But one scholar argues that representative democracy is effectively dead - done in by the biggest shift of income and assets to the super-wealthy since the 1920s.
"President Bush's tax cuts increased the political power of the richest Americans," says Walter Williams, University of Washington professor emeritus of public affairs. "Their gains fueled the huge increase in campaign contributions and made big money the driving force in national politics."
Williams argues in a paper to be presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Philadelphia that this "massive maldistribution" of wealth has severely weakened U.S. political institutions and democracy.
The trend, Williams said, traces back to President Reagan, who sold a political philosophy blending antigovernmentism, deregulation and tax cuts for the most affluent. "Reaganism" continued to prevail even under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, who in essence "ratified" the philosophy by not repudiating it.
Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, is described by Williams as "the foremost disciple of Reaganism."
In his conference paper and forthcoming book "Reaganism and the Death of Representative Democracy," Williams documents what he describes as epic shifts in wealth during the two decades of Reaganism - for example, that the top 1 percent saw their after-tax incomes rise 157 percent in real dollars, while the real incomes of the bottom 20 percent of the population actually fell.
By contrast, he writes, during the postwar years to 1973, blue-collar incomes posted the biggest gains and the ranks of the American middle class swelled.
Today's rising inequality, Williams argues, distorts the political system and turns ordinary Americans into second-class citizens. Wealthy individuals and major corporations have returned the favor of tax cuts and deregulation with a flood of contributions that give Bush a commanding lead for the 2004 campaign - which Williams describes as a key battle to maintain the plutocracy.
"By the time you or I get into the act," Williams said, "the candidates are pretty much served up for us by the wealthy interests."
Williams, who is an emeritus professor at the UW's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, will present his paper Saturday at the conference's 10 a.m. session on the political and policymaking implications of wealth inequality.
Also at that session, UW political scientist Mark A. Smith will document the emergence of conservative intellectuals and their growing influence in American life. Smith shows that the right, which once lacked an infrastructure to support intellectual work, has created and sustained an increasingly large network of publications, networks and institutions. A growing array of political magazines since World War II has allowed conservatives to express intellectually coherent principles and programs, Smith argues, and the founding and growth of think tanks increased the reach of those ideas.
According to Smith's paper, the influence of academia - where most professors identify themselves as liberals - does not fully offset the right's edge in the domain of think tanks. That is because researchers at think tanks strive for influence over policymakers and the public sphere, whereas academics are rewarded for contributing to specialized knowledge within their disciplines.
For more information during the conference, contact Williams in Philadelphia on his cell phone at 206-849-9744 or at The Alexander Inn 215-923-3535. In Seattle, he can be reached at 206-322-4197 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Smith can be reached in Philadelphia on his cell 206-235-1882, or in Seattle at 206-368-8431 or email@example.com. The papers, and more information about the conference, are available at www.apsanet.org/mtgs/program. For a review copy of "Reaganism and the Death of Representative Democracy," contact Gina Armento of Georgetown University Press at 202-687-9856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.