February 4: Introduction: Elections and American Democracy
First (introductory) lecture, 2/4.
In this course, we will be concerned with questions such as these:
Why is it that the Supreme Court, which is the most insulated branch of government, changes its
decisions as public opinion changes?
Why do Americans love their Congressmen and hate Congress?
Why, in 199?, did the public opinion want healthcare reform and yet it wasn’t passed, and in 200?
it didn’t want the tax cut, and yet it was passed?
: In the US, the legislative branch is unusually strong, the bureaucracy is
permeable (there is not permanent governing class, where you need to be born into a certain social class or
go to a certain university to become part of the bureaucracy), political parties are comparatively weak.
American peculiarity and emphasis of this course – very frequent elections
. Whence this American
passion for elections? – Founders’ principal worry was tyranny. John Adams: “Where annual elections end,
The number of elections has increased post-WW II:
Up to the 1950s, elections to all levels of government would take place on a single date. Now this
is no longer the case
less time for policymaking, voter fatigue
Weakening of the parties. Voters used to vote along party lines; party organizations would
mobilize voters, endorse candidates. Now candidates are pretty much on their own
- own staffs,
own election campaigns, own money.
In the early 70s primaries became the chief way of selecting candidates
No other democracy in the world does this – in those countries (as in the US of old) it is party
elites who decide which candidate to put forward.
Because of primaries, each candidate now has two constituencies: his primary constituency, and
his general election constituency (and at this point he or she needs to move away from the more
extreme and partisan positions taken during the primary season)
Rise of polling, which is now ubiquitous.
Does it mean politicians are now more responsive to the people, or just better able to sell their
There are a lot of critiques of the election-centered system: hard decisions are avoided, the system is
ineffective, it encourages electoral posturing, there’s much room for exchanging money for privileges.
But the system also has its benefits: US elected officials are some of the most responsive in the world.
Fiorina and Peterson, Ch. 1