Democracy Is Overrated

Some caution on the vote. 

This year staring us right in the face is the possibility of a Trump presidency, thanks to the power of election. Similarly since last month the people of the UK are dealing with the process of exiting the European Union, because of a referendum–and have been realizing the consequences after the deed was (more or less) done.

But the people have spoken! so it seems. The people can choose Trump, as is their right. But did it make sense for them to choose in a one-time vote to make their country out of a major international union, after a savvy media campaign in favor of the motion, and considering that in the aftermath they Googled frantically to figure out what exactly they had just voted for? The people of the UK were convinced by the Leave campaign that, in simple terms, they were getting out a lot less than they were putting in. In fact, when I asked him, a month before the vote, a Brit told me that he leaned in favor of Leave, because it seemed the EU wasn’t a good deal, but was unable to back his position with any tangible facts. And now London has lost some of its clout as financial capital, and the UK is no longer the “gateway to Europe” that it was in the business climate of decades past. We talk about America on the decline, but it’s almost as if the British people chose to destroy their great power status overnight.

Let me bring an example a little farther from American headlines. Colombia has negotiated a landmark peace deal with the rebels known as FARC, potentially ending decades of conflict that for a long time made the country one of the most dangerous in the world. The government has allowed for the creation of a political party for FARC, and even guaranteed seats in the parliament. The Colombian people generally aren’t too happy with this deal (naturally they’re a bit angry with the rebels for the violence and chaos). But the deal allows a pathway for people associated with FARC to integrate into mainstream society; these are people who have known nothing but Marxism and a desire to bring down the government. So long as their ideology holds–to vanquish that sort of thing is easier said than done, as we know well–the government will never be able to eradicate them by force (and certainly not while the coco trade continues).

Therefore, if I might quickly opine on this, probably the best way to end the conflict is to include the rebels in mainstream society and give them a stake in it. Unfortunately, the president promised a referendum some years ago, and that’s what the people are getting. And it’s quite likely they’ll vote with their feelings–against the deal–and not for the policy measure most likely to end the conflict.

I’m not arguing against democracy, but against an abuse of direct democracy. Do we need to have a vote on every issue? Why then, do we have a legislature? Sometimes these issues, such as Brexit or ending a big, long conflict, seem like they need to be settled by the people directly. But how much do these people–and I say these people because not every eligible person turns up to vote–actually know about such issues beyond headlines and sound bytes?

Dysfunctional though they may be at times, legislatures are able to focus on the pragmatic details of the issues. And I don’t speak just of the representatives themselves, but of the institution as a whole, including staffers who write and research as well as interest groups (who sometimes do a quite useful service). For example, do you want legislation on smoking based on a one day vote of the people or on the thorough debate among doctors, consumer health groups, and Big Tobacco? With the latter, we can be assured of some kind of compromise; with the former, we might have only smokers come out to vote and basically make the decision.

What I’m suggesting is fewer direct decisions by the people. We don’t need referenda as often as we think. If we don’t like the way things are going we have the right to replace the people making things go that way. We haven’t had any major referenda in the U.S. (they are popular in California), but there’s still a lesson here. Congress has become incredibly polarized thanks to a highly politicized media and extremist voters in each wing  (moreso on the right). Why do we allow such minorities to dictate national policy simply because they’re the only ones that show up to vote? A straightforward solution might be to get more of the electorate out to vote, especially midterms, but think about how difficult that is. Most people just aren’t engaged until the moment comes to elect the president, the politician they’re perhaps least informed about to make a choice. They aren’t in tune much with their local elections, whether that be for the state assembly or the Congressional representative, even though in our political system these positions can matter enormously. One step might be to repeal the little known 17th amendment, which allows for the direct election of senators. Allowing these senators to be chosen by the state assembly again might get people to pay attention to local politics as well as provide some filter for the sort of extremists that end up in the Senate.

But this makes our (national) government less democratic, you say. When I explained the electoral college to someone from overseas, they said, “But that’s not democracy!” To which I replied that it’s a common misconception that the people that founded our country intended a democracy. The Founders intended a republic, not a direct democracy, as in ancient Greece or India. In those cases, the communities were much, much smaller and thus more suitable to voting on issues directly rather than on representatives. Hamilton, Madison, and others thought hard about a solution that would work on America’s scale, and a representative form of government is what the Constitution put forth. Madison believed that the decentralized republic designed would make it

“more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.”

Further, he writes:

… a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Unworthy candidates? “Obnoxious individual”? Did he see 2016 coming? To be accurate, republicanism as designed, even before any of the 27 amendments, would not and has not stopped Trump from becoming one of the two main presidential nominees. But aren’t we a little happy right now to have the electoral college to keep him from becoming the successful one?

Madison refers frequently to “passions” running wild among people; there’s an interesting manifestation of this in the election, where feelings triumph over facts:

Even the satirical article by an author posing as Clinton points to the advantage of republicanism:

This is literally why we have a representative government. I know you don’t want to read long, boring things. So I do it for you, and I ask a bunch of smart people, and we come up with shit that works. Here’s my solution on energy.Here’s my solution on Wall Street. Here’s my solution on jobs. I have fucking binders full of this shit and you know it. I’m so fucking ready, America.

And before you say moving decisions out of the hands of the people will lead to autocracy, keep in mind democracy gave us authoritarian figures such as Putin, Hitler, Trump. As I said before, there’s not much that we can do about that, as a popular vote for the executive is written into most constitutions. And we need votes, and we need elected representatives; people need to voice their dissatisfaction in an organized and peaceful manner. But we ought to stop assuming that the people know best in any given case.

Isn’t that what this guy shows?

This Wikipedia entry seems to grudgingly acknowledge the fact.



2 thoughts on “Democracy Is Overrated

  1. We are seeing today that the public can be as easily manipulated as congress. For one, use media, for the other use bribes and lobbying.

    I think you’re right, that representatives are better. I would like to see some way of demanding representation of each political party in congress proportionate to the support of each by the people. We would then have a more diverse and productive congress because not everything would be black-and-white. Libertarians and green party people would feel like they actually have a say and influence for once.


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