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The Meaning of American Democracy

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The meaning of American Democracy (Shapiro 2005) talks about the normative requirements of democracy in America such as procedural or institutional democracy; substantive democracy; and protections of the individual rights and liberties of the people. This is being done by investigating the recent events such as the elections and the September 11, 2001 attacks. Shapiro talks about what true democracy should be, and also discussed about the different issues about American democracy brought up by the said events.


The way everyone understands it, democracy is a form of government for a nation state, or for an organization in which all the citizens have the right to vote their chosen leaders. Dahl (1989) describes democracy to be liberal democracy.

According to Shapiro, Republican Democracy means “the existence of rules, procedures, and entities that enable voters to hold political leaders accountable and that prevent abuses of power”, to some people. Under this type of democracy, the citizens are empowered over what the government does through elected representatives. These representatives are expected to do the best for the nation and not settle on what the people want.

Meanwhile, unlike institutional democracy, the people play an enormous role in substantive democracy. Public opinion is weighed importantly by politicians especially during the elections. In this regard, Shapiro said that “leaders should lead and not be swayed by poll results”, due to the in his work due to the unpredictability of the polls results.  According to wikipedia,com (Ret. September 2006), polls are often unreliable because there are errors in sampling, some people who do not respond to the polls, and wording of questions can influence a lot because some questions are written negatively or positively. This is an issue which I strongly agree. People have different beliefs and opinion which are not always true. A poll conducted by CNN taken between August 30 to September 02, 2006 posed this question among the respondents: “Do you think Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks, or not?” Forty three percent of the respondents answered “yes” (http://www.pollingreport.com/iraq.htm).  This was while the US president has said that the US government has no evidence that Saddam Hussein has involvement with the September attacks.


Even during these times, not everyone reads the paper or watch news on TV which leaves them unaware of certain situations that are happening around them. This is one of the many factors why policy makers and politicians stop caring about the polls after election, as Shapiro stated in his work. Some politicians, however, have strived to use information taken from opinion polls to move the public in the direction they want them to go. The citizen and polls are just one of the many areas which they use to win an election.

Right Wing news listed 40 reasons of why the people should vote for Bush during the 2004 elections. One of the reasons mentioned was budget increase to fund education.

According to statline.org, the overall federal education budget would be cut by $3.1 billion or 5.5 percent from 2006 levels. This is a perfect example of the people being manipulated by politicians. As Shapiro stated, it is important for us to receive right information and get educated on current events to even make a judgment or decision on what is the best for our country. Being critically aware of the issues that beset the country will be our significant weapon against manipulation being done by some politicians.

Democracy, Institution, and Rights

Robert Dahl (1989) claims that large scale of democracy requires elected officials, free, fair and frequent elections, freedom of expression, alternative source of information, associational autonomy, and inclusive citizenship. Dahl states that America needs to find ways to improve what we have now in order to move on. Having said this, Dahl (1989) is clearly telling us that there is a need to change the kind of democracy that we have at the moment. Like students in a classroom, we must not cease to find the right ways to improve our current situation.

            Meanwhile, Shapiro (2005) stated that we need to move our democracy forward. He mentioned the three main elements of American democracy taken from an essay by Michael Lind entitled “Prescriptions for a New National Democracy”. These elements are individual rights, equal voting power, and the social market. Lind is against racism, such as “majority-minority” districts, and he is also against discrimination to homosexuals. I have the same opinion as this because I believe that in order to achieve true democracy, politicians must learn to listen to people no matter what their heritage is or their sexual preference is. As Dahl said, the people in this country have a right to be heard. If someone’s argument were to be ignored because they are from certain heritage that should not be considered as true democracy. Everyone must be taken seriously regardless of their sexual background or preferences.

One belief which I don’t think will work quite well is the thought that that personal and property rights should be agreed nationwide. It is extremely hard to agree on something that is so controversial in a large scale. For instance, some people may want to ban gay marriage completely because of their religion, yet others who don’t believe in those religion might not agree to that.

According to ABC News, 73% of Republicans said they want to ban same-sex marriage, when only 45 % of Democrats did.  There are certain issues that are easily agreeable on a state-wide than nationwide. Yes, it would be better to have everything agreed in nationwide, but in order to get to that point, we have to start small. The United States is such a large country, it will be better to allow states to have their own choice. From my experience in my political science class simulation, coming up with a policy that everyone agrees is not that easy, especially in a bigger scale such as a whole nation. People will always find it hard to agree on something right away.

Lind believes in equal voting and is against paid advertising. Everyone must have the right to equal voting for this is the true measure of democracy. As for paid advertising, there must be a limitation as to how much each politician must spend for paid advertisements. Oftentimes, candidates who do not have enough money to spend are left groping in the dark. We know for a fact that advertisements play vital roles in reaching the constituents. If there will be some requirements such as regulation and amount to be spent, I believe that paid advertisements will work. Like Shapiro, I am also curious why Lind has decided not to bring up issues such as candidates using polls too much.

In the same book, Lind argues that PR voting system will be good because “it would allow more votes to translate into representation of more individuals”, and that women and minorities will have more chance to be elected. I may agree with Lind’s idea but as Shapiro pointed out, we must be aware of the consequences that might occur from this theory. “Lack of full House and Senate representation for residents of the District of Columbia”, and also his statements on how Lind needs to point out that more populous state are under-represented, in Electoral College. It will be complicated to use PR voting and electoral college at once.  However, if we can fix these problems, PR voting may work in our favor.

Finally, Lind stated that Social Security and Health care should be disconnected from employers and must be financed by progressive tax. He also believes that US should restrict on immigration, discourage teens from working, pass laws that would reduce part-time/temporary workers, and persuade caregivers to stay home or work part-time in order to keep middle-class living standards, and make social mobility smoother. He also stated that allowing “intermediate professions in law and medicine”, outlawing legacy preferences in higher education, and have government work more closely with charitable and religious organizations to engage in education of youth.

I believe that health care should be disconnected from employers since 45.8 millions of Americans do not even have health care causing hospitals to close down (www.wikipedia.org). However, I disagree on most of the ideas that he brought up on social mobility. Firstly, government itself should try as hard as possible to educate youth without relying on charitable and religious organizations. As we can see from health care system, even though there are charities that support paying hospital fees for people who cannot afford it, hospitals are still closing down. We need a better system that can support our own people with our own government. Secondly, we should all have the right to work if we wanted to.

I believe that if we want to make social mobility smoother, government should have a program that supports people in low-income bracket. In Sweden for example, some children with good grades get free education because their parents could not afford it. I believe that this idea will help middle class families in the US as well.

In Japan, parents are inclined to save a lot of money for their children’s education. In fact, 94% of Japanese kids go to high school even though it is not mandatory, which 90% consider themselves middle class. In countries such as the United States, the government should help its citizens by providing the right assistance to help parents from middle-class families send their children to school. This will not only educate people, but would also help social mobility run a lot smoother than it is now.

As Shapiro stated, Lind’s theory is too class-based. Lind never really talked about nation as a whole, but rather focused on unskilled people. He failed to mention the teens from middle-income who have parents that cannot support them fully but need a job. He also failed to look at upper-class income people who want to gain experience as undergraduates. According to Lind’s theory, they should be discouraged from working just because of their income level. I don’t think this will work fully well in democratic countries. We need to see a nation as a whole and what is good for the country rather than focus on a certain group.  Everyone must be studied and looked into.

            Subsequently, Shapiro moved on to the next theorist, Alexander Keyssar. Keyssar mentioned the importance of having guaranteed right to vote for all Americans just as Dahl and Lind. He argues that the 2000 presidential election shows how important it is to amend our constitution to let all Americans have the right to vote. He also stated that he would like citizens to be allowed to choose their president directly, but since it is so controversial that he is settling with Electoral College. Keyssar also stated that felons should have the right to vote also. Agreeing with Keyssar’s argument, Shapiro stated that since in the US, there are only two party competitions that some states tend to ignore. Obviously, small states that do not hold much power in election do not get much attention at all during elections, but also Shapiro stated that states such as New York, California, and Texas were ignored too – unless it is for fund raising purposes- because they are not a “swing state”. He states that this is one of the biggest arguments against Electoral College.

By examining Shapiro and Keyssar’s argument, I found myself agreeing with their opinions. Electoral College is one of the reasons why people do not even care to vote. I have heard people saying that their votes will not be counted and that California always votes for democrats anyway. Politicians often say that “your vote counts”, but that is not always the case for some states in this country. Keyssar and Shapiro seemed to think that promising the right to vote for all Americans is one step, but I believe that we need to go a little further. Like Lind did, coming up with an idea of PR voting or even IRV voting system will be critical for our future in order to move our “democracy” forward.

            Moreover, Shapiro stated that Keyssar believes that there should be a better way to monitor elections, voting, and polling in the future. This will be actually great because as I stated in my introduction, our polling system does not work efficient, and also as we saw in election of 2000, our voting and election systems do not work efficient either.

From September 11 to Iraq

In this section, at first, Shapiro examined Paul McCartney’s work. McCartney discussed how the US claimed that 9/11 attack was related to Iraq and said that will be a war against “evil” perpetrators to justify invasion of Iraq even though they were false statements, as stated in the introduction. He also argued that Bush used American’s patriotic attitude and unsecured feeling right after the terrorist attack to get what he wanted. His analysis also showed that the Bush way of treating foreign policy is outdated and dangerous but it is democratic that Americans decided to go into the war thinking that we were bringing the democracy to Iraq. In reality, however, it is not democratic because we were not fully informed. He also claimed in the end that this is not only Bush’s fault but also all Americans fault even though earlier he acknowledged the fact that Americans were misinformed.

I don’t believe that Bush’s mismanaged foreign policy is all of Americans’ fault because Shapiro stated that it is easier for leaders to control the people when they do not have much information on what is really going on with incidents such as the Cold War and terrorist attacks, and even McCartney admitted the fact that we did not have proper information we needed to make a rational decision.

            On the contrary, Shapiro examined the work of Louis Fisher who stated that even though we believed the war in Iraq would bring democracy to them, what we did was undemocratic. He blamed Congress for making a decision of going into war without sufficient evidence, and allowed the president to initiate the war. He mentioned that Weapons of Mass Destruction was even a false statement and the support Americans showed was false support that was created from false information. I do agree with this opinion because the whole nation was too emotional due to the 9/11 attacks and insufficient evidence that were provided us made some of us believe that going into war was democratic.

Shapiro also compares Vietnam War and Iraq War. He stated that confusion about attacks on U.S. patrol ships made us go into war without any sufficient evidence. I believe that people, especially our leaders, need to be rational and make rational decisions and not rush into wars. I do not understand how anyone can call this “democracy”. The damages that this country has from these wars are immeasurable and are causing us more troubles everyday.

            Additionally, Shapiro also showed us how “misperceptions” can also be a huge issue on top of being misinformed. According to Kully, Ramsey and Lewis, even after two years of America going into the war, people still believe that al Qaeda, WMDs and Iraq were linked even though President admitted that they were not officially. They also stated that Bush supporters, Republicans and more partisan media did not do a great job of correcting false information.

            Taking these facts in consideration, Shapiro stated that “American democracy has been shortchanged by both its leaders and the press,” and Bush administration used that to mislead and manipulate the public all along. In addition, Bush also lied to the public by saying that social security is going “bankrupt” to push people creating a “private” or “personal” account. As Dahl stated, in democracy, we have a right to get informed. Taking this into account, we can see true democracy does not really exist in this country.

Voting, Elections, and Partisanship

In this section, Shapiro stated that Republicans and Democrats are “unified” than before, and elite controls politics in the United States. Then he said that in Morris Fiorina’s book, people do not choose political parties by cultural and social issues. He stated thatt, “Differences in opinions within the public have not shown increasing partisan polarization on specific issues.”  I never realized this until Morris and Shapiro mentioned it. Having given it much thought, I learned that a lot of people around me do not completely agree on the party they vote for yet they still vote for the party because they were raised that way or because they believe most of what that party believes. This is an information I learned from this book which I am happy to have found out.

            Shapiro examined articles written by Jacobson and Campbell. These authors talked about the 2004 presidential elections. Shapiro stated that 90% of Americans voted for their own party’s candidates and Bush’s approval ratings between both parties reached their highest during the last 50 years. He stated that two major parties are different in major issues that they have been arguing thus the party in power would have more power. These days, we are being dominated by republicans. Shapiro declared that extreme conflict between two parties could lead to unintended consequences for governance such as President Clinton’s impeachment. I may agree on this however, in true democracy, I believe that we should not care about the politicians’ personal life such as Clinton’s affair with Monica. In true fashion sense, that has nothing to do with his ability to lead the country and make our nation better.

Shapiro said that to resolve these conflicts is to let one party have more power than the other, where the Republicans would be the leading choice. Also, Campbell stated that the whole reason of why Republicans won the 2004 elections was because they had three campaign fundamentals. I also agree with this idea because a lot of people voted for Bush due to the fact that he went into the war, so they thought he would be able to take care of the Iraq situation better than his opponent. I believe that this has something to do with the misperceptions Kull, Ramsay and Lewis mentioned earlier. People believe that there was link between Sadaam and 9/11. Because the government manipulated us, people still voted for Bush. This also supports my theory that politicians use us to win the election by manipulating us.


In conclusion, Shapiro examined Caraley’s opinion that important aspects for our democratic institutions are free elections, separation of powers and checks and balances, and government limited by constitutional guarantees. They are critical for democracy, and he claimed that if we try not to improve those, they would be a huge threat to our “American Democracy”.

True democracy is measured by the amount of freedom and success the citizens’ experience. The government must make sure that the people well-taken care of regardless of their color and personalities.

Works Cited:

Dahl, Robert. Democracy and its Critics, Yale University Press. 1989



Shapiro, Robert. The meaning of American democracy. Academy of Political Science. 2005

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