220 American Government and Politics
Spring, 2000

Kenneth Janda, Instructor

Week 2, Lecture 2

The Nature of Democratic Theory
I. What citizens know about politics and their opinions about politics.
People have common understandings of American politics, and some of their understandings are just plain wrong.
For example, polls regularly show that a majority of Americans think that foreign aid constitutes the largest item in the U.S. budget, when foreign aid constitutes less than 1%.
What does this mean for democratic theory?
Should government always do what people want or what people think is the obvious solution to a problem?
II. People also have strong opinions about politics that can't be judged by reference to facts.

Consider prayers in schools: About 65% of the American public favors some sort of prayer in school, yet the government forbids allowing prayer in schools.
Consider the case of gun control: A majority of Americans favor gun control, but Congress is reluctant to enact strong measures controlling handguns.
III. Given these cases of government acting contrary to public opinion?
Is our country democratic?
Given the shallow base of understanding of public affairs, is it wrong that government goes against public opinion?

I. Democratic theory is NORMATIVE in character
It evaluates or prescribes governmental conditions
Therefore, the assertions of democratic theory cannot be "validated" in the same way, for example, as the claims of Keynesian economic theory about the operation of the economy.
However, democratic theory rests on understandings of political facts and empirical theories of human behavior.
If these assumed facts are shown to be in error or theories are shown to be wrong, then support is undercut for belief in the value assertions.

II. A major normative principle of western political theory is that "Democracy is the best form of government." There are two schools of thought about what constitutes a "democracy."
A. The PROCEDURAL VIEW of democracy prescribes a set of normative principles for democratic decisionmaking.
Three principles derive from answers to three questions about decisionmaking in any group:
Who should participate? Everyone -- which leads to the principle of UNIVERSAL PARTICIPATION.
How much should individual preferences count? Equally -- which leads to POLITICAL EQUALITY.
How many votes are needed to reach a decision? A majority -- which leads to MAJORITY RULE.
However, these principles apply only to government in a DIRECT democracy, in which all members of the group meet to make decisions themselves.
In an INDIRECT democracy, citizens choose officials to make decisions for them -- which is also known as REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT.
Given the fact of representative government in all modern nations, a fourth principle is needed.
RESPONSIVENESS states that elected representatives should respond to public opinion.
They should do what a majority of the citizens want, regardless of what that is.
This principle is unsettling to some people, who fear the enactment of "undemocratic" decisions by responding to majority rule.
B. The SUBSTANTIVE VIEW evaluates democracy on the basis of substance of government policies.
Most substantive theorists require that democratic government must guarantee civil rights and liberties.
Some would add social and economic rights to the list of substantive outcomes a democracy insures.
III. Procedural and substantive views of democracy are at odds with each other.
The unlimited majority rule of procedural democracy may result in policies unfavorable to minorities.
The imprecise standards of the substantive perspective cannot adequately resolve whether policies are truly democratic.

We favor the PROCEDURAL conception of democracy in this book because it more clearly approaches the classical definition of democracy as government by the people.