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.
- 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.