Have We Forgotten the Point of Representative Democracy?


There Is Solid Reasoning Behind Representative vs Direct Democracy.

The founders of these United States carefully reviewed governments throughout history. They focused much of their attention on ancient Greece and Rome. Oftentimes, they did so by reading in Greek and Latin, so as not to lose subtleties in translation. We could use a few of those founders today – but that is a discussion for another day.

We are making our choices in midterm elections. I don’t think anyone on any side of any issue underestimates the importance of these elections. Every election is important, but this one has the hallmarks of a true pivot point. Historians will reflect on this one long and hard.

Which brings us to an interesting discussion point one hears these days. What, exactly, do we want of our elected representatives? The answer may not be what first comes to mind.

People declare they want a representative that will vote the way they would. I would like to make the case that this is not a wise criterion. We all want someone who shares our values and priorities. But that may not always be the same as “vote as I would.”

Government is a pretty complex business. Always has been, and it is especially so now. Representative democracy exists because issues require a lot of time, energy, and study. Most of us cannot make such commitments. We seek to solve this by electing people who will, in our name, put forth the effort, apply judgment, and decide. It is, in the end, their judgment we value even more than their alignment with our views.

I want an accounting of those decisions and the processes used to make them. I accept there may be tradeoffs we don’t like. If I have representation that I trust, I may well give the representative the benefit of the doubt. Sound too Pollyannaish? I see this type of relationship work all the time in churches, volunteer groups, and elsewhere.

We have lost it in most places at the national level for several reasons. Put succinctly, , we have lost the connection with our representatives.

First, our system depends on vast sums of money to run political operations. Too often it does not come from you and I, but from a wealthy few or very focused interest groups. It is a rare politician who can beat this trap. Many who do are wealthy themselves.

Until legislation reverses Citizens United we are, to use a technical term, screwed. Most politicians I have known hate how the system works, but a lot of people use it and like it. They will fight to protect it. In the meantime, expect candidates to forego PAC and dark money? Then the rest of us have to give them the financial breathing room to do so. A very few politicians have pulled this off – not enough of us help them do so

Second, politicians meeting regularly with their constituents is becoming rare. The people are partly responsible for this, although their frustration may be understandable. The Tea Party started the problem; town meetings became shouting matches, near riots. More recently, those on the other side of the political spectrum have returned the favor. The result? Many members of Congress no longer do town meetings. They don’t say as much, but such events are few and carefully controlled. There is not an easy fix for this, but we need to find our way back to some real discourse and listening on a retail scale.

Third, when we do communicate with our representatives, we fail to ask a useful question. “If you made a decision that many of your constituents will not like, are you prepared to stand by your judgement? How would you explain your decision to us?” If they are just going to vote by polls, save some money and fire everyone. We can all vote electronically ourselves. What could possibly go wrong with that…?

Finally, it is odd that we don’t demand much of those who have leadership roles in our legislative bodies. A committee chair or caucus leader is answerable to their district and to colleagues. They have no need to respond to the rest of us. Ever try communicating with the Speaker of the House? This is someone whose decisions affect your life in major ways. But unless your address is from a certain district in Wisconsin, it’s not going to happen.

I’m open to suggestions – how do we open a communication pipeline to these people? They have responsibilities to more than the people that elected them. That is true for all representatives, of course, but more so for those in leadership. Today, they work in splendid isolation. Unless Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers call them, of course.

If you have not already early voted, get out there and vote! I am doing so today. In making your decision and in the future, think about what we want. Judgement, transparency, and access are not too much too high an aspiration. Let them know those are your priorities.

It will be interesting to see what things look like on November 7.

       Bill Clontz

If you find this blog worthy of your time and curiosity, I invite you to do two things:

(1) Join the conversation. Your voice counts here.

(2) Share the word about this blog with friends and colleagues. Share a link in your emails and social media posts. Let’s grow our circle.

2 replies to Have We Forgotten the Point of Representative Democracy?

  1. Bill,

    Greeting from Savannah Georgia. Stumbled across your site/blog by accident and a ton of great memories of our service together came flooding back. It was long ago – in a galaxy far way, but still seems like yesterday in many ways.

    Hope all is well with you. If you get a chance, drop me a line and let me know how life lead you to this point on your path.

    Love your words and philosophy.

    Terry A. Yon
    Colonel, USA (Ret)

    • Terry, how good to hear from you! Email enroute.


Your Turn to Comment