Is the Unites States Political System A Legitimate
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
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
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
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.
Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995.
Lind, Michael. The Next American Nation: The New
Nationalism and the
American Revolution. New York: The Free Press, 1995.