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 electedeven 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 groupscan 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 Presidents 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.

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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 circumezces. 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. Whos 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.