Is The Unites States Political System 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
electedeven though sixty percent of the voters voted against him”(Lind,

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.

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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 groupscan pool their money and give up
to $10,000 per election to each House and Senate candidate”(Lind, 157).
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 Presidents 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. Whos Running America? The Clinton Years. Englewood
Cliffs, New
Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Lind, Michael. The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the
American Revolution. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

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