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 underezd 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