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REPRESENTATIVE vs DIRECT DEMOCRACY 5 Apr. 2016 PDF  | Print |  E-mail

 

REPRESENTATIVE vs DIRECT DEMOCRACY

 

5 Apr. 2016

 

Dear Friends and Patriots,

 

          I am constantly amazed that many who profess to love our Constitution and revere the wisdom of our founders understand so little about either.  Those who do understand it, and have studied the writings of James Madison, especially “Federalist 10” of The Federalist Papers, and those who’ve read the works of John Locke and Edmund Burke understand there’s more than just a subtle difference between representative democracy and direct democracy.  Just to make the point in the fewest words – our founders established the United States of America as a constitutional republic, with the specific intent that the citizens be governed as a representative democracy.

 

          In a speech given in New York City on 21 June 1788 to drum up support for ratification of the new Constitution, Alexander Hamilton stated, "That a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity."

 

          Perhaps Hamilton’s assertion was a bit hyperbolic, but one must understand our founders, who studied all historical forms of government from the earliest days of the Athenian Republic up to their day, understood the benefits and drawbacks of every system.  They purposefully opted for the governmental form most likely to provide the greatest freedom for individual citizens.  Of course, they had no way of understanding how their new nation would grow and how various dynamic social and economic forces would push, shove, and knead the Constitution into a form that would hardly be recognizable to them.

 

          Many books have been written over the years to analyze the maturing process of representative democracies.  Robert Michels, in his 1911 book Political Parties, indicated his research that most representative democracies eventually mutate into one of two systems – oligarchy or partocracy.   If you think about the current presidential race by Democratic and Republican Party candidates you should easily see evidence of the truth of Michels’ theory.  We currently see one candidate who is self-funding; one candidate who only takes very small donations, while almost all other candidates benefit from huge amounts of PAC money.  We should easily detect evidence of a migration toward oligarchy.  Even so, there are two major political parties involved and there are many conversations being held regarding future actions of both parties should the “wrong” candidate be poised to gain their party nomination.   Current wisdom holds that the Democrats won’t run an avowed socialist as their candidate, regardless of his potential convention delegate total.  The same holds true on the Republican side; in the end they may not be willing to allow a self-funding oligarch to gain their party’s nomination.  If either of the two parties takes actions that have the effect of flouting the expressed will of their faithful it will be stark evidence of partocracy.

          All who profess to be avid and active participants in the opinion-shaping and policy formulation processes should pause and reflect upon the essential principles of our nation.  You should think about the idea that America was designed to reinforce the sovereignty of the individual above his government; to empower the common citizen in ways that didn’t exist in any other nation on Earth.  Our government was intended to serve the people not the other way around.  One way to ensure that was our representative form of governance, which was seen as a practical need in the late 1700s.  Especially so in a country that had as much frontier territory as ours.  Today, even though modern communications technology would seem to be the perfect enabler to make direct democracy a practical reality, there are many compelling arguments against it.

 

          With representative democracy, both with those who serve us in Congress and also those who we select to vote in the Electoral College, the voters have a better chance of representation by able, educated, and motivated people of good character and common sense.  The representative has the cumulative will of all the voters they represent, instead of one vote alone.  We always try to pick the best person.  There is power in that.

 

          Ignorance of the real aims of the Constitution is the best argument against most forms of direct democracy.  If one doesn’t understand why the Constitution is as it is, proposals to change it often appear to be “fair” while in truth they completely contradict the intent of our founders.   Just take two examples of representative democracy and they should help make this point.

 

          Every presidential election cycle we hear a hue and cry regarding the “archaic” and “irrational” Electoral College system the Constitution defines.  If you were to ask 100 citizens at random it’s likely only five will have any understanding of the Electoral College.  Only one will be able to tell you that it’s the votes of the Electoral College that actually elect our Presidents.  Does it seem strange that average citizens don’t know about the Electoral College and many who do think it’s an anachronism that should be eliminated? 

 

Few citizens understand that when they cast their ballots for a presidential candidate every four years they’re actually casting their vote for a slate of electors, who are supposedly pledged to vote for that candidate when the Electoral College is convened.    Most average Americans don’t understand the Electoral College as a system designed to make it harder to steal an election.   It’s also designed to neutralize the raw voting power of major metropolitan areas and large cities, since electors are chosen from throughout a state.   In truth, if we ever allow direct elections every subsequent president will be the choice of the ten biggest metropolitan areas of the nation.  No one else will matter.  Candidates will no longer bother to campaign outside major metropolitan areas.  They’ll go where the votes are.  In this case, direct democracy would mean the virtual disenfranchisement of all those who dwell outside those major metropolitan areas.  The value of your vote will depend entirely on where you live.


          Initiatives and Referendums (I&R) is another tool of direct democracy.  The notion of I&R began in America just before 1890.  It’s been on the progressive agenda since that movement was first started.  Progressives like I&R.  They like it, not so much because it gives more power to the people but because I&R makes it easier to sell an argument of fairness and it’s also easier to manipulate the outcome of an issue through a ballot initiative or referendum than it is to manipulate an entire legislative body.  Legislators also like it, because it takes them off the hook.  If legislators want to avoid being punished at the ballot box for their votes on difficult issues it’s easier just to punt to the voters. 

 

There are significant problems with I&R, though.  For one, the text of a proposal appearing on a ballot is usually not easy to understand.  Voters often make up their minds on an I&R proposal while in a voting booth.  Few read newspapers anymore, or pay attention to any news that might explain an initiative or referendum.  Many voters show up on Election Day completely unaware there’s a proposal on the ballot.  Unless the language and intent is crystal clear, which is often not the case, the voter can make a serious mistake.  Clever politicians who want unpopular measures to be approved by the voters won’t describe them with straightforward language, nor ensure the media fully explains their actual intent.   Unfortunately, we see it all the time.

 

It’s easy to understand why people tend to like ballot initiatives and referendums.  The idea of having more direct say in government is appealing.  However, like most experiments in direct democracy, it only works well when the issues are clearly stated and understood, and when those who show up on Election Day are fully educated on the issues at hand and also comprehend all tertiary aspects of approving the proposals.  The history of I&R is spotty.  In some smaller states where the voting population is more politically engaged and educated it seems to work reasonably well.  Other states (California comes to mind) have had some truly embarrassing experiences, even to the point of subsequent court rulings of unconstitutionality.

 

The biggest problem with direct democracy was one discussed at length by our founders.  It has to do with the knowledge and intellectual capacity of the citizenry.  It also has to do with the level of political engagement.  Our founders didn’t believer in universal suffrage.  Most of them believed voting was a responsibility of those who were sufficiently educated and knowledgeable and who had a material stake in the outcome.  Today we have universal suffrage, and sometimes we see surprising electoral results.  We all understand how hard it is to unseat an incumbent politician, yet most people don’t understand that phenomenon as the result of universal suffrage instead of some intrinsic power of incumbency.  The popular wisdom today seems to go toward the idea of term limits to cope with the mythological power we attribute to old, tired, and ineffective representatives.  Few people seem willing to understand the problem rests with the fact that our current system allows uneducated and uninformed citizens equal access to voting booths.  Politicians already have term limits.  Citizens can vote any elected official out of office, and can also do recall elections.  We don’t need a constitutional amendment, we just need better educated and informed voters. 

 

There’s no going back when it comes to the subject of enfranchisement.  It’s foolish to delve too deeply there.  If some have their way the only requirement to vote in future elections will be to request a ballot.  It won’t matter if you’re a not citizen, if you’re a convicted felon, a tax deadbeat, or even if you’ve already voted ten times.  No, if the progressives have their way you might not even need to be alive to have your vote count.  You’ll just need to ask for a ballot form, either paper or digital, and vote.

 

Maybe I’m wrong about direct democracy.  I see it as a big step along the road to the elimination of all aspects of real democracy.   How do you see it?

 

In Liberty,
Steve