Most Americans assume that the United States is a liberal democracy. I mean liberal in the classical sense that refers to freedom and the equality of all persons under the law, not in the pejorative sense that some conservatives use the word today. Indeed, many of the key components of a liberal democracy are found in our history, our institutions, and modern society. These include the concept of popular sovereignty, the idea that power rests with a free people who consent to be governed by leaders who will protect their lives, liberty, and property, provided those leaders are subject to the same laws and can be replaced by the people. Thomas Jefferson waxes eloquently about the rights of free people and how they are God given and unalienable in the Declaration of Independence. Though for all that eloquence, some 235 years has passed and yet the United States has not achieved the full promise of Jefferson's masterpiece.
There is yet another strand of political theory woven into the fabric of our political institutions that is drawn from republican thought, not to be confused or conflated with the Republican Party, as the two are not identical. The republican model is far more elitist and defers to the learned population, selects its leaders from among that class, and designs its institutions to more or less insulate the privileged from the will of the masses. We see this in the design of Congress, a bicameral legislature with one chamber elected by the people, the other to be appointed by the state legislatures to represent the interests of the states (changed to direct election by the 17th amendment in 1913, perhaps unwisely). The requirement that both the people's representatives and the state's representatives must agree fully for any legislation to pass is indicative of the founding fathers' distrust of democracy.
Further, the president is elected not by the popular vote of the people but by a small group of elites, precisely 538 of them to be exact, though only 270 must agree in order to choose a president. As of 2000, there is no law binding 257 of these electors to vote for the winner of their state's popular vote. The remaining 281 electors are bound by state law to vote for the candidate carrying the state's popular vote, except in Maine and Nebraska, where electoral votes are allocated to the winner of each congressional district. In theory, it is possible to elect someone as president who fared very poorly in the popular vote, though it hasn't happened since 1824 when John Quincy Adams was named president by the House of Representatives after finishing second to Andrew Jackson in both the popular and electoral vote. And lest we forget, the members of the judiciary are selected by the president and confirmed by the representatives of the states. The people's representatives are accorded no role in this process, though many would argue, and I would agree, that senators now represent the people of their states rather than the states themselves.
So we have two theoretical traditions forming the basis of the United States. Yet neither has fully lived up to its promise. Over the past two centuries Americans have whittled a way at the republican foundations of the government, slowly democratizing the system by expanding the franchise to all citizens eighteen years and older, save those incarcerated or otherwise ruled ineligible to vote. As stated previously, senators are now directly elected by the people. There is even a movement afoot to effectively eliminate the electoral college by binding electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote. As of August 8th, nine states and the District of Columbia (129 electoral votes) have agreed to the compact. It becomes binding when a total of 270 electoral votes is reached. So we are neither fully a democracy nor fully a republic but rather a democratic republic.
Even then, as Rogers Smith has argued, America has violated her principles time and time again through what he has called 'ascriptive hierarchy', which refers to the fact that throughout our history America has not been fully 'liberal' but rife with competing ideologies based upon race, gender, or other characteristics that excluded some persons from consideration as fully free and equal citizens of the United States. The argument is fully detailed in his book Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. In a nutshell, Smith points out that though the Declaration of Independence declares all men to be equal and free the reality in America has been vastly different. From mistreatment of Native American populations to slavery to denial of voting rights based on gender, ideologues have dominated our political institutions at both the national and state levels, using their positions to grant preferences to those in their hierarchical category while denying full citizenship to those deemed to be lower in the hierarchy. The sad history of the African-American population in America serves to illustrate that quite well. Though the Civil War Amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed citizenship to freed slaves (and equal protection of the law), and established voting rights for blacks, ideologues in both the south and the north worked hard to relegate blacks to a lower rung on the hierarchy through things such as literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, separate entrances for blacks and whites, separate drinking fountains, and segregated schools, all with the assent of the United States government until 1954 (and some might argue well beyond that). Segregation by race (though not 'officially' sanctioned by state or federal policy) continues today in much of the country, particularly the south where private 'academies' are populated almost exclusively by white children, even those struggling to make ends meet.
The ascriptive hierarchical system continues today as we assign people to different places on the ladder based on sexual orientation, immigration status, religion, education, and even political viewpoints. It permeates all aspects of American society as ideologues clamor to deny equal rights to homosexuals, demand that everyone present a photo ID in order to cast a vote (potentially reducing turnout amongst the poor and African-American communities), or denigrate 'liberals' as unpatriotic and haters of America. Of course, the truth could not be further from the rhetoric. The liberals I know are not America haters. Rather, they love America too much. So much so that their primary desire is for America to finally live up to the ideal standard she has set and proclaimed to the world for 235 years. May the hypocrisy end and freedom truly begin to ring from sea to shining sea.