Sunday, March 16, 2014

What Kind of Democracy?

Jonathan Rauch has a post this month about the difference between “honest corruption” and “dishonest corruption.” I don’t agree with every point which he makes in the piece, but he does touch on the point of the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy, although he doesn’t dwell on it and probably made the point unintentionally when he said,

Reformers, worried about corruption, also put tight limits on direct political contributions to candidates and parties. The result has been to divert money to unaccountable private groups, many of which clobber candidates who take tough votes to support party leaders. Meanwhile, rules requiring deliberations to be public have proved a mixed blessing, because it’s hard to negotiate in earnest while striking ideological postures for TV cameras.

What I take from that is that the founders formed a representative democracy because they knew that a direct democracy was unworkable and we are pretty thoroughly proving that point right now. Instead of electing legislators and allowing them to represent us, we are watching every single issue which comes before Congress and trying to dictate to our representatives how he/she should vote on that particular issue, and then screaming bloody murder when he/she does not do so.

No matter what Congress does, there is always some noisy minority screaming at the top of its lungs about Congress getting it wrong, so Congress responds by doing nothing. That is, of course, an idiotic response to the problem, but

Representative government means we elect our legislators and then we do not hold rallies to tell them how to vote on issues that raise public passion. If that was the proper procedure we would not need the legislators, we could use referendums on issues. At the end of the term we evaluate the legislator and if, on balance, he has performed in accordance with our principles we reelect him/her. If not, we elect someone else. To vote someone out of office based on one single vote which he/she made while in office is utterly absurd.

He/she, him/her, we need another pronoun.

As usual, we place the blame in the wrong place, or at least partly so. We are outraged that Congress accomplishes so little, but it does not occur to us to think that we ourselves might be part of the reason.


  1. and many politicians respond in a knee jerk fashion by jumping on popular issues and bandwagons. ANd yes, many do pontificate in front of cameras and press releases and twitters ad nauseum.

    A lot of it is keeping your name out there for publicity - both because you have an ego and for reelection time. Which is almost all the time.

  2. Anonymous12:30 PM

    All too often the Sunshine Laws merely made it easier for lobbyists to influence legislators. The general public is not glued to watching the politicians constantly but you can bet the lobbyists are.