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How democratic is the United States today?

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It has been argued by many that the United States today is not very democratic. The influence of big money and special interests, widespread voter suppression, and the continued existence of the Electoral College have all been cited as evidence in support of this argument.

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A 2014 study by the political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern concluded that economic elites and narrow interest groups were very influential in the American political system. Gilens and Page found that such groups succeeded in getting their favored policies adopted approximately half of the time. In stopping legislation to which they were opposed, they were even more successful: almost all of the time. As for mass-based interest groups and ordinary citizens, they were found to have almost no influence on public policy.

From these findings, many have inferred that the United States is a democracy in name only. Democracy means rule by the people. Yet, if Gilens and Page's study is in any way accurate, then what exists in America is much closer to an oligarchy, rule by a wealthy elite.

To be sure, formal democracy still exists. People still vote for all kinds of public offices, from sheriffs to judges, from State Senators to Presidents of the United States. But in substantive terms the American people do not appear to exercise any real influence on public policy after their votes have been counted.

Another count against the current system is the prevalence of voter suppression in a number of states. Republican state legislatures have been accused by their opponents of using all kinds of voter suppression tactics—such as I.D. requirements at polling places—under the guise of combating voter fraud.

Opponents point out that the actual number of fraudulent votes cast in any given year is minuscule and so attempts at cracking down on a non-existent problem is a blatant ruse to suppress the votes of certain groups, such as African Americans.

Evidence of voter suppression would obviously strengthen the argument of those who claim that America isn't a real democracy. In a true democracy everyone should be encouraged to vote, not turned away from polling places because they lack the requisite form of identification.

Finally, there's the thorny issue of the Electoral College, used to decide the outcome of presidential elections. Opponents of the Electoral College have argued that it's fundamentally undemocratic, devised by the Founding Fathers as a means of holding back democracy, which they feared could easily degenerate into mob rule.

The Electoral College system means that some people's votes count more than others. So, for instance, the vote of someone living in a swing state with lots of Electoral College votes, such as Pennsylvania, is counted as more important than someone living in small state like Rhode Island, which has only four Electoral College votes.

Critics also point to the basic unfairness of the system. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million votes. Yet she still lost because her opponent Donald Trump was able to secure the all-essential majority in the Electoral College. So, in what is supposed to be a democracy, the United States wound up with a President that most people didn't actually vote for.

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