The U.S. - a Legitimate Democracy?


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 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). 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 circumstances. 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.


Quotes: Search by Author