Democracy Essay, Research Paper
By: John Bradely
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,?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). 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. Works Cited Avirett, James B. Republican Rule is Soon to Come. September 1998. Education Corner. *http://metalab.unc.edu/politics/avirett/avirett/html* Cerent, Brian. The Political System. April 1996. Online Politics. *http://email@example.com/* 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. *http://www.knight.org/advent/athen/14039a.htm* Lind, Michael. The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution. New York: The Free Press, 1995.