions, then there must necessarily be a connection between what the people want and what the government is doing if justice is to occur.
One way of ensuring that justice occurs and people become involved is by having the ability to vote. Since the early 1960s voter turnout 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”.
Political parties in America are weak due to the anti-party, anti-organization, and anti-politics prejudices of liberal groups. Because in the U.S. there is no national law which forces citizens into identifying with a political party, factional identification tends to be an informal psychological commitment to a party. This informal allegiance 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 the democratic system less representative by the people.
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”. 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 unrepresentation in the democratic system.
One aspect that ridicules representative government is beauracracy. 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 circumstances. This usually lead to the 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.
The method in which we elect the President is based on the representative system. 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 valid process. 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 controlled through citizen interaction. Thus representative government is uprooted with the presidency transforming into an elitist position. However, Presidential power in domestic affairs is limited. Therefore, though the President is very powerful in certain areas, he still is limited to the ability over which he can control aspects of the government.
The election process of Congress is representative 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 contradictory 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. A stigmatism exists, 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. This groundbreaking decision was implemented to ensure that the validity of the Judiciary was upheld and at the same time designate itself enough power to make decisions regarding the laws to be implemented over the people of the United States. Although they create and interpret law, the courts are the weakest branch of government because they depend upon the compliance of the other branches for enforcement of the laws.
Though the individual workings of the American government may not be particularly democratic, it must promote equality and opportunity, without it 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”.
The representative system of the United States government is limited. A system of government which was designed after no other model of government, assumes the possibility that it could have failed. The founding fathers new that this was a possibility and created a system that could adapt and change. Over time new aspects of government such as an expanded nation, expanded judiciary, corporate interest groups, and beaurocratic red tape. In order to ensure that government could live forever the Constitution was created. In order to change the constitution people needed to express their opinion and call on their representatives to change policy and law.
This representative government was the basis for the United States Government. It has not changed in over two-hundred years. Elitist individuals and pluralistic groups have attempted to sway the nature of politics over time. They fail to remember that without the ordinary people working for them nothing could be achieved. The representation of all remains the most vital part of democracy.
Dye, Thomas R. 1995. Who’s Running America? The Clinton Years.
(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall).
Greenburg, Edward S. and Benjamin I. Page. 1996. The Struggle For Democracy.
(New York: Harper Collins Publishers).
Lind, Michael. 1995. The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth
American Revolution. (New York: The Free Press).