How democratic is America?
When discussing the question of how democratic is America there are countless different perspectives. Three of those perspectives are given to us by Howard Zinn, Sidney Hooks, and Kenneth Janda. Howard Zinn first answered this question by essentially giving ten measures of criteria that were needed for something to be considered democratic. Sidney Hooks responded to Zinn in disagreement with his points and definition. These men all had different perspectives on how this question needed to be answered.
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The first perspective looked at is that of American author and historian Howard Zinn. Zinn believed first the definition of democracy is very important. He believed that if we gave a simple definition to the word democracy such as, “A set of formal institutions” then it is very easy to say that America is very democratic. While in reality, it is much more complex than a simple set of institutions. Zinn answered the question being asked by giving ten pieces of criteria for hat makes a true democracy and how America does not uphold those criteria fully.
The first of Zinn’s criteria take into account what level of participation people have in decision making. He argues that when the people are forced to follow laws made by representatives this is not a democracy. While a representative democracy may be better than other alternatives, it still isn’t true democracy as according to Zinn, who said: “representatives develop expertise that tends toward its own perpetuation”. This was Zinn’s first note of how America is not democratic.
Zinn continued in his list of criteria for democracy with the need for access to information. As big media companies and the government in America controls the news there is little time for critics of public policy to speak their mind or be heard. Next in his criteria was equal protection on matters of life and death. This was very important to his life of criteria and was also one of his main criticisms on the lack of democracy in America. According to him, the draft violated equal protection as it pushes young men to join a war that they had no part in deciding to start. War immediately involves those who decided not to start it and in the way is very undemocratic.
The next in Zinn’s criteria was equality before the law. People of particularly poorer races, genders, and backgrounds are given different levels of jail time or different levels of legal representation than those who are wealthier. This ties into Zinn’s next point of equal distribution of resources necessary for each individual’s life. According to Zinn’s research the wealthiest fifth of America gets 40% of national income while the poorest fifth gets 5%. This is unacceptable to Zinn for a democracy. Similar to his need for equal resources is the need for access to education. In America, wealthier areas get better schools with increased access to resources, showing how not all people can live their lives to their full potential as they are already starting at a disadvantage.
Freedom of expression on all matters for all people is another criterion that Zinn felt to be needed in America for it to be considered a democracy. Despite the first amendment guaranteeing this right, Zinn concludes that a wealthy person will always have more freedom than the poor as the poor have no means by which to be heard. Zinn’s next point on democracy continues this theme in what he calls the freedom of individuality, meaning do all people have the freedom to do what they please as long as others aren’t harmed. This is violated in America by the countless laws and regulations surrounding one’s marriages, relationships, and personal lives.
Zinn also lists a spirit of cooperation as necessary for democracy. He believes that as long as the end goal in America is to be as rich and powerful as you can be in life then there will never be a true democracy. The way that big corporations like the drug industry have overpriced drugs by up to 700 percent at times limits democracy in America. For him there the spirit of society as a whole needs to be work in cooperation to get democracy. The last bit of criteria that Zinn lists for democracy to work is the opportunity to protest. Through protest, it allows for there to be constant checks on what the public agrees with. Continuing acts of civil disobedience are the only way for democracy to be fully reached in America.
Today in America there are a vast number of complicated political issues that affect everyone. One of the more common issues in America, however, is racial inequality which is also one of the main points Zinn makes in his criteria for democracy. Zinn states a need for equal distribution of wealth and equality before the law. In a recent article by the Business Insider on racial inequality they outlined white Americans make up a disproportionate amount of homeowners. The business insider citing a study done by Lending Tree, which is an online lending marketplace, found that “In 50 of the largest metro areas white Americans made up an average of 59% of the population and about 73% of homeowners”. This shows how much wealthier white families are and their ability to be homeowners. This backs up the writing of Howard Zinn and his claim of a need for equal distribution of resources amongst all genders and races being crucial to democracy and that it might not be fully there in America yet.
While Howard Zinn’s views on democracy take on a certain perspective, that view is not necessarily shared by all. One of those people who opposed Zinn was Sidney Hooks, the American philosopher. Hooks opposed Zinn and believed that he was very inconsistent in his claims, despite agreeing overall that democracy needs improvement. While Zinn aims to show how America has not as a true democracy, Hooks breaks down three key weaknesses in Zinn’s writing and shows that America should be more democratic, but not for the reasons that were previously stated.
The first main point that Hooks makes against Zinn is his misunderstanding of the definition of democracy. According to Hooks, Zinn confused democracy as a political process with democracy as a political product. Hooks argues that many of Zinn’s proposed reforms could still occur in a dictatorship and is not necessarily a means of getting to democracy.
Hooks breaks down Zinn’s argument further with criticism in regards to how Zinn measures democracy against an ideal, that is not fully clarified and lacks a clear definition. Hook argues that the only way to see improvement in a society is to compare it to how it was in the past. This is against Zinn’s belief that a society should not be compared to the past as improvement does not constitute democracy.
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The last main point of criticism that Hooks points out in Zinn’s writing is his misinformation about how a political democratic system works. Hooks quotes one of Zinn’s comments about democracy, “Representation by its very nature is undemocratic”. According to Hooks, this would mean that any group that had ever claimed to have been a democracy would have been wrong and shows how incorrect Zinn is about political democratic systems. Hooks finishes his argument by saying that democracy in America does need to get better, but if America were truly so terribly undemocratic then why do people who have the opportunity to leave choose to stay.
While overall Hooks disagrees with most of the points Zinn makes, he does agree with one completely. The claim that dissent and public protest are crucial to democracy. This point was made by Zinn and Hooks agrees with it. This ties into current political issues within the US today and the effect of protest. According to news site Aljazeera, there was just recently protests nationwide about climate change. The protesters are marching on D.C. as well as across the country to try and change government opinion. This comes at a time right before the UN is about to have a meeting about climate change. In line with the argument that Sidney Hook stated, these protesters are integral to the potential change in policy and the continuation of protest on all matters is important to the stability of democracy.
While both Howard Zinn and Sidney Hooks debated the question of “How democratic is America”, author Kenneth Janda look more closely at whether or not the government does what people actually want. Using data from two independent studies Janda is able to determine whether or not government policies are in line with public opinion, and what that means for democracy in America.
Janda explores a study by Alan Monroe which found that overall government policy was in line with the public opinion a majority 63 % of the time. However, government opinions are more likely to agree with public opinion when people like the way things were. This study was one of two studies in Janda’s research, the other one being by two men by the name of Page and Shapiro. These men found the same information as the previous study, that policy changes followed public opinion about 66% of the time. These two studies were able to validate each other’s findings due to there similar outcome.
The question Janda asks of this is research is whether or not this is enough for the US to be considered a democracy. He found that in both studies the government does respond to changes in the publics’ opinion. Both groups of men behind each study believed that due to their research, the level of government in America would increase if public opinion played a bigger part in the process of change. Janda finishes his writing by pointing out that through the key concepts of freedom, order, equality, majoritarianism, and pluralism one should be able to better decipher the question of democracy in America, and be able to formulate your own views.
Currently, in the United States, there is often disagreement over decisions made by the government and how it relates to public opinion. While these studies found that the government is generally in agreement with public opinion that is not the case today. Recently Trump’s decisions on trade agreements have not been the most favorable as seen by the public. In an online article by Foreign Affairs, Trump’s Assault on the Global Trading System, it shows how Donald Trump has made clear decisions against public opinion for no good reason. According to Foreign Affairs, Trump imposed a tariff on steel and aluminum imports coming from Canada. His decision to do so was opposed by both the US domestic industry and labor unions. By making this decision the US now faces tariffs coming from other countries on their agriculture exports. The article states that Trump has risked the welfare of 3.2 million US farmers to help 140,000 US steel workers. This article ties into Janda’s information about the government making decisions in line with public opinion, and how Trump is failing to do so.
All three of the men that responded to the question of democracy in America answered it in their own way. Howard Zinn chose to analyze the definition of the word democracy, and points out the fallacies in democracy in America, and listed criteria for what was needed to fully reach it. Sidney Hooks, on the other hand, tore away at Zinn’s writing and criteria and believed the comparing democracy in America today to what it used to be is the only way to show that there has been an improvement, although he still believed America needs to be more democratic. Contrary to the first two authors Kenneth Janda looked at whether or not the government made choices in line with public opinion and whether or not this information was enough to validate America as a democracy. Despite contrasting views, all three authors at some point mentioned that democracy in America does need improvement and that it is in the hands of the people through education, civil disobedience, public opinion and more that democracy can be improved in America.
- Bown, Chad P., and Douglas A. Irwin. “Trump’s Assault on the Global Trading System.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 17 Sept. 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2019-08-12/trumps-assault-global-trading-system.
- Brandt, Libertina. “White Americans Make up a Disproportionate Number of US Homeowners, and It’s Most Extreme in New York City.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 30 Sept. 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/racial-inequality-is-evident-in-homeownership-in-the-us-2019-9.
- Hooks, Sidney.”How Democratic Is America?”, Eskandari, Manoutchehr M. Notes on American Government. Dubuque, IA, 2008.
- Janda, Kenneth.”Does Government Do What People Want?”, Eskandari, Manoutchehr M. Notes on American Government. Dubuque, IA, 2008.
- Rattansi, Shihab. “Climate Change Activists Plan for Protests across US.” USA News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 23 Sept. 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/climate-change-activists-plan-protests-190923185144489.html.
- Zinn, Howard.”How Democratic Is America?”, Eskandari, Manoutchehr M. Notes on American Government. Dubuque, IA, 2008.
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