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Is The United States Actually a Democracy?

Updated on July 11, 2013

Democracy and Polyarchy; Conditions and Definitions

Direct Democracy in it's strictest sense is rule of the many by direct decision making on every issue, statute, and law by a direct vote in which each legally eligible citizen casts one equally weighed vote so as to reach a predetermined majority or other such quota of assent such as 2/3s or 3/4s of the whole. Some small towns still use this model in the establishment of city wide policies and ordinances.

For logistical reasons any society of expansive size must obviously turn to representative Democracy to manage the sundry affairs of collective legislation. In it's ideal form a true Representative Democracy would allow a representative collection of people grouped together by a common link, usually vicinity of residence, to choose one or more persons amongst themselves to represent them all in a larger forum made up of like chosen representatives whose collective responsibility is to formulate and pass legislation amongst themselves by which all represented citizens (and representatives themselves) would live.

The etymology of Polyarchy is rule (archy) of three or more (Poly) and it was first coined by Robert Dahl of Yale to more accurately describe the kind of government we live under in the U.S. and the kind of government we were actually advocating during the Cold War and are actually spreading though the process of nation building in the Middle-East. There are a number of institutions, both recent and historical, that make the U.S. more accurately classified as a Polyarchy than as a Democracy.

The Electoral College

The means by which the president and Vice-President are chosen, the Electoral College system was proposed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. This was perhaps the first move away from democracy toward Polyarchy in our nation's history. It was originally proposed that Congress would appoint the president, much like a Parliamentary system selects it's Prime Minister, this plan was abandoned. Though a few delegates favored direct popular vote to determine the Presidency it was recognized that the increased prevalence of slavery in the south would give the northern states an undue advantage in that more of the northern populace had the right to vote. This plus a commonly held notion that the people could not be trusted to make this decision cemented the Electoral College.

The Electoral College system works on a state by state, "all or nothing," system in which the popular vote of each state entitles all of the pledged electors (equal to the total number of representative and senators in that state) representing the prevailing party to cast their vote for their parties nominated candidate. The candidates receiving a majority of pledged electoral college votes (currently 270) are elected President and Vice-President. If no presidential ticket (president and vice-president pairing) receives a majority then the House of representative elects the President with each state, regardless of it's number of representatives, casting only a single vote and the Senate elects the Vice-President with each senator casting a single vote. Interestingly, prior to the passage of the 12th amendment in 1804 there were no tickets, the Vice-Presidency simply went to the Presidential candidate receiving the second most electoral college votes. The pledges of electoral college Electors are not binding and there have been a very few occasions when Electors voted against their pledged party candidate.

This system, as we saw in 2000, takes the power out of the hands of a majority of the populace and confers it onto a select few who make the decision that the masses are presumably not competent to make.


If it wasn't enough that the people do not actually elect their own president, the process of gerrymandering takes a considerable amount of power out of the hands of the public through the intentional redrawing of congressional distracts so as to favor one party or the other. Political systems with a small number of parties (like the U.S.) are particular vulnerable to this process.

Through redistricting by the incumbent party they can virtually assure their reelection. The U.K., Canada, and Australia use non-partisan organizations to draw their districts thus eliminating the heavy advantage an incumbent can allocate himself through careful inclusion and exclusion of certain cultural minorities and majorities in their own district. Through the process of redistricting a few political elite can either pack many parcels of areas containing the voter demographics they feel will favor their platform or crack up an area containing a demographic that is hostile toward their agenda so that it falls into many different districts. This manipulation is known as Packing and Cracking, respectively.

Of all the Politically nefarious practices in the U.S. this is the most common and the most blatant and bold faced affront to Democracy.

Political Action Committees

In 1971 with the passage of the Federal Elections Campaign Act, Political Action Committees or PAC's were first established. Along with this though the Federal Election Committee was set up to enforce laws regulating the action of PAC's. Such laws limited the amount that individuals could donate to PAC's and disallowed corporations from contributing to PAC's. In 2010 Citizen's United Vs. The Federal Election Commission legalized corporate donations to politically related campaign expenditures. Though it still did not allow corporations to donate directly to campaigns it allowed for unlimited corporate Political spending and the rise of the super PAC. These ominous organizations have no limit on the amount of money they can raise for political action and virtual anonymity as to the source of their funds. Though they ostensively cannot openly coordinate with a specific campaign the 2010 ruling allowed for politically interested groups, including corporations, to invest unlimited money into the election of whatever candidate would be most friendly to their corporate agenda and political interests.

Collusion Resulting in Polyarchy

Though the specifically unpalatable aspects of Politics discussed above are by no means exhaustive, the two party system and lobbyists were not discussed for example, the three mechanisms examined, namely the Electoral College, Gerrymandering, and Super PAC's all collude to put true Political power in the hands of a wealthy few. In this regards the U.S. has become not only a Polyarchy but a Plutocracy with a disproportionate amount of Political sway held by the rich and those already in office.

The Democratic elections in which we engage, are dissociated in their direct effect on the selection of the President and Vice-President through the Electoral College System, manipulated in their effect on the Representatives we may choose, and sponsored by corporate interests through the effect of Political actions taken on the part of Super Pac's. These elections and the occasional referendums that accompany them are the only hand the average citizen has in governing and they are but a paltry sideshow performed to impress upon us the illusion of control by the many.


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