The New American Democracy: Definition & History

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  • 1:28 Elections, Elections,…
  • 2:07 Party Troubles
  • 2:50 The Rise of Primary Elections
  • 3:30 In the Public Eye
  • 4:34 Interest Groups
  • 5:08 The Latest Poll
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the phenomenon of the 'permanent campaign,' which has changed the face of American democracy. In doing so, we will take a close look at the factors that led to this political development.

A Permanent Campaign

Our story begins with the election of a first time Congressman to the House of Representatives. He is thrilled to be part of democracy in action, pleased that the voters have put their trust in him, excited to represent his constituents for the next two years, and ready to get down to work researching issues, talking to his fellow citizens so he knows what they think, learning about the inner workings of government, and being the best Congressman he can possibly be.

The day after the election, however, our Congressman's victory celebration is over. Reality strikes in the form of one of his party's campaign advisers, who tells him that now's the time to start thinking about the next election. The Congressman is shocked and exclaims, 'Huh? I just won! I shouldn't have to think about the next election until sometime next year at the very earliest!' The adviser grins, sniffs, and shakes his head at the Congressman's naivety. 'Sorry, buddy,' he replies, 'You may have just been elected, but you're already back on a permanent campaign. That's the way things are nowadays. American democracy just isn't the same anymore. Get used to it.'

The permanent campaign is indeed a key feature of the modern form of American democracy. As soon as one election campaign ends, the next immediately begins. Six main factors have led to the rise of the permanent campaign. Let's listen in as the adviser explains them to the stunned new Congressman.

Elections, Elections, and More Elections

'For most of American history,' the adviser explains, 'there was only one election day, but that is no longer the case. Elections have multiplied, and today, voters participate in national elections, state elections, local elections, primary elections, general elections, referendum votes, and even recall elections, many of which take place at different times throughout the year.' The Congressman will have to keep himself, his pet issues, and his party in front of voters all the time so he can help his fellow candidates win these many elections. He must permanently be on the campaign trail.

Party Troubles

'What's more,' the adviser continues, 'a candidate can no longer completely rely on his or her political party for support. Since the Civil War, two parties have dominated the American political scene, the Republicans and the Democrats, and most people voted along strictly party lines, identifying more with a party than with a particular candidate. Candidates could depend on their parties to handle most of the campaign business. Now, however, most modern voters tend to be less loyal to a particular party and more interested in the individual candidates.' The Congressman must constantly stay in the public eye and will have to spend a lot of time and money to remain there. He can't always count on his party to do all his campaigning work for him.

The Rise of Primary Elections

The adviser goes on, explaining that in the past parties nominated their candidates at party conventions, and the wider membership didn't have much say in the matter. This practice, however, often led to corruption within parties, and sometimes the most qualified candidate lost his chance to run for office.

Reform laws in the middle of the 20th century established the primary election, which allows party members to vote on their party's nominees and select a candidate to run in the general election. These primary elections have doubled the number of elections, and the Congressman now has to concentrate on winning the next primary just to be able to run for office again. This means more campaigning.

In the Public Eye

The adviser further informs the Congressman that his constituents are expecting him to remain visible to them at all times. He will make public appearances, of course, quite frequently since transportation from Washington, D.C., to his home state is no problem at all and only requires a few hours by airplane rather than the several days by train that his political ancestors had to cope with. As he digs into his job, he will certainly have to give plenty of interviews to television, radio, and print media journalists, who will ask him difficult questions about his actions in office. He may even be invited to participate in televised news programs or debates.

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