Complete and true democracy is almost impossible to achieve, and has been the
primary goal of many nations, beginning from ancient civilizations of Greece and

Roman Empire, all the way to the government of the United States today. There
are a few essential characteristics which must be present in a political system
for it to be even considered democratic. 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. All of these elements and government processes are a regular part of
the American government. Yet, even with all the above elements present in the
governmental operations of our country, numerous aspects of the governmental
process undermine its legitimacy, and bring to question if United States
government is really a true democracy. Considering the achievement of complete
democracy is most likely impossible, the political system of American government
is democratic, but its democratic legitimacy is clearly limited in many
respects. One of the first notable aspects of the United States government which
brings the democratic legitimacy into question is the ever-occurring bias
between classes of people that participate in the electoral voting. 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. In fact,
political studies done at Princeton in 1995 clearly showed that 76 percent of
all voters had college degrees. The same studies have been done in the next
three years and showed the percentage steadily holding at 76 percent, except in

1997, when it dropped down by two percent (Avirett 11). This four to one ration
of college educated voters versus non-college educated voters shows a clear
inequality and bias in the American voting system. This also brings about the
aspect of income. People with high income and education have more resources,
while poor people do not, and instead, tend to have low political efficacy. This
efficacy has been interpreted as feelings of low self-worth in the world of
politics. "Vast majority of the lower class simply feels they do not have
enough power or influence to make a change, thus choosing to exclude themselves
from the electoral process" (Fox 13). Turnout, therefore, is low and since the
early 1960s, has been declining overall (Fox 17). 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. This concludes that because voting is class-biased, it may not be
classified as a completely legitimate process. The "winner-take-all"
system in elections may also 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 forty 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). Such was the case with president Carter and the
opposing Republican candidate Ford in the 1972 presidential election. Carter won
the presidency by only one percent in the people’s pole, as well as just
barely managing to get by in the electoral college with 297 votes over Ford’s

241 (Lind 321). This meant that almost fifty percent of the voting population
did not agree with Carter’s views, yet had to endure them for at least next
four years. Even though democracy is based on the principle of the majority
rule, such close elections make the majority not that major at all, and
seriously put a question mark on the democratic legitimacy of the United States
government. Another element of the United State government that brings
controversy to the democratic process and its legitimacy are the political
parties. "Political parties in America are weak due to the anti-party,
anti-organization, and anti-politics cultural prejudices of the Classical

Liberals" (Avirett 23). Because there is no national discipline in the United

States that forces 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, and willingly giving up
their input into the political process. For the past fifty years, the Democratic
party has been associated with the lower class people and minorities, while the

Republicans have been supported mainly by upper class whites (Avirett 28).

Still, there is absolutely no substantial stance that each party takes to show
its allegiance to their "assigned" classes. In fact, Republican presidents
like Ronald Regan and George Bush were credited with major accomplishments in
cutting the tax for the lower income families and boosting the health reforms (Avirett

37). This contradicts the idea that Republicans only benefit the interests of
the upper class citizens, and clearly shows the apathy of people giving up their
input into the political process due to their partisan identification to a
certain party. Though this apathy is the result of a 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 are probably the strongest indicators of illegitimate
democracy in the United State government. 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" (Cerent 9). 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 ten thousand dollars 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 most noted recent example of a politician being
influenced by private interests is none other than president Bill Clinton. Just
three months after winning his second term over Senator Bob Dole in the 1996
presidential elections, Clinton was under the investigation under suspicion of
acquiring campaign money by renting historical presidential rooms to wealthy
businessmen (Avirett 18). Although he was acquitted of the charges, the scandal
showed that private interest is a serious issue, and a clear problem in the
political system of the United States. Regan’s administration was known for
raising its campaign money from weapon-oriented factories, which made about 32
percent of his total campaign collection in the early 1980s (Avirett 15). George

Bush’s campaign money came mainly from the Northern industrial cities, while

Carter accepted majority of his money from the farmers in the South, promising
them better trade relations with the troubled Asian markets in the 1970s (Avirett

22). All these are just a few examples of politicians taking every advantage
possible to gain more money for their campaigns, undermining the legitimacy of
the American government. The method in which we elect the President, on the
other hand, 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.

This was particularly evident in the last decade, with President Bush and

Clinton exercising the "Imperial Presidency" as far as international affairs
were concerned, yet being limited when it came to domestic issues and approval
from the House and the Senate. Although Bush had strong control over military
measures taken against Sadam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait, he was still in"check" by congress as far as the oil market was concerned, particularly the
domestic oil production in the United States (Cerent 44). Clinton also had the
power, along with the leaders of NATO, to declare and execute war against raging

Serbia. Still, he was bound by Senate regarding the expenses put into the Balkan
conflict, and had to rely on the congress to approve further monetary
transactions (Cerent 46). These recent examples of division of international and
domestic powers clearly show that "Imperial Presidency" is not applicable in
all areas and is moving towards the right direction, thus legitimizing democracy
in the United States as far as the presidential powers are concerned. The
election process of Congress is also very much 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, which is 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" (Fox 56). 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 (Lind, 175). Though it has been termed the
"imperial judiciary" by some, the courts are still the weakest branch
of government because they depend upon the compliance of the other branches for
enforcement of the laws. The best example of judicial weakness can be found in
the act of impeaching the President. Although Richard Nixon never came under a
full trial by the Supreme Court, he was ordered to give out a statement
regarding the Watergate scandal in front of the Supreme Court Justices. Although
the Justices placed a legal hold on all his presidential actions, the hold was
not enforced until the congress reviewed the Courts decision (Lind 112). Even in
the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton first had to testify in front of a

Grand Jury put together by congress, and then the Supreme Court Justices. In
fact, Clinton was never tried in the Supreme Court, because the congress ruled
not to try him for impeachment in the first place. This brings Judicial power to
questions, as well as the legitimacy of the government. The fact that our
government is a bureaucracy in certain respects also brings about many
controversial aspects which question its legitimacy. 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 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" (Lind 171). 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 is required to take a civil
service exam. Also, people working in bureaucracies may 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 (Lind 175). Policy making, on the other hand,
should be considered democratic for the most part. The public tends to get its
way about sixty percent of the time, as it was proven in the Princeton studies
in 1995 (Avirett 13). The studies were based on a simple principle of what
people demanded from the government in the nationwide polls, and what they got
in the near future. In the end, sixty percent of all issues were addressed and
successfully solved by the government (Avirett 13). Because one of the key
legitimating factors of a government is a connection between what it does and
what the public wants, policy making can be considered sixty percent legitimate.

Such a percentage puts the American political system and its democratic
legitimacy into perspective of being legitimate for the most part, but not
completely. Even though the individual workings of the American government may
not all be particularly democratic, they do form a political system that
prevails in its democratic ways at the end. Considering that achieving true
democracy is almost impossible, the United States government is coming close and
is striving to get closer as the years go by. It is true that "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, 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). But in the end, it is the choice of people that decides whether these
ambitious individuals are worthy of their vote and their representation. The

United States government might not be a perfect example of democracy, but it
certainly has the main democratic principles that allow for a political system
to strive for as true of a democracy as possible.


Avirett, James B. Republican Rule is Soon to Come. September 1998. Education

Corner. ** Cerent, Brian.

The Political System. April 1996. Online Politics. *http://harward/find/concise.asp?z=1@pg.htm/*

Dye, Thomas R. Who’s Running America? The Clinton Years. Englewood Cliffs, New

Jersey: Pretence Hall, 1995. Fox, James. Essence of Democracy. December 1996.

Young Democrats. ** Lind, Michael.

The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American

Revolution. New York: The Free Press, 1995.