Is the Unites States Political System a Legitimate Democracy In any system whichclaims to be democratic, a question of its legitimacy remains.
A trulydemocratic political system has certain characteristics which prove itslegitimacy with their existence. One essential characteristic of a legitimatedemocracy is that it allows people to freely make choices without governmentintervention. Another necessary characteristic which legitimates government isthat every vote must count equally: one vote for every person. For this equalityto 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 crucialin a legitimate democracy.
No matter how unpopular their views, all peopleshould enjoy the freedoms of speech, press and assembly. Public policy should bemade publicly, not secretly, and regularly scheduled elections should be held.Since “legitimacy” may be defined as “the feeling or opinion thepeople have that government is based upon morally defensible principles and thatthey should therefore obey it,” then there must necessarily be a connectionbetween what the people want and what the government is doing if legitimacy isto occur.
The U.S. government may be considered legitimate in some aspects, andillegitimate in others. Because voting is class-biased, it may not be classifiedas a completely legitimate process. Although in theory the American system callsfor one vote per person, the low rate of turnout results in the upper and middleclasses ultimately choosing candidates for the entire nation. Class isdetermined by income and education, and differing levels of these two factorscan help explain why class bias occurs.
For example, because educated peopletend to understand politics more, they are more likely to vote. People with highincome and education also have more resources, and poor people tend to have lowpolitical 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 beingundemocratic because the proportion of people agreeing with a particularcandidate on a certain issue may not be adequately represented under thissystem. For example, “a candidate who gets 40 percent of the vote, as longas he gets more votes than any other candidate, can be electedeven thoughsixty percent of the voters voted against him”(Lind, 314). Politicalparties in America are weak due to the anti-party, anti-organization, andanti-politics cultural prejudices of the Classical Liberals. Because in the U.S.
there is no national discipline to force citizens into identifying with apolitical party, partisan identification tends to be an informal psychologicalcommitment to a party. This informality allows people to be apathetic if theywish, willingly giving up their input into the political process. Though thisapathy is the result of greater freedom in America than in other countries, itultimately decreases citizens incentive to express their opinions aboutissues, therefore making democracy less legitimate. Private interests distortpublic policy making because, when making decisions, politicians must takeaccount of campaign contributors. An “interest” may be defined as”any involvement in anything that affects the economic, social, oremotional well-being of a person.” When interests become organized intogroups, then politicians may become biased due to their influences.”Special interests buy favors from congressmen and presidents throughpolitical action committees (PACs), devices by which groups like corporations,professional associations, trade unions, investment banking groupscan pooltheir money and give up to $10,000 per election to each House and Senatecandidate”(Lind, 157). Consequently, those people who do not becomeorganized into interest groups are likely to be underrepresented financially.
This leads to further inequality and, therefore, greater illegitimacy in thedemocratic system. The method in which we elect the President is fairlylegitimate. The electoral college consists of representatives who we elect, whothen elect the President. Because this fills the requirement of regularlyscheduled elections, it is a legitimate process. The President is extremelypowerful in foreign policy making; so powerful that scholars now speak of the”Imperial Presidency,” implying that the President runs foreign policyas an emperor. The President is the chief diplomat, negotiator of treaties, andcommander-in-chief of the armed forces.
There has been a steady growth of thePresidents power since World War II. This abundance of foreign Presidentialpower may cause one to believe 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 ofCongress is legitimate because Senators and Representatives are elected directlyby the people. Power in Congress is usually determined by the seniority system.In the majority party (the party which controls Congress), the person who hasserved the longest has the most power. The problem with the seniority system isthat power is not based on elections or on who is most qualified to be in aposition of authority. Congress is also paradoxical because, while it is good atserving particular individual interests, it is bad at serving the generalinterest (due to its fragmented structure of committees and sub-committees).
Themanner in which Supreme Court Justices are elected is not democratic becausethey are appointed by the President for lifelong terms, rather than in regularlyscheduled elections. There is a “non-political myth” that the onlything that Judges do is apply rules neutrally. In actuality, they interpret lawsand the Constitution using their power of judicial review, the power explicitlygiven to them in Marbury v. Madison. Though it has been termed the”imperial judiciary” by some, the courts are the weakest branch ofgovernment because they depend upon the compliance of the other branches forenforcement of the laws. The bureaucracy is not democratic for many reasons.
Thekey features of a bureaucracy are that they are large, specialized, run byofficial and 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 the rules areexposed to the public. Bureaucracies violate the requirement of a legitimatedemocracy that public policy must be made publicly, not secretly. To be hired ina bureaucracy, a person must take a civil service exam. People working inbureaucracies may also only be fired under extreme circumstances.
This usuallyleads to the “Peter Principle;” that people who are competent at theirjobs 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 getits way about 60% of the time. Because one of the key legitimating factors ofgovernment is a connection between what it does and what the public wants,policy making can be considered 60% legitimate. Furthermore, most of what thefederal government does never reaches the public. Public opinion polls representthe small percentage of issues that people have heard about.
Though theindividual workings of the American government may not be particularlydemocratic, it must be somewhat legitimate overall because without legitimacy,government fails. However, “the people who run for and win public officeare not necessarily the most intelligent, best informed, wealthiest, or mostsuccessful business or professional people. At all levels of the politicalsystem,..
.it is the most politically ambitious people who are willing tosacrifice time, family and private life, and energy and effort for the power andcelebrity that comes with public office”(Dye, 58-59). The legitimacy of theUnited States 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. Englewood Cliffs,New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995.
Lind, Michael. The Next American Nation: TheNew Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution. New York: The Free Press,1995.