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 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, 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

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.

Bibliography

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.