The United States is commonly classified as a representative democracy, since we elect members of Congress and state legislatures to handle the task of writing our laws. However, critics have questioned how representative our democracy is. Are the masses genuinely represented? Is there authentic self-government in the United States or merely competition between powerful elites?
Clearly, citizens cannot be effectively represented if they are not granted the right to vote. Yet our nation did not enfranchise black males until 1870, and women were not allowed to vote in presidential elections until 1920. American Indians were allowed to become citizens (thereby qualifying to vote) only in 1924, and as late as 1956, some states prevented Indians from voting in local elections if they lived on reservations.
Unlike monarchies, oligarchies, and dictatorships, the democratic form of government implies an opposition which is tolerated or, indeed, encouraged to exist. In the United States, we have two major political partiesthe Democrats and Republicansas well as various minor parties. Sociologists use the term political party to refer to an organization whose purposes are to promote candidates for elected office, advance an ideology as reflected in positions on political issues, win elections, and exercise power. Whether a democracy has two major political parties (as in the United States) or incorporates a multiparty system (as in France and Israel), it will typically stress the need for differing points of view.
Seymour Martin Upset, among other sociologists, has attempted to identify the factors which may help to bring about democratic forms of government. He argues that a high level of economic development encourages both stability and democracy. Upset reached this conclusion after studying 50 nations and finding a high correlation between economic development and certain forms of government.
Why should there be such a link? In a society with a high level of development, the population generally tends to be urbanized and literate and is better equipped to participate in decision making and make the views of its members heard. In addition, as Upset suggests, a relatively affluent society will be comparatively free from demands on government by low-income citizens. Poor people in such nations can reasonably aspire to upward mobility. Therefore, along with the large middle class typically found in industrial societies, the poorer segments of society may have a stake in economic and political stability.
Upsets formulation has been attacked by conflict theorists, who tend to be critical of the distribution of power within democracies. As we will see later, many conflict theorists believe that the United States is run by a small economic and political elite. At the same time, they observe that economic stability does not necessarily promote or guarantee political freedoms. Lipset (1972) himself agrees that democracy in practice is far from ideal and that one must distinguish between varying degrees of democracy in democratic systems of government. Thus, we cannot assume that a high level of economic development or the self-proclaimed label of "democracy" assures freedom and adequate political representation.
POLITICAL BEHAVIOR IN THE UNITED STATES
As American citizens we take for granted many aspects of our political system. We are accustomed to living in a nation with a Bill of Rights, two major political parties, voting by secret ballot, an elected president, state and local governments distinct from the national government, and so forth. Yet, of course, each society has its own ways of governing itself and making decisions. Just as we expect Democratic and Republican candidates to compete for public offices, residents of the Soviet Union are accustomed to the domination of the Communist party. In this section, we will examine a number of important aspects of political behavior within the United States.
Five functional prerequisites that a society must fulfill in order to survive were identified. Among these was the need to teach recruits to accept the values and customs of the group. In a political sense, this function is crucial; each succeeding generation must be encouraged to accept a societys basic political values and its particular methods of decision making.
Political socialization is the process by which individuals acquire political attitudes and develop patterns of political behavior. This involves not only learning the prevailing beliefs of a society but also coming to accept the surrounding political system despite its limitations and problems. In the United States, people are socialized to view representative democracy as the best form of government and to cherish such values as freedom, equality, patriotism, and the right of dissent.
The principal institutions of political socialization are those which also socialize us to other cultural normsincluding the family, schools, and the media. Many observers see the family as playing a particularly significant role in this process. "The family incubates political man," observed political scientist Robert Lane. In fact, parents pass on their political attitudes and evaluations to their sons and daughters through discussions at the dinner table and also through the example of their political involvement or apathy. Early socialization does not always determine a persons political orientation; there are changes over time and between generations. Yet research on political socialization continues to show that parents views have an important impact on their childrens outlook.
The schools can be influential in political socialization, since they provide young people with information and analysis of the political world. Unlike the family and peer groups, schools are easily susceptible to centralized and uniform control; consequently, totalitarian societies commonly use educational institutions for purposes of indoctrination. Yet, even in democracies, where local schools are not under the pervasive control of the national government, political education will generally reflect the norms and values of the prevailing political order.
In the view of conflict theorists, American students learn much more than factual information about our political and economic way of life. They are socialized to view capitalism and representative democracy as the "normal" and most desirable ways of organizing a nation. At the same time, competing values and forms of government are often presented in a most negative fashion or are ignored. From a conflict perspective, this type of political education serves the interests of the powerful and ignores the significance of the social divisions found within the United States.
It is difficult to pinpoint a precise time in which politics is learned. Fred Greenstein argues that the crucial time in a young persons psychological, social, and political development is between ages 9 and 13. In the same vein, one study found that children 13 and 14 years of age were much more able to understand abstract political concepts than were children a few years younger. Specifically, in response to a question about the meaning of government, older children tended to identify with Congress, whereas younger children identified with a more personal figure such as the president. Other research, however, points to a significant leap in political sophistication during the ages of 13 to 15.
Surprisingly, expression of a preference for a political party often comes before young people have a full understanding of the political system. Surveys indicate that 65 to 75 percent of children aged 10 and 11 express commitment to a specific political label, including "independent." Political scientists M. Kent Jennings and Richard G. Niemi (1974) have found that children who demonstrate high levels of political competenceby understanding the differences between political parties and between liberal and conservative philosophiesare more likely to become politically active during adulthood.
Like the family and schools, the mass media can have obvious effects on peoples thinking and political behavior. Beginning with the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates of 1960, television has given increasing exposure to political candidates. One result has been the rising importance of politicians "images" as perceived by the American public. Today, many speeches given by our nations leaders are designed not for immediate listeners, but for the larger television audience. In the social policy section later, we will examine the impact of television on American political campaigns.
Although television has obvious impact on elective politics, it has also become an important factor in other aspects of American political life. In 1987, when a joint congressional committee held televised hearings on the Iran-contra scandal, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Norths outspoken testimony brought him a wave of public support. One effect of his media success, though primarily in the short run, was an increase in support for the "contras" and their effort to overthrow Nicaraguas Marxist regime. By contrast. Judge Robert Borks televised testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987 seemed to hurt his