When Democratization fails to benefit society
February 1, 2010 by Nathan Warner
We need more effective government, not more democracy
The blogosphere, the punditry and editorial pages have held no shortage of criticism of the Supreme Court’s recent decision, which struck down parts of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and allowed corporations the right to fund political ads.
Like other critics, I too disagree with this decision, but I will not rehash arguments that have already been made.
Without addressing other problems with the Supreme Court’s ruling (e.g., that corporations are not people, or even the limits of what “free speech” entails) that have been discussed elsewhere, it is worthwhile to ask what the effects of such a ruling will have on our democratic processes and institutions.
The real loser in this decision is American democracy itself. More and more free speech is considered to be the more democratic option, but in this case, unregulated democracy is more of a hindrance to good government than a benefit to society.
In modern America, it is often assumed that more democracy is always a better thing. More people should be able to vote on a wider range of issues. Our representatives should vote according to their constituents’ will and not based on what they think is best for our country.
We even welcome direct democracy when possible, affirming that the people have absolute power and should be able to assert their will in any means possible.
Far less often do we discuss or even consider the problems with this approach.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution never intended for America to be a pure democracy.
As James Madison and Alexander Hamilton showed clearly in the Federalist papers (see especially Madison’s number 10), they possessed a healthy distrust of the public will and argued that the entire point of representative democracy is to temper public opinions and reach more ideal outcomes.
Today’s furor of reforms in the name of democracy and political rights give ever-greater control of the government to a vague concept of “the people.”
Nowadays, Americans vote on issues and throw millions at special interest groups representing their respective causes.
The special interests, for all intents and purposes, effectively run our government.
This is, in itself, a contentious statement. Even those who agree with it may ask what the problem is. After all, don’t those interests represent the will of the people?
Perhaps that is so. But as controversial as this may be, it must be said that the people don’t always know what is best. We each vote as our conscience dictates, which, naturally so, is to secure our own best interests. It is this selfishness that is a democracy’s greatest failing.
Fareed Zakaria, in his book, “The Future of Freedom,” makes this same point: In the case of democracy, there can be too much of a good thing. That is, too much freedom (in this case, meaning unregulated political processes) can not only reach adverse outcomes, but can corrupt the very system itself.
California’s budget troubles clearly illustrate this phenomenon.
As Zakaria writes, California has produced a government that is “as close to anarchy as any civilized society has seen.” Their experiments with direct democracy means that Californians can pursue referendums to bring about their will if the legislature or even state courts act against their wishes.
And, as could be expected, California has performed dismally. Its citizens routinely vote themselves more government benefits and services while decreasing their own taxes. And why shouldn’t they? It is their right, after all, to vote for what is in their best interests.
Obviously, the reason this system is untenable is because of its innate selfishness. With people looking out for themselves, no one is looking out for the best interests of the community.
This, then, is the point of representative democracy, as the framers rightly intended. The government surely is by and for the people, but it must act as a filter to tamp the selfish tendencies of American individualism.
Our legislatures should consider not only the will of the people, but also primarily the good of the nation. They should not be blindly beholden to the money and influence of corporations and special interests.
The voice of the people is not what our leaders hear. It is well-organized special interest groups that roam the halls of Congress.
It is motivated and organized minority (by interest, not identity) groups that keep absurd and pandering policies afloat, like agricultural subsidies and trade wars with China.
As Zakaria further writes, today’s rampant political cynicism shows that we Americans don’t feel like the government listens to us at all. As the system becomes more open and “democratic,” it becomes more overrun by money, special interests and organized political fanatics.
It is for these reasons that we have government institutions that are supposed to be above politics.
This is why we have a Federal Reserve that can increase unemployment or even cause a recession for the long-term economic good of the country, and why we have, ideally, non-political courts to oversee the decisions made by our government.
Ironically, however, it is our most anti-democratic institution that has here attempted to increase democracy, but at the expense of the people and our nation as a whole.
Corporations are now considered people and have the right to financially support whomever and whatever policies they want in their own advertising.
Some will argue that the corporations still don’t have actual votes and that people still have the choice to not actually listen to the advertisements.
To this, I only need point to the current state of affairs. Our representatives spend millions on advertisements to get elected to a job that pays less than $200,000 a year. Maybe we don’t actually care about the ads themselves, but our politicians do.
This decision may be a victory for free speech, but it comes at the expense of effective, honest and accountable government. The answer should not always be more democracy, but rather, more effective government.
After having read your article I’m compelled to respond. With all due respect, I’m not entirely sure what you are saying as you seem to jump around and contradict yourself a bit. What I pretty much gathered is you feel too much free speech and direct democracy is counterproductive to our nation. I think.
You cite Federalist No.10 as your reasoning: “As James Madison and Alexander Hamilton showed clearly in the Federalist papers (see especially Madison’s number 10), they possessed a healthy distrust of the public will and argued that the entire point of representative democracy is to temper public opinions and reach more ideal outcomes.”
“A healthy distrust of the public will” you say? Is this the same James Madison who stated in 1787: ” The People were, in fact, the fountain of all power, and by resorting to them, all difficulties were got over. They could alter constitutions as the pleased.” Is this the same James Madison you feel had a healthy distrust of the public when he stated at the Virginia Convention of 1788: ” I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurptations.” That Madison?
Federalist No. 10 refers to “factions”. The definition of factions in 18 Century America were significantly different than factions of the 21st Century. What we face today James Madison and Alexander Hamilton could never have possibly imagined in their worst nightmares. I think it’s safe to say Madison and Hamilton would unanimously define today’s factions as ‘Wall Street’ and ‘ Big Corporations’. Big Corporations which have completely dismantled our already weak democracy through endless financial “donations” or what they should more accurately be called: bribes.
You stated: “Obviously, the reason this system (the initiative process you wrongly referred to as referendum) is untenable is because of its innate selfishness. With people looking out for themselves, no one is looking out for the best interests of the community. This, then, is the point of representative democracy, as the framers rightly intended. The government surely is by and for the people, but it must act as a filter to tamp the selfish tendencies of American individualism.”
Oh boy. Do you really mean to tell us that it is the American People who are the selfish ones? Was it The People who were selfish in their tendencies and spent 300 million over 20 years lobbying Congress to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 which directly led to our current banking and housing collapse? Was it The People who were selfish in their tendencies to rack up a 12 trillion dollar deficit? Was it The People who were selfish in their tendencies to bail out Wall Street? No, Mr. Wagner. It was the selfish tendencies of our corporate influenced elected representatives who did all that. Did you also know that the last three U.S. Treasury Secretaries were executives at Wall Street’s very own investment firm, Goldman Sachs? If you did know this, do you think it was coincidence that during their tenures the most massive de-regulation of our financial and banking industries took place? Or was that too the result of The People and their selfish tendencies?
We live in a different world than 220 years ago. But our constitution was written so that ‘We The People’ may, through direct decree, alter our constitutions or charters any way we see fit. The Founding Fathers knew this was the only way future generations could deal with new challenges as they arose. This is the genius of our constitution. It can be changed at any time directly by The People and does not require our representative to do so. Additionally, there is no such thing as too much free speech. There is no such thing as too much influence by ordinary citizens of this nation. There is such thing as too much influence my corporations. It’s not by accident our constitution doesn’t mention them anywhere in its text and yes, corporations did exist back then. Just not nearly as vast as today…
As of September of 2009, 45% of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in our legislative branch of government and 73% of Americans trust the American people as a whole to make judgments about the issues facing our country. This is according to a Gallup Poll of over 1,000 randomly selected Americans. However, I don’t need a poll to confirm this. I need only talk to my wife, my neighbors, my friends and family.
It is true that the 24 states who currently have an initiative process, including California, have their share of problems. The initiative process in these states is racked with confusion, corruption and an almost complete lack of transparency. However, there is a much better solution many Americans are unaware of. It is called The National Initiative for Democracy. It is a proposed constitutional amendment designed to give citizens law making powers through a much more deliberative process than currently exists in any of the 24 states. It does not take away or replace any of our current branches of government. It only adds another check and balance: every citizen of this country
It may be important to inform you that our Founding Fathers did not choose a purely representative form of government because, as you said: “it must act as a filter to tamp the selfish tendencies of American individualism.” They chose it because it was impossible, through lack of technology in the 18th century, to collectively gather all the views of every single American or gather the masses together over vast distances to express their opinions. They chose representatives not to filter the people, but to represent them the only way they physically could.
To further support the initiative process, I’ll remind Americans what they have without it: their vote. Sounds like a lot, right? Wrong. By casting a vote in a purely representative form of government such as our own, we effectively hand over our power to the elected representative in the hopes he or she will do what is in our best interest. Of course, we all know how that’s working out for us. To remind everyone what Cicero once said: “Freedom is participation in power.” Our participation in power ends the moment we cast our vote.
As if sensing the future of technological progress, Founding Father James Wilson said: “All power is originally in the people and should be exercised by them in person, if that could be done with convenience, or even with little difficulty.” Well guess what? It’s called the internet. Or the telephone. Or the text message. Take your pick.
Support the National Initiative for Democracy.