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AP Government Home
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Theories of Democratic Government
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Please be aware that this is a student-generated wiki designed for review for my students' AP exams. Come in, look around, and enjoy yourself...just be aware of the nature of this wiki. Even though most everything is correct, I advise caution before citing this as an authoritative source.
Theories of Democratic Government
Definition of "Democracy"
According to the ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle,
democracy can be
defined as "the rule of the many," in which citizens participate in either making policy or holding office.
Majority usually consists of the classes with the greatest number of people and these classes for the most part included poorer people ("We the people"). In fact, the wealthiest 1% of Americans take hold of 35% to 37% of all income in the nation (CBS News).
The word democracy is not found in the Constitution. Instead the phrase "republican form of government" takes its place. By this, the founders meant what we today call a "representative democracy."
Democratic Governments ideally are accountable to the people. In analyzing a democratic system of government, it is important to ask the following questions: "Who governs?” and “To what ends?” or “To what extent?”
The problem with a democratic government is that there is no clear-cut, precise way to determine whether a government, decision, or policy is democratic.
In history, a truly democratic government has only existed once: in ancient Greece, in the city-state of Athens. However, the rapid growth of population as well as imperialistic land/territorial expansion, has caused the concept of a pure (i.e. direct rule) democracy to be unable to keep up and remain effective as a form of government.
Local democratic government existed in the colonies as well. The "town meeting" in New England is one example of such government (We the people).
Framers of the Constitution favored a republic form of government more than the democratic government because in a republic citizens and the government work together to attain common good instead of personal interest (We the people).
The two types of democracy include Direct (Participatory) Democracy and Representative Democracy.
is a system of government in which all or most citizens participate directly, such as in a small town meeting where everyone votes directly on all issues. It is also used to describe those regimes that come as close as possible to Aristotle's definition-"the rule of many." (Some historians assert that the prevalence of this type of democracy in colonial America, especially in Puritan churches, paved the way for the widespread adoption of democracy in a national context after the American Revolution.)
According to Wilson and Dilulio, this type of democracy is no longer completely practical because of increasingly large populations. In addition to increasing numbers, issues have become more complicated and not all issues that the public bring up cannot be resolved into a single solution in which all are satisfied.
It should be noted that even in Aristotelian Greece or the early days of colonial America, "the many" referred to only white adult male property owners and did not include: slaves (until the 15th amendment), females (until the 19th amendment), and those without land were not necessarily allowed to participate in politics.
A system of checks and balances would appease those that feared a federal government that would become too powerful and stifle the rights of the individual states while still creating a new federal government that could run a new nation.
Many states allow a form of direct democracy in which voters decide on referendum issues (policy choices that appear on the ballot). Those who support direct democracy claim it is the only way to make sure the "will of the people" prevails.
Direct Democracy is established on the basis of voters. Decisions depend on the votes of the people, not the votes of the elected representatives.
However, the framers of the Constitution did not believe that the "will of the people" was synonymous with the "common interest" or the "public good." Madison wrote in
No. 10 and No. 51 about the different factions in America that would make it difficult to govern. He believed that these different factions had to come together and form coalitions. Madison favored larger republics, as he believed they would provide more moderate views (Wilson). In this way, he thought that the federal government should not be too close to the people since the people did not always have everyone's "common interest" in mind (Wilson). They believed that an enlightened minority could be better trusted with the duty of making educated decisions with the best interest of everyone in mind. Thus, instead of direct democracy, they favored one that entrust educated individuals with the choice of making decisions regarding the government.
The founder’s philosophy was that government should “mirror not mediate” popular opinion. They believed that time and knowledge were limited to the citizens and therefore the mass could rarely make good political policy choices. They thought that even educated individuals could get manipulated by others who used fear and emotion to warp their views. They also believed that even though this type of democracy acts faster than that of a representative one, it can also cause great harm in a small amount of time. Due to this they chose to not let every important issue be decided by a popular vote. An example of this can be the initial elections of senators by which they were chosen by state legislators.
The Framers also believed that the common man was rather incompetent in regards to their political knowledge
There was a fear of "mob rule" expressed by the framers
A direct democracy has never been successful on a large scale
is a system of government in which elected leaders represent a particular group of people, rather than the whole population, by winning a competitive struggle for the popular vote.
The United States and Germany are examples of representative democracies because the people elect officials to make decisions that are in their favor.
Representative democracy utilizes characteristics of both the presidential and parliamentary systems of government.
In representative democracy, leaders must be able to communicate without an abundance of restrictions and political parties must have the opportunity for competition, and voters need to believe that a meaningful choice exists.
Leaders must make compromises to connect to a majority of voters, which can balance out the radical candidates into well-rounded contenders, leading to decisions that are not as much based on emotion. This causes leaders to act more in the interest of the people then in their self-interest.
Representative democracies keep the people close to politics, yet at a safe distance, as they cannot directly influence much of the political structure or directly vote for political leaders. The president, for instance, is selected through the electoral college system, a system in which every state can cast an electoral vote for each senator and representative it has(Washington D.C. gets 3 votes).
It is impractical, due to limits on time, energy, interest, and expertise, for people to decide on every single public policy but is not impractical to expect reasonable choices made by the public. This is why it is called "representative democracy."
Framers of the Constitution believed direct democracy would lead to bad choices because people often decide large issues on the basis of emotions.
Sometimes called "the elitist theory of democracy," due to the fact that direct democracy is likely to lead to bad decisions because decisions are based on fleeting passions and popular demagogues.
Is Representative Democracy Best?
The Framers of the Constitution saw representative democracy as a way of minimizing abuse of power by either a misguided majority, or self-serving office holders, according to Wilson and Dilulio.
Leaders are authorized to make decisions and to wield political power by winning a competitive struggle for the popular vote.
There exist problems that representative government faces in order to be successful.
There must be "an opportunity for genuine leadership competition," so that individuals and parties are required to run for office in order to garner the votes and approval of the people, hence involving direct participation of citizens.
There also needs to be communication that has little to no bias in order for voters to make decisions.
Even with these requirements met, there still exists problems.
Determining which offices are to be elected and which are to be appointed.
The number of candidates that are allowed to compete.
Among candidates, parties or the government, who has to pay for the campaigns.
Candidates may not always serve the needs of those who they represent, but may choose to follow their self-interest.
According to Wilson and Dilulio, the Framers of the Constitution wanted the government to "mediate, not mirror, popular views" and that those elected would only "represent, not register, majority sentiment." (pg 8
The Framers also assumed that the average citizen wasn't capable of making decisions on policies, hence a representative democracy would be best. This is why the Electoral college and the election of Senators by members of the House of Representative were implemented.
The Framers conceded that representative democracy has slow effects and prevents dramatic changes in policy, and that a government is just as capable of doing great harm as it is doing great good.
For representative democracy to work, there must be an opportunity for genuine leadership competition, as Wilson describes.
Elected "representatives" in a Representative Democracy may also need to become more politically moderate in order to win election. This implies that there are fewer ideological extremists who wind up in office.
The framers who wrote the constitution never explicitly mentioned the word “democracy” instead they stated “The republican form of government” . The framers believed that the majority opinion should figure in the enactment of many or more government policies. They insisted that the issues concerning civil rights and liberties such as the freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, freedom of press and religion, or even the right to vote should never lie in the hands of a popular vote. They saw this as a great opportunity to minimize the abuse of a tyrannical majority or office holder.
Even though the representative democracy is designed to have similar views as the majority of the population there will still be those that oppose.
Direct Democracy vs. Representative Democracy
Direct Democracy allows more decision-making power to lie in the hands of the people.
On the other hand, Representative Democracy allows for a government with more stable policies, not subject to "popular passions".
Direct Democracy allows for initiatives to be created by voters.
Representative Democracy allows people to make reasonable choices among leadership groups, instead of having people attempt to directly decide on public policy, as in a Direct Democracy, with the constraints of time, information, energy, interest, and expertise (Wilson).
Representative Democracy most closely resembles the intentions of constitutional democracy, meaning that elected officials can act in the best interests of the people as opposed to them voting the way the people want them to on every issue, which would essentially be the same thing as Direct Democracy.
A Direct Democracy which allows individual voices to be heard and taken accounted for would not particularly work with such a large population, where as a Representative Democracy takes into account of these issues and groups people with similar outlooks to "represent" the population.
Most representative democratic countries allow for three main direct democracy actions: initiative, referendum, and recall.
According to Wilson and Dilulio, power affects who will hold government office and how government will behave.
: The right to use power.
We accept decisions often without question if we believe they are made by people who we believe have the rights to make them.
While we will obey users of naked power, we resent them for not having authority.
In the United States a person is thought to have authority if the way he or she acts is conferred by a law, by a state, or national constitution.
The US Constitution allows government and indirectly the people to remove authority and replace it with another if necessary to avoid oppression or bad leadership
" People who exercise political power may or may not have the authority to do so" ( Wilson 5). So just because someone is in power does not mean they have the right to use their power.
The power given to an elected government official such as the President, a senator, or a federal judge.
In formal authority, power is usually centralized at the head of an organization (such as a business owner).
: Political authority conferred by law or by a state or national constitution.
When the United States was first formed, the legitimacy of the actions of the government was questioned. But today the Constitution is accepted as a source of legitimate authority.
Legitimacy does not mean power.
If the US Constitution and the entire government that has resulted from its ratification in the late 18th century was suddenly considered illegitimate, the government would have no true power. For example, the Supreme Court may declare an act or law unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has most usually been given a large amount of legitimacy by citizens and within the government. But the Supreme Court has very little power of enforcement. Just because they are considered legitimate, the other branches of government could easily go against the rulings of the court, taking away the courts' only real power. President Andrew Jackson exemplified this after his decision to move the Cherokee Indians to gain their land against the Supreme Court's decision in the case
Worcester v. Georgia
. President Jackson is said to have remarked, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."
No exercise of political power by government at any level is legitimate if it is not in some sense democratic.
Introduced the battle between the loose constructionists and the strict constructionists
Strict constructionists: Those that believed the Constitution should only be interpreted literally and policy making should follow what the Founders wanted out of government. Thomas Jefferson was a strict constructionist in ideology but ended up acting as a loose constructionist in practice during his presidency.
Loose constructionists: Those that believed the Constitution should not be interpreted literally but in terms of its implied powers. Alexander Hamilton was a loose constructionist; he used the "necessary and proper" clause to assert that the national government has the power to establish a National Bank even though no such power is explicitly granted in the Constitution.
The legitimacy that a government has is one of the most important, since a government can have power in theory, but without legitimacy, nobody will follow the laws and demands
This belief today is what people believe to be the "only kind of proper kind [of government]" and this extends to domestic institutions and foreign policy, whom many think should be democratic if they are to be "legitimate" (Wilson).
The Supreme Court has weak power, but it gives or denies legitimacy of certain actions in government through court cases based on the Constitution (Judicial Review), the U.S's number one source of legitimacy. Executive orders and laws created by Congress are occasionally tested to see if the President or Congress is acting within the words of the Constitution.
How are power and authority related?
A government can have power without having authority, or legitimacy in exercising that power. While power is the ability to get another person to act, even by force, so in having power one does not necessarily have the authority to use it.
Authority is the right to use power. Not all who exercise political power have authority.
Even though power and authority are very similar they have different boundaries to their respected concept,such as authority has the right to use power within its limits. Power on the other hand has the possession to use force or to use knowledge to influence someone to do their bidding.
What is Political Power?
The ability of one person to cause another person to act in accordance with the first person's intentions
The president vetoes a legislative bill.
: The president's speechwriters write speeches with tones that are in line with their own feelings about the issues addressed in the speech. Thus, they are exercising power over the president by getting him to convey the tones and therefore feelings of the speechwriters when he addresses the country. In this way, the speechwriters may be indirectly exercising power over people across the country, if individuals react the way the speechwriters would want after hearing the speech.
- Is the right to use power, not all who exercise political power have authority to do so.
Political power is given to the politician through trust and allowance by the citizens (the citizens believing that person or body has the ability to use the power properly).
In the United States most authority comes from what is written in the Constitution.
The exercise of authority is easier than the use of power that is not supported by any claim or right.(Wilson). Sometimes people accept decisions if they believe that the person doing them has the right to make them. However in order to have power one does not necessarily have aurthority. For example the president’s policy advisers can have power as they are the people that help carry out new policies that can affect a minority or a majority of the people. All this depends on the policy, however they were able to exercise their power over the “authority” figure, the President
The president, senators, and federal judges have formal authority. Formal authority refers to the power vested in a governmental office.
- The political authority conferred by law or by state or national constitution.
The main question relating to legitimacy is "What makes a law or constitution a source of right?". The topic of legitimacy has been the foundation of political struggles over what politicians believe to be "right".
Americans see the Constitution as a source of legitimacy
Americans only view political power by government legitimate when it has some sense of democracy.
Examples: The Civil War was fought over the legitimacy of the federal union. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was controversial since some argued whether the government's activity in the economy was legitimate.
No exercise of political power by government at any level is legitimate if it is not in some sense democratic (Wilson 5)
Legitimacy is important in order to keep a sense of order, it is the foundation of a government
Distribution of Political Power
Policies would normally reflect the views of people who participate actively in any phase of policy-making.
The political elites use their disproportionate share of power and influence to affect the outcome of domestic and foreign more than any other group.
The separation of powers plays a key role in the distribution of political power
According to Benjamin Disraeli, politics is the possession and distribution of power.
There are different theories on how to distribute political power such as, the Marxist view, Power elite view, Bureaucratic view, and the Pluralists view.
How is Political Power Distributed?
: elected officials act in accordance with the preferences of the majority of citizens. Wilson and Dilulio argue that majoritarian politics handles issues in a way that both gains the attention of citizens and conveys a message clearly, so that citizens are informed of the issue.
The two key questions that are prevalent when studying government according to Wilson and Dilulio are “Who governs? and To what ends?" There are four traditional answers. There are four different political views of how a government should be run:
view that the struggle for power is among two groups; capitalists or "bourgeoisie", and the workers or "proletariat". Whichever class dominates the economy also controls the government. In the U.S. capitalists, most notably the ones from big business and multinational corporations, hold control over the economy ergo the government. Marx suggested that the workers will have a workers rebellion and over throw the capitalists due to this growing struggle between the two groups.
Introduced by German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), the founder of modern socialist thought
Marxism was founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Marxism is a successor to socialism and a predecessor to communism.
Marxists believe that the US government represents the rich since it is, "but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoise" (Wilson)
Marxism can be seen as a distribution of political power, an economic theory, a sociological theory, or a philosophical method.
: A government that is dominated by a few top leaders, most of whom are outside of government and enjoy great advantages in wealth, status, or organizational position. Has Views that favor stability because elitist do not like any changes.
: Persons who possess a disproportionate share of some valued resource, like money or power.
Developed by the American sociologist Charles Wright Mills in his 1956 book, "The Power Elite."
This view however was shaped by the German scholar, Max Weber who stated that the dominant social/political reality of modern times was that all institutions (governmental and nongovernmental) have fallen under the control of large bureaucracies.
Most people that have an elite view are outside of the government and enjoy great wealth and usually are in a high position at an organization.
According to Mills, the elite that is, or has, been governing the U.S. consists mostly of people belonging to three types of groups:
High Political leaders such as, the President, close cabinet members, and advisers
Major corporate owners and executives
High ranking military officers
Elites tend to be more polarized than the average citizen. Since the political parties are dominated by elites, the stance of the Republican and Democratic parties may differ significantly. The average citizen tends to have more of a moderate view.
Some celebrities, especially with recent technological advances, are on the cusp of joining the three aforementioned groups of elitists. This is contingent upon the nature of their appeal to large crowds and ability to channel a disproportionate share of power in the political arena.
Bureaucratic view: I
nstead of elected representatives, the bureaucratic view implies that government officials and/or workers are the ones who exercise power by helping write policies into existence. It suggests the aforementioned ones who have the power in actually making the changes, the appointed officials, are mostly invisible to the average citizen and relatively unknown to the elites, and not only implement policies, but make them to suit their interests and ideas.
Capitalists, workers, or elites (from the Marxist view or the power elite view) may come to power in the government, but the laws they create and enact will be dominated by bureaucrats such as police officers and park rangers who operate the government on a daily basis by implementing administration policies which they interpreted from the U.S. laws (Wilson).
This theory was created by German scholar Max Weber (1864-1920).
He asserted that institutions, regardless of being governmental, had allowed bureaucrats to control them as to allow them to control and maintain the government easier.
According to Weber's theory,
are desirable to some extent as expertise and specialization allow bureaucrats to make better decisions than elected officials.
This theory originated out of the idea that (non)governmental institutions are under the influence of large bureaucracies (Wilson)
For instance, although Congress sets general requirements and standards for agency, they can still exercise discretionary authority over their course of actions and implement things that are not mentioned by the law.
Government bureaucrats do not merely implement public policies, they effectively "make" them as suits their own ideas and interests
Weber felt that an ideal bureaucracy is one that is hierarchically organized.
: The idea of interest groups competing among one another to achieve what they want is known as the pluralist view. According to this view, policies are passed due to which interest is more representative of the views of Americans. This view tends to resonate the strongest with people when thinking of our government, because it generally encompasses a large spectrum of input from competing interests, and the ones that tend to be fought for the most vigorously or perpetually tend to be the ones most represented.
Although no one authored the view, those who have this view (political scientists and journalists) believe that while businesses and corporations may make some issues impossible for citizens to impact, there are enough political resources so that big business cannot lock out every single issue.
According to Wilson and/or Dilulio, because there are many institutions that wield political power (ie state, federal, and local governments) and within those are smaller groups, there is no one group that controls a majority of the political process. The competition between these groups is what creates public policy. He also states that since these "political resources" continue to be divided, this gives different "elites" a "chance to affect the outcomes of decisions." (pg. 10
Pluralists acknowledge that although political elites, big businesses, etc. can dominate certain issues but stress that among most issues the resources are so widely scattered that no single political elite can control all of them. (Wilson)
Government policies are often simply the end-result of lengthy compromises between political groups of different motives
In the midst of factions battling for political influence in public policy, the non-elites and general public contribute significantly to the the legislative process as well
Not only are they divided, they are responsive to their followers interests and they provide representation of almost every citizen who is affected by a policy.
While pluralists recognize that participation in the government is "extremely unequal" (Wilson 10), they accept that political resources are divided enough to equally affect decision outcomes.
Nongovernmental elitist theory
Says that an elite (usually outside the government) makes most major decisions.
Related to the Marxist theory in the sense that these elite control many aspects society, such as corporations and resources that we use in our everyday lives.
major groups in the "nongovernmental elite": corporate leaders, military leaders, and media leaders, labor leaders, and interest group leaders
Government is dominated by a few leaders whose policies seek to serve the interest of the "nongovernmental elite"
Role of theory: a pair of lens through which we see the world, affects what we choose to see/ fail to see; no theory is complete.
Is Democracy Driven by Self-Interest?
Out of the four different views on political power, the pluralist view is what ensures America as a democratic nation in more ways than one.
Democracy is driven by Self Interest because it relies on voter turnout that is dependent on influence by the candidates.
According to Wilson & Dilulio, there is plenty of self-interest among political elites, but it does not mean that the resulting policies will be based off that self-interest.
A policy may be good or bad independent of the motives of the person who decided it. One most determine the cost and benefits of both sides and see if there is a benefit for doing what they choose.
For example: The Revolutionary War and The Civil Rights Movement: These were both movements led by people that risked much while knowing that the results will not come to fruition until future generations (Wilson).
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French author, noticed the trait of Americans to act on the basis of their self-interest, which is incomplete guide to their actions (Wilson 10).
9/11- elected officials, government workers, and citizens behaved altruistically defying the theory that people are driven by self interest (Wilson 11).
1960s leaders of AFL-CIO in Washington lobbying for civil rights bills- they were a powerful force, but did not stand to benefit personally or professionally (Wilson 11)
There is concern as to whether the U.S. can defeat terrorism.
There are concerns as to how a coordinated effort can be launched, because of the variations of views.
There are also constitutional rights that must be considered, and how they must be applied to those considered terrorists, such as the people previously held in Guantanamo Bay.
There are also problems involving is the U.S. should wage war against other countries considered to be harboring terrorists.
What explains Political Change?
- According to Wilson and Dilulio, politics is not all about "who gets what," it is about how people, who claims to speak for others, define the public interest.
- What has shaped our government and our policies that we have today are the economic interests, powerful elites, entrenched bureaucrats, competing pressure groups, and people who are passionate about an issue (Wilson).
- According to Wilson and Dilulio, the great shifts in the character of our government--size, scope, institutional arrangements, and direction of policies--have reflected complex and sometimes sudden changes in elite or mass beliefs about what government is supposed to do.
1840s: When the nation was founded, France and England wanted to determine whether or not America would survive as a nation.
1920's: The federal government played a minimum role.
1930's-1970's: The federal government tried to solve many economic and social problems starting with FDR's "New Deal" during the Great Depression (the creation of a welfare state occurred from the numerous welfare programs that began under the "New Deal"). From then through LBJ's "Great Society" projects, (great expansion in power and reliance on the federal government), and then until around the time President Reagan was elected, the federal government expanded rapidly.
1981-1988: The Reagan administration sought to cut back on social and economic involvement-cut taxes. money spent, and regulations (Wilson).
Post-2001: The terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11th, 2001 significantly changed the scope of the government with the passage of the Homeland Security Act, creating the Department of Homeland Security. Changes in the views of the populace enabled the government to declare the "War on Terror" legitimate.
- The nature of "day-to-day political conflict" is shaped by "deep-seated" views, significant developments in the economy, and "competing or widely shared opinions" about what makes up the current "dominant political problem." (Wilson)
eg. The issue of slavery in people's eyes posed as an issue of "gains and losses," or costs and benefits and/or an issue of civic duty to abolish it. (Wilson)
Politics and the conflict within can be derived from how elites, who claim to speak for the people, define the public interest by having positions in power where they have the ability to influence the policy-making agenda in government
- Political change is often a result of what events occur and how the public as a whole responds and how those responses will be represented
The Nature of Politics
To know who governs, there must be an understanding of who yields - who made a difference in the outcome and for what reason- which is harder to discover (Wilson).
It is important you understand preferences to understand power
Most power exist because of shared understanding , common friendships, organizational loyalties etc. However, these are difficult to identify . (Wilson)
One must understand how different institutions act on a variety of issues to understand the nature of politics.
A close analysis of what the law entails and how it was passed and administered is necessary before actions can take place (Wilson)
Institutions & Interests can only truly be judged after one has seen how they behave on a variety of issues, important or potential. (Wilson)
According to Wilson & Dilulio, policy process is arguably one of the best barometers of changes in who governs (even though political change does not consistently occur with changes in public laws).
The American government and it's institutions handles issues and programs like social welfare, differently than other countries would or do.
What Value or Values matter most in American
The Framers had a vision for how American government would function but did not elaborate on what values mattered most, so it is the job of our current government to decide what and how decisions are to be made in America (Wilson).
It is the governments job to decide what types of trade-offs that it will make for our nation, like providing more federal money for college students, but raising taxes to get earn those funds or creating more jobs for people which would result in a decrease in salary.
Overall, what matters most in American Democracy is that the government does what is socially beneficial for society by providing for the wants and needs of individuals while maintaining economic prowess and financial security for the people.
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