Is there a future for representative government?

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If memory serves correctly, it is a favorite rhetorical strategy among US history teachers to smugly inform their students that we do not actually live in a democracy [shock!]. Next, they say that we actually live in a republic [groan!], and a lesson in political theory ensues. Briefly, in a democracy decisions are made directly by the people, whereas in a republic, representatives are chosen by the people to advance their interests through government. These political systems are also referred to as direct and representative democracy, respectively.

In the late 18th century, true direct democracy was logistically impossible, and representative government seems to have been chosen solely on the basis of expediency. Yet in our contemporary context, logistical problems, such as transportation and large scale tracking of frequent votes, are no longer prohibitive. New experiments in direct democracy have been facilitated by modern technology. For example, in the 20th century, the “Initiative and Referendum” movement resulted in state-level ballot measures that were popular in states like California. Some might argue that direct democracy is having its day, and the age of representative government has already reached its peak. After all, aren’t representatives obsolete if people can have their votes and voices counted, unfiltered, through modern technology?

It seems now is a good time to consider whether the founding fathers had reasons beyond the purely logistical for instituting a constitutional republic, rather than a direct democracy. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton devoted two articles of the Federalist Papers to the topic (articles 9 and 10). Thomas Jefferson was clearly not a proponent of direct democracy. He wrote, “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

Even prior to Independence, the topic of representation was a hot-button issue. When James Otis famously declared that “taxation without representation is tyranny,” he was not merely decrying a complete omission of Parliamentary representation. He was referring to the inappropriateness of having representatives who did not hail from North America, and who therefore did not share the common interests of the people they were supposed to represent.

Nevertheless, the relative merits of representative government should not stop with a discussion about the foundational history of the US: this issue still plays a significant role in current politics. We have seen this quite clearly in the Democratic Primary.

The impact of Bernie Sanders’ campaign on the Democratic party platform is indisputable. In particular, his critique of the DNC’s use of superdelegates has reverberated among many supporters. Superdelegates are comprised mostly of politicians, who are given the task of voting for a particular candidate in a primary election. Unlike other pledged delegates, they are not elected by the public, and can, in theory, vote for whichever candidate they want.

Considering that the superdelegate system was established in the 1980s as a means of preventing populist, but presumably unelectable candidates from winning primary elections, Sanders’ critique of the system is unsurprising. Clinton’s primary campaign has seized the comparison as a foil against Sander’s populist idealism, emphasizing her political prowess and ability to realistically “get the job done.” The fact that Clinton was able to cement superdelegate support at the beginning of the election cycle was indeed a sign of that prowess. She could argue that her prominence demonstrates her ability to effectively represent the interests of the people (or at least her party) in government.

However, Sanders’ critique of Clinton has not been about her political capabilities, but rather that she uses her political clout to support special interest groups that do not operate in the best interests of the people.

It is interesting to note that the Republican party does not have a superdelegate “check” on populist candidates. There is a certain irony in the fact that, at least for the time being, the Democratic party is currently more republican than the Republican party with its populist presidential candidate, Donald Trump. It might give the growing number of Democrats who favor abolishing the superdelegate system pause to know that the Democratic Party could also find itself with a similarly unsavory candidate.

Yet is it true that a direct democratic action is, in fact, more democratic? The state of Alabama provides an interesting case study. Its current constitution (drafted in 1901) states that any legislative action requires an amendment to the state constitution, which in turn must be decided via a state-wide general election. The reasoning behind Alabama’s bizarre system of legislation becomes clearer considering that Alabama used to require poll taxes and literacy tests. This system ensured that any legislation favoring the large African-American and poorer white populations would not pass. Thus, despite the fact that Alabama seems to disproportionately rely on popular voting, there is nothing in its constitutional history to suggest its framers supported the idea of a pure democracy. The case of Alabama’s unique legislative system demonstrates how gestures toward direct democratic action can be used as tools for corrupt political machinations.

Another pertinent example is the recent Brexit vote. The popular referendum to determine the future of UK membership in the EU was instigated by Prime Minister James Cameron, in an effort to appease anti-EU members of his own party and the anti-immigration “UKIP” party. Cameron, along with the majority of the political elite across all party lines, assumed that the British electorate would vote decisively to remain in the EU. What was meant as a gesture to quell party politics resulted in the surprise rebellion of the governed against their governors, both in the UK and in Brussels.

It also created an event with tremendous global repercussions. The ill-fated gamble was particularly striking considering the vast quantities of time, money, and energy that were poured into convincing the Scottish people not to vote themselves out of the United Kingdom only two years prior. Among the many arguments for staying was that Scotland would be faced with significant economic hardships, especially since it would have to negotiate its entrance into the EU as an applicant state. The Brexit vote has resulted in precisely this scenario.

Representative government is intended as a defense against special interest partisanship and the tyranny of the majority to which direct democratic systems are acutely prone. As the Declaration of Independence signer John Witherspoon put it, “Pure democracy… is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.”

Besides the growing popularity of allocating major decisions to popular votes, direct democracy is increasingly seen in state and municipal-level initiative ballots and referenda. These are the favored means by which popular causes that stand on dubious economic, moral, or scientific grounds can be passed. Special interest groups are also capable of usurping this system of legislation for their own purposes, while bending popular opinion through aggressive and emotion-based advertising efforts. Although occasionally a ballot initiative is a genuine grassroots reaction against unresponsive legislators, such as with the common core and charter school initiatives, more often than not they are usurped as tools by ideologically-driven special interest groups.

Most people do not have the time or ability to thoroughly vet a proposal before voting on it, and thus are often not fully aware of the consequences of a particular decision. Hence the 250 percent spike that Google reported in the phrase “What happens if we leave the EU?” hours after the Brexit vote concluded. So what is the role of representative government in the contemporary world? Essentially what it has always been: to save us from ourselves.