How Do Citizens Connect With Their Government? [ushistory.org]
It's a big country out there. Not only does the United States have nearly 300 million citizens, it has so much territory that most Americans live a long way from the White House.
Sure, state and local governments allow many more opportunities to get in touch with government, but in some ways federalism just makes government all the more confusing and unapproachable. Yet a democracy depends for its very livelihood on meaningful contacts between the people and the government. How does this happen in modern America?
The founders intended for members of Congress to provide the link between citizens and government. James Madison explains in Federalist #10 that public views are refined and enhanced "by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country..." Today, however, each House member represents almost 65,000 people.
In the modern United States, four types of groups, known as "linkage" institutions, play a vital role in connecting citizens to the government. They are not officially a part of the government, but without them, a democracy would be very difficult to maintain. These groups in American politics include the following:
- Political parties represent broad points of view — or ideologies — that present people with alternative approaches to how the government should be run. Each party seeks political power by electing people to office so that its positions and philosophy become public policy. For example, both the Republican and Democratic candidates for President present competing plans for solving a wide array of public issues. People, then, link to their government by identifying themselves as "Democrats," "Republicans," or "Reform" party members, for example.
- Campaigns and elections involve citizens by reminding them of their ultimate power — the vote. Campaigns today are increasingly elaborate and long, costing millions of dollars, and attracting the public's attention in any way they can. For all the expense and glitz, the process of electing government officials provides citizens with vital information regarding issues and candidates' qualifications for office.
- Interest groups organize people with common interests and attitudes to influence government to support their points of view. They generally represent only one issue or a closely related set of concerns. So, people can organize according to their profession, business, corporation, or hobby — yet another way to "link" to government.
- The media play an important role in connecting people to government. Most of us find out about candidates for office, public officials' activities, and the burning issues of the day through television, newspapers, radio, and the Internet. The media's power to shape the American mind has often been criticized, but it also allows people to give feedback to the government.
The United States is far too large a country to operate effectively as a direct democracy. Even with elected representatives in Washington and in state capitals, it is still difficult for modern Americans to participate in their government in meaningful ways. Democracy still works though, partly because linkage institutions make important connections that allow the government to hear what its people are saying.