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GV100 Week Seventeen Essay: In what ways is the American political system ‘democratic’? In what ways is it not? Ashley Rudge

America, the nation that above all else promotes and revels in its unquestionable principles

of freedom, equality and most importantly democracy. At face value this seems to be the case,

elections for the House of Representatives held every two years, for President every four years, one

of the most publicly accessible legislative assemblies and the three counterbalancing institutions of

the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, Montesqeiu’s safeguard for of free democracy. Despite the

presence of these essential factors at a closer examination the extent to which America is

‘democratic’ is brought into doubt. The areas in which i shall be focusing upon to analyze those

challenges to American ‘democracy’ are the indirect electoral system, specifically the election of

2001, the massive influence of big business on policy decisions and the role of their money. Other

significant factors i shall look into include the roles of the media, the falling election turnouts, how

seemingly democratic factors such as the ease of access to Congress may be having a negative

affect on democracy and analyze the incredibly powerful wholly unelected cabinet, a problem

highlighted by the increasing levels of power in the hands of the executive.

From the very outset of American ‘democracy’ its creators, the founding father’s had little

intention of allowing true democracy within their new United States. They had on several

occasions stated their lack of faith in the generally uneducated and impulsive masses, believing a

safe guard must be in place. This came in the form of the electoral college, a system by which five

hundred and thirty eight Presidential electors are elected by the electorate to elect the new president.

Despite these electors having no legal obligation to vote for the candidate their constituency had

picked, the system worked generally well and fair until the Presidential election of 2000 between Al

Gore and George Bush that highlighted the key flaw with the indirect system. The popular vote

went to Al Gore with 48.38% of the vote, compared to Bush’s 47.87%, this though was not

reflected in electoral college votes, Al Gore taking two hundred and sixty six and two hundred and

seventy one to Bush, clear of the two hundred and seventy required to elect 1 . Distortions in the

1 US Federal Election Commission, ‘2000 official presidential general election results’, December 2001, <http://www.fec.gov/pubrec/2000presgeresults.htm>, retrieved 19th January 2008

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GV100 Week Seventeen Essay: In what ways is the American political system ‘democratic’? In what ways is it not? Ashley Rudge

level of representation in relations to the proportion of the vote won is not the main issue here, the

electoral college system is the culturally accepted method of election and this idea of what is

accepted as ‘democratic’ is important. This is most prevalent in nations such as Britain where levels

of representation never accurate portray the level of support a party has won, despite this though no

one would declare the UK system undemocratic, because it is the accepted method of election. The

more worrying factor to the 2000 election is highlighted by a study commissioned by a media

consortium headed by the New York Times in November 2001. Of the nine hypothetical recounts

they assessed, Al Gore would of won with a clear lead in six of them 2 , but instead the Supreme

Court intervened during the legal contests that followed the Florida vote count, handing the votes

too George Bush. The use of the of indirect electoral college system clearly on this occasion

highlighted an area in which the American political system is not ‘democratic’ yet in the history of

the electoral college this was the first time such an occurrence had taken place since 1888, leading

me to conclude that the existence of the electoral college does not universally leave the American

political system particularly less democratic.

The idea of Baron De Montesqeui to build democratic government around the idea of

separation of powers as seen in the example above, during the 2000 presidential election the

Supreme Court possibly handed victory to the wrong candidate, according to the research, thus

hindering democracy. Despite this though the separation of powers in America have promoted and

secured democracy regularly defending it against ‘democratic’ distortions. This best example of this

is the ‘US political tussle between the three pillars of government, the executive, legislature and

judiciary. 3 ’ over President Bush’s belief that he has unfettered wartime powers to fight terrorism

and more specifically the issue of Guantanamo Bay. The actions of the executive to refuse basic

constitutional rights to detainees sparking Justice Anthony Kennedy to declare ‘trial by military

commission raises separation-of-powers concerns of the highest order, Concentration of power puts

2 The New York Times, ‘Dont Prettify our history’, August 22nd 2005, <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/22/opinion/22krugman.html, Retrieved 19th January 2008

3

The Telegraph, ‘Bush’s claim to unfettered power is curbed’, 30th June 2006,

<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/06/30/wus103.xml, Retrieved 19th January

2008

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GV100 Week Seventeen Essay: In what ways is the American political system ‘democratic’? In what ways is it not? Ashley Rudge

personal liberty in peril of arbitrary action by officials, an incursion the Constitution's three-part

system is designed to avoid 4 ’. It is this ‘three-part system’ that secures the foundation of

democracy in America, preventing oligarchical government and this example along with others

including President Truman’s involvement in sending troops into the Korean war in 1956, shows

the system of the separation of powers working effectively to bond the executive to their

democratically elected power and no more, thus promoting the opinion that the American political

system is ‘democratic’.

This idea that the executive office’s power is too great is exacerbated by the presence of a

wholly unelected, and increasingly powerful cabinet. The cabinet, made up of the President’s

closest advisors, policy shapers and secretaries to departments is appointed solely by the President.

The fact that these men and women being placed in positions of extreme power and influence

completely undemocratically has a massive impact on the claim of a democratic political system in

the United States. So supporters of this method of selective cabinet may argue that this is just

another culturally accepted part of the American system and it is truly the Congress who hold the

final power over decisions. The accuracy of such a belief is down to personal opinion and

acceptance of the norm.

Over the last two to three decades the role of money in the American political system has

become more prominent and increased fears of its affect on democracy. A consistent pattern has

emerged from the past presidential elections that the candidate who spends the most will win. For

example in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections George Bush spent significantly more

than his opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry 5 . Total candidate spending has also risen sharply year

on year from $649.5 million in 2000 to $1.065 billion in 2004 6 . This trend is expected to continue

into the 2008 election with most analysts predicting that ‘each major-party candidate would need to

4 The Telegraph, ‘Bush’s claim to unfettered power is curbed’, 30th June 2006, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/06/30/wus103.xml, Retrieved 19th January

2008

5 US Federal Election Commission, ‘Presidential Campaign Receipts’, 2005, <http://www.fec.gov/press/press2005/20050203pressum/presbigpic.pdf, Retrieved January 19th 2008

6 US Federal Election Commission, ‘Presidential Campaign Receipts’, 2005, <http://www.fec.gov/press/press2005/20050203pressum/presbigpic.pdf, Retrieved January 19th 2008

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GV100 Week Seventeen Essay: In what ways is the American political system ‘democratic’? In what ways is it not? Ashley Rudge

raise in excess of $400 million by the Nov. 4, 2008, election. 7 ’ This trend of over dependancy on

money from outside interests is going to lead to a political culture whereby power and influence can

be bought, bypassing fair and open ‘democratic’ processes. These worries are not without

foundation and suspicious patterns between campaign donations from special interest groups and

the direction in which the legislature votes are common. The latest example of this was the

H.R.2768 - S - MINER Act to amend the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 to improve

mandatory standards to protect minors, voted for and passed in the House of Representatives on

16th January 2008 8 . Mining and manufacturing unions who supported the bill on average gave

$20,736 to each member of the house who voted yes, compared to $2,311 to those who voted no.

Similarly those who opposed the bill such as the large mining companies on average gave each

representative $13,113 that voted no and those who voted yes received on average $4,599 9 . The bill

passed 214 Yes to 199 No. Examples of legislative contributions from special interest groups and

lobbyists that have aligned with the result of the final vote create the rational concern that on what

policies a candidate is democratically elected upon is no longer important as their vote can be

bought by big business, thus under minding the belief that the American political system is

‘democratic’.

Election law is another factor which i must analyze in order to comprehensively answer the

question. Ballot access restriction are the main area of contention within electoral law, placing

unrealistic and often impossible obstacles between independent candidates and getting their name

on the ballot paper. A Nader lawyer, James C. Linger, ‘argued that the state had no legitimate

7 The Washington Post, ‘Money’s Going to Talk in 2008’ 11th March 2006, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/10/AR2006031002425.html>, Retrieved 19th January 2008 8 The Library of Congress, Bill Number: H. T. 2768, Title: S-MINER Act, Record Created 19th June 2007, Updated 16th January 2008,

<http://thomas.loc.gov/beta/billView.jsp?&k2dockey=/prd/k2/bills/xml/110/h2768.rh.xml@billmerge&numHits

=1&currDoc=1&currentPage=1&110%3Cin%3Econgress%29&congress=110>, Retrieved 19th January 2008

MAPLight.org, Lawmakers’ Votes align with campaign Dollars on Mine Safety Bill’, 16th January 2008, <http://www.maplight.org/node/178>, Retrieved 19th January 2008. (Data compiled by MAPLight.org from Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov>)

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GV100 Week Seventeen Essay: In what ways is the American political system ‘democratic’? In what ways is it not? Ashley Rudge

reason to have different requirements for independent and third-party candidates 10 ’ when

challenging ballot regulation in Texas in 2004. The best example of the most extreme end of

restrictive ballot access requirements is New Jersey, the most most difficult state in which to get

your name on the election ballot. Under Title 19 Elections of NJ Law a candidate wishing to access

the ballot must gain a petition of signatures equivalent to ten percent of the previous elections

turnout 11 . It would incredibly difficult for an independent or third-party candidate with limited

funding to gain anything near this in a state of nearly 8.5 million people. This has lead to claims

dating back as far back as 1920 that a ‘conspiracy’ has taken place between the Republicans and

Democrats to secure their hold on power in the state, and it easy to see why from the perspective of

a third party. This is not an isolated case, similar laws exist in the majority of other states. Does this

artificial creation of a two party system in practice in practice make the American political system

undemocratic? I don’t believe so. The justification behind the overly restrictive ballot access laws

are to exclude parties who have no chance of winning, thus simplifying the election. Given the

American electorates long established pattern of not wasting a vote on those who they think wont

win combined with the general unsuccessful campaigns of those third candidates who have made it

onto the ballot, this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable explanation. It could even be argued that

representation, a key component of democratic government is increased by the creation of a two

party system. At face value it would appear less parties in such a diverse country would lessen

representation but it has in fact forced the Republicans and Democrats to address the issues facing

minority groups, issues that wouldn't of come to the forefront via an unsuccessful third party

campaign.

A more troubling use of law against the democratic credentials of the U.S. political system is

currently under review. In California, the generally Democrat leaning state a system of winner takes

10 The New York Times Archives, ‘The 2004 campaign: Campaign briefing - the Independents; Nader protests ballot access in Texas’, 23rd July 2004,

<http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C05EEDB163DF930A15754C0A9629C8B63&scp=1&sq=

ballot+access+requirements>, Retrieved 20th January 2008

New Jersey State Office of the Attorney General, ‘NJ Statues Annotated - Title 19 - Elections’, Amended 1999, <http://www.state.nj.us/lps/elections/nvra_title_statutes_doe.html>, Retrieved 20th January 2008

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GV100 Week Seventeen Essay: In what ways is the American political system ‘democratic’? In what ways is it not? Ashley Rudge

all is used to determined the proportion of Electoral College electors a party receives. The

Republican party have mounted a challenge to this practice though in order to distort the voting.

“They want California's electoral votes to be divvied up not on a big state-wide basis, but according

to the much smaller congressional districts. The practical result? Instead of all the state's 54

electoral college votes going to the Democratic candidate, around 20 would go to the Republicans.

12 ” Hari continues, “If this was being done in every state, everywhere, it would be an improvement.

California's forgotten Republicans would be represented in the electoral college, and so would

Texas's forgotten Democrats. But by doing it in California alone, they are simply giving the

Republicans a massive electoral gift. Suddenly it would be extremely hard for a Democrat ever to

win the White House 13 ” If this Republican campaign was to succeed at the February referendum as

is predicted this would be significant factor in labeling the American political system undemocratic,

creating a massive distortion during elections.

The media in America is massively powerful and it’s influence within the political world is

substantial in bath promoting a democratic system and hindering one. During the twentieth century

the media positioned itself as a de facto guardian of democracy, acting as a watchdog over political

institutions and figures. Some of the best examples of this are the revealing of the Watergate

scandal by the Washington Post on the 18th June 1972 , the Monica Lewinsky affair that embroiled

Bill Clintons Presidency and more seriously bringing previously mentioned stories such as the over

exertion of power by the executive into the public eye. Michael Schudson describes the actions of

journalist to “not only to report the statements and actions of leading public officials but to report

on the motives behind the action 14 ”. This investigation and analysis by certain aspects of the media

certainly promotes democracy, enlightening the electorate and securing the political institutions.

The importance of this point is concluded well by W. Bennet and W. Serrin. “Power corrupts.

12 The Independent, ‘Johann Hari: The plot to rig the 2008 US election’, 29th November 2007, <http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/johann_hari/article3204034.ece>, Retrieved 20th January

2008

13 The Independent, ‘Johann Hari: The plot to rig the 2008 US election’, 29th November 2007, <http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/johann_hari/article3204034.ece>, Retrieved 20th January

2008

14 Michael Schudson, ‘Why democracies need an unlovable press’, in Doris A.Graber’s, Media Power in

Politics: Fifth Edition (CQ Press, 2007), pp.36-47 at p. 43

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GV100 Week Seventeen Essay: In what ways is the American political system ‘democratic’? In what ways is it not? Ashley Rudge

Keeping democracy healthy, therefore, requires institutions that check the actions of political

elite’s. The mass media fill that surveillance role in the United States. 15 ” Despite this the media is

seen by others as a force imposing biased opinion on the electorate. A 2000 survey conducted by

the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press found that sisty seven percent of those

surveyed believed that news organizations favored one side 16 . S. J. Wayne provides an explanation

to this. He highlights “the influence of more conservative corporate executives who oversee the

communications empires of newspapers, radio stations, and television networks; and to the

editorials that reflect the more conservative views of the owners 17 ”. This is a particular worry to the

American political system as Media Mogul’s such as Robert Murdoch control massive wades of the

American press, allowing him to push his more conservative agenda onto the reasonably unaware

American electorate.

This topic of unaware and apathetic voters brings me back to the key component of a

‘democratic’ system, representation. Over the last three decades election turnout has consistently

fallen to an all time low during the 2000 election where just sixty percent of those registered to vote

did actually vote, this only gets worse considering in 2000 only seventy percent of the eligible

population were registered 18 . With the elected President, George Bush only winning around half of

the vote, only a tiny proportion of the population of America is represented. This very much hinders

America as a ‘democratic’ nation, yet this is a problem of apathy amongst the people, not with the

institutions and political system.

From my analysis of the American political system i must conclude that it is ‘democratic’

yet i must stress that this conclusion is highly subjective. In the pure sense of democracy America

fails in many key areas, the flawed indirect electoral structure, the unfair influence of money and

the ever more powerful and majority unelected executive office. Despite these flaws the political

15 W. Lance Bennett & William Serrin, ‘The Watchdog role of the Press’, in Doris A.Graber’s, Media Power in Politics: Fifth Edition (CQ Press, 2007), pp.326-336 at p. 326

16 Stephen J. Wayne, Is This Any Way to Run a Democratic Election (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), p. 116 17 Stephen J. Wayne, Is This Any Way to Run a Democratic Election (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), p. 115

18 U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Voter Turnout Up in 2004, Census Bureau Reports’, 26th May 2005, <http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/voting/004986.html>, Retrieved 20th January

2008

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GV100 Week Seventeen Essay: In what ways is the American political system ‘democratic’? In what ways is it not? Ashley Rudge

system that is in place is culturally excepted as being ‘democratic’ and many of the problems

afflicting it are common amongst modern Western democracies, yet they are not seen as any less

‘democratic’. I do think that the role of the media cannot be under-estimated in both their role as a

defender of democracy and as its enemy, yet as it stands the investigative, watchdog role of the

press even if not always perfect, is counteracting the more conservative agendas of some of the

other media outlets. Despite my belief that the American system is ‘democratic’ it is by no means

perfect, electoral college reform is required, along with less repressive universal federal ballot

access laws to stimulate smaller parties and encourage the debate that is essential to achieve healthy

democracy.