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Can the US Still be Classed as a Democracy?

Looking at the legitimacy of the ‘world’s purest democracy’

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The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

There has always been controversy behind the US and its political system. For a country which claims to be the bastion of world freedom, its citizens seldom see the same policies the country claims to uphold. The idea of spreading ‘freedom’ across the globe became part of US foreign policy since the beginning of the Second World War. This then begs the question, is the US really in a position to spread freedom when many say that the country itself isn’t truly free?

To explore this proposition we must look at the metrics used to measure freedom, most importantly the metrics used to the state of the democratic system of a country. For this, we must make one thing clear. Often the argument of the US being a republic rather than a democracy is used to deflect much criticism towards the US electoral and political system. As such we must first define both terms. defines the terms as the following:

Republic: “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.”

Democracy: “government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.”

It is easy to see the parallels between the definition of the two terms and an argument for which the US fits best has been going on since its founding in 1776. We will dismiss the republic vs democracy argument because it is irrelevant towards our conclusion on the legitimacy of US democracy as both systems have near similar democratic characteristics. The key similarity between the two systems is that freedom in these systems comes from each person getting an equally valid vote with which they can decide who represents them in positions of power. This means that the United States can be classed as a “Representative Democracy”, a title which we shall challenge today.

Does your vote really matter?

A common trait of a democracy is the fact that the vote of the people usually weighs more than the interest of entities such as corporations and big businessmen due to having the majority. This is known as the theory of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy. In Abraham Lincoln’s words: “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Many would make the assumption that this is true of American democracy, the vote of the majority should be able to sway the interest of a few influential people right?

Well according to a study by the American Political Science Association in 2014 it turns out the opposite of this is true. In matters of policy, a total failure of the “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy” can be seen. The study states that:

“When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Furthermore, the study actually states that often the most influential political elite are able to introduce policies which go against the public’s opinion:

“The net alignments of the most influential, business-oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes.”

These traits point towards the United States being an oligarchy rather than a democracy with oligarchy being defined by as “a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.

This bias can be strongly attributed to what many Europeans such as myself see as legal bribing, the lobbying industry. For the European readers lobbying is the “act of lawfully attempting to influence the actions, policies, or decisions of government officials, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies”. This is often done through donations, mostly by groups which hold a large amount of capital such as large corporations.

The lobbying industry is one of the largest industries in the whole of the United States as businesses spend much of their income to maintain the status quo or change policies in their favour. Since 2008 total lobbying spending across the US has been in excess of 3 billion dollars yearly, spiking in 2008–2010 and 2018–2019 going to around 3.5 billion dollars a year during those years.

Data shows that lobbying, as mentioned before, leads to business interests thwarting public opinion on many policy matters. As long as a lobbying system exists the US can never be considered a full democracy. This brings one strike towards America’s title of a ”democracy”.

Not every vote is equal

With the conclusion we have reached above many might start to think: “if our vote doesn’t matter why do politicians try so hard to get us to vote for them?” The answer to this question is simple and universal across all democracies flawed or not. Votes bring legitimacy to policies and politicians. Without a majority vote, many might start asking if they are really being represented in what they deemed to be the purest democracy of the world.

Politicians dump millions upon millions into advertising and campaigning to gain the public’s vote, but sometimes even after insurmountable amounts of money is used sometimes politicians are still in danger of losing. This is where gerrymandering comes in.

Once again as someone who lives in Europe, such a policy seems strange to me. For those not familiar with gerrymandering it is defined by as: “the dividing of a state, county, etc., into election districts so as to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible.

In short, this system allowed the incumbent party of a state to ensure that they remain in power by diluting the power of their opposition while strengthening their position, something both the Republicans and Democrats do. This is done through a process where those in power are allowed to choose their voters not vice-versa. This is perfectly visualised by this Washington Post graphic.

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A graphic from the Washington Post showing how gerrymandering can rig an election

The sole concept of gerrymandering goes against the ideals of democracy. In a situation where an election that has been gerrymandered the vote of some weigh more than the vote of others. This process is more akin to a dictatorship, where the incumbent power uses their current political authority to remain in their position, rather than a democracy. A second strike against America’s title of a ”democracy”.

What if you just can’t vote?

Voter suppression is something that the US would never allow in another country. Countless democratic regimes have been toppled by the US due to their repressive voting laws and apparent voter suppression. As such many would expect the US to be the world’s shining example of voting availability giving the ability to vote quickly and without hassle to all of its citizens, once again this turns out to be false.

As reported in a Washington Post article from 19 June 2020 during the Kentucky primaries voting stations were cut in number from the previous 3,700 to under 200 leaving some counties with one polling station for over 700,000 people. Not providing the right voting facilities for your population is classed as voter suppression, something the US wouldn’t allow in any other country but allows it in their own. This is not an isolated incident. Such tactics have always been used by both the Republicans and the Democrats to deter those who would vote for the opposing party allowing those already in power a near guarantee win.

Many might argue that even if few facilities are available for voters there is still at least one facility every citizen can access to vote, something which is true except for one caveat, waiting times. The average voter cannot afford to wait in line for multiple hours or even a day to place their vote due to work or domestic commitments. Making a voter choose between keeping their job and exercising their right to vote should not be a problem in the worlds most prosperous country.

There is no excuse when countries such as India manage to provide enough polling stations to accommodate a population more than four times the US population and with a GDP nearly ten times smaller. This brings a third and final strike on the American title of being a “democracy”.

“Of the people, by the people, for the people?”

Upon the founding of the United States Abraham Lincon stated that the United States shall be “of the people, by the people, for the people”. In its current state can the current US government claim that it has upheld these values? In my opinion, the answer to this question is no. In the conclusion of the study done by the American Political Science Association in 2014, it is stated that:

“Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

This conclusion is backed by data not only from this study but from other studies which show that much is done to suppress the power of the average American citizen. The narrative of the world’s purest democracy is constantly parroted by media agencies owned by the same people who benefit from this flawed sytem. Due to these findings and the other topics we have discussed in this article I cannot make a valid claim that the United States remains a full democracy rather, in my opinion, I think that the current US system is more akin to an Oligarchy.

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Student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. History fanatic. Contact:

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