Fixing Representative Democracy
The writers of our Constitution did not mean for this country to be a representative democracy, but it has been transformed into one over the last two centuries. However, the transformation remains a work in progress – and one, which is currently experiencing another wave of backsliding.
Who, including those long ago writers would have thought that one day a single justice of the Supreme Court could vote to elect a new president or let assorted multimillionaires and billionaires significantly change the funding of election campaigns. And would they have imagined a minority party that had lost the last three elections nonetheless being able to paralyze the Congress, shut down the government, and nearly crash the world economy.
Clearly, the government and politics needs a good deal of fixing, both to restore what is being lost and to move toward the creation of a truly representative democracy.
Some of that fixing needs to be done soon, for today’s America has become an economically unequal, politically polarized and a socially fragile society. Moreover, some of its most powerful citizens want to turn America into a corporate dominated republic.
Over the years, many people have suggested democratizing fixes and this essay discusses a number of them. Some of the fixes are familiar, some not, but only a few are currently feasible. Others will probably not be possible until the country is forced to modernize its now virtually unamendable constitution.
Right now, fixing representative democracy should become a topic of public discussion, both to introduce the idea to the nation and to nurture it until the times become politically favorable.
A Possible Start
However, it is also possible for the fixing process to start in a more foreseeable future. A political party able to attract more of the non voting moderate and low income population might be able to create a larger, more diverse and thus more representative electorate. If so, it might also, help a political party that sees some benefits in representative democracy obtain voting control of all three branches of the federal government and a significant majority of state governments.
That party could be the so-called Democratic wing of the current Democratic party, although its politics, image and language would need to be more populist than it is now. A populist social movement to spur it along would be helpful too.
Depending on both economic and political conditions at the time, such a democratization of the party could take years. But if middle class unemployment and underemployment rise to dangerous levels and Washington gridlock paralyzes government sufficiently often, it could happen more quickly, as it did after the 1932 election.
At that point, the party leadership would have to move as quickly as possible to neutralize its opposition, inside and outside the government. Corporate and other conservative elite opposition will be unceasing, but if the party has enough control of the government to move on economic and other issues that will obtain sufficient popular support, it could then begin to make some of the most necessary political changes.
The fixes that follow emphasize changes in the electoral system and particularly the three branches of government, but also in government agencies and the economy. They are discussed in a logical order but some day they can perhaps be rearranged in political order in which those that can be implemented are set in motion.
Expanding the Electorate: A good way to introduce the turn toward a more representative democracy, and thereby also help fight the current trend in voter suppression, would be to press for expansion of the electorate with current nonvoters. That process could begin in states favorable to enlarging the electorate.
Many of the current nonvoters come from a now excluded and self-excluded population and even the Democrats have not made much effort to get them to the polling place. Although neither their political interest nor their impact should be overestimated, they are likely to elect more politically liberal representatives as well as attract new politicians who can speak to and for them.
A more populist platform might lure some current non voters; simplifying both registration and voting so that it is as easy and inviting an experience as possible.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court must be persuaded to give its blessing to a one person one vote principle, at least until the Constitution includes an amendment along these lines.
If schemes to add new voters to the electorate are met with new forms of voter restriction, at least elections for federal offices will have to be federalized. And if the proportion voting does not increase dramatically, the country will some day have to consider compulsory voting.
Once the electorate is expanded, the voters could give this process a further push by being enabled to insert themselves into the political process between elections. The most direct solution is to give them the power to recall, provided the recalling electorate is large and varied enough to represent the country and if well organized interests cannot use their political skills to “pack the house.”
A more moderate, and perhaps therefore a possibly more feasible solution, is to enable voters to cast a limited number of votes of no confidence in all electoral and appointed officials. Who gets the power to decide when such a vote is to be held is crucial; perhaps a non or multi partisan group could choose in concert with what polling organizations report about public support for such a vote.
Election Finance Reform: Turning elections into publicly funded activities is an old dream. It not only democratizes the process but relieves candidate and elected officials from endless fundraising and the resulting political obligations to their donors.
Public funding has shortcomings, most of which are soluble, and if citizens really want to support their candidates financially, they should be able to do so as long as contributions are capped at a modest per capita level and bundling is forbidden. Perhaps even organized economic interests could donate funds, not to parties or candidates but to make the electoral process more attractive and thus capable of persuading additional voters to cast ballots.
These expansions of public funding might be combined with making elections more frugal: same day voter registration, open primaries or better still, none at all. All of these will probably anger Republicans and a significant number of Democrats, and it may take a temporary third party dedicated to only this fix to create sufficient public support for it.
The public might also be supportive if public financing were accompanied by a shortening of the actual election campaign period. Relegating the permanent campaign to the Internet and the so-called legacy media would help too. True, media firms would no longer obtain the current level of profit from campaign advertising, but then, the news media could play a more central role in dispensing electoral information and commentary. Putting an end to media advertising might also reduce hype, lying, fear mongering and the like in campaign advertising, and enable candidates to do more talking about themselves and their platforms.
Needless to say, electoral finance reform could only begin to reduce the political power of the economically powerful. However, it could limit their ability to lobby for corporate welfare programs to sabotage tax and regulatory reform, and to prevent job creation and income support programs that benefit the middle class and the poor. Under ideal conditions, the corporations that play leading roles in the consumer economy might even support policies to increase consumer demand – and their profits. In the meantime employee, consumer and citizen lobbies must be organized to make sure that elected officials represent them more effectively.
A related reform that might help to replace some corporate and influence is to restore the earmarks privilege to incumbent and challenger candidates in all branches of government. The earmarks would be available only before elections and the amount given would be capped by the size of the eligible voting population. The appropriate government agency should be given regulatory power to prevent illegalities as well as bridges to nowhere and other unjustifiable proposals. Electoral challengers should be guaranteed the same amount as incumbents, to be delivered if and when they are the electoral victors.
If the electorate can be enlarged and campaign funding can be obtained from the citizenry, a party ready to further expand representative democracy could move ahead with other fixes, individually or en masse as determined by political conditions.
Reforming the Government: One place to begin is with each of the branches of the federal government. In fact, it has already begun; to elect the president by the national popular vote and to do away with the Electoral College in the process.
I. The Senate: An equally urgent but more difficult fix is to democratize the Senate by equalizing the voting power of Senators by state population size. Right now, Senators from the four smallest states, with less than one percent of the country’s total population, cast as many votes as the senators from the four largest states, with 33 percent of the country’s population.
Although the Senate has the power to determine its rules of procedure, the understandable unwillingness of small states to surrender any of their present power means that it is impossible, say to award every Senator a numerical vote equivalent to the population of his or her state. One possible fix, which is bi partisan could perhaps be forced through: Senators from the largest states should dominate the most important committees and subcommittees.
II. The House: The Speaker’s ability to withhold legislation from the House should be subject to at least voting approval from the House. However, at least two thirds of the House should be required to veto appropriations for legislation already passed and signed by the President.
An even now feasible fix would enhance the representatives’ ability to function as representatives. With campaign finance reform, they would no longer have to spend their time fundraising. Even so, their districts are large enough to prevent them from doing much representing.
Consequently, they need additional staff charged entirely with providing representational and other services to constituents, including helping services for which the latter are eligible. Poor and other minimally politically weak constituents especially need such representation.
However, at the same time, constituents should be helped to exert their voter power with and over their elected representative. For one thing, they need to know whom that representative sees and does not see, favors and disfavors, especially in their own part of the congressional district but also in the district as a whole.
Since it would not always be in the representative’s interest to distribute such information, it has to be supplied by a source outside the Congress, possibly journalists already working for news media in the congressional district. Another outside source is needed to assist constituents, particularly those lacking “organizational capital” to reach and lobby their elected representative or a member of the representational staff.
III. The Executive: The executive branch is so large and saddled with so many political, operational and bureaucratic duties that making it more representative may be impossible. Since it often has monopoly power over various activities, some checks and balances may be needed where none currently exist.
For example, the White House now has a de facto monopoly over the war mobilization and war making power, as well as over the espionage and other information gathering functions connected to this power. Congress has a set of de jure responsibilities, which are often preempted de facto.
Since this preemption can turn into a matter of life and death for the people who actually do the fighting, and since it violates the Constitution, the Supreme Court should be supplying corrective decisions.
The federal agencies may need democratizing more than those governed by elected officials. The underlying problem is that they all hold monopoly power, although private or semi public agencies that provide the same goods and services as inexpensively and responsibly as government ones could be encouraged to compete with government.
In addition, regulatory agencies that are dominated by the firms they regulate and their lobbyists must be reorganized. Although the firms’ roles in making the economy function and in creating jobs must be protected, the demands and needs of their employees and customers deserve the same attention. Perhaps elected citizen and worker boards could supplement – and inform – the relevant Congressional committees that now supervise federal agencies.
IV. The Supreme Court: Although the Supreme Court is one of the three branches of government, it is currently a virtually independent body with very little accountability. Its actions are rarely affected by the immediate checks and balances by which presidential vetoes and Congressional votes can overturn the decisions of the other two branches. Moreover, the justices have lifelong freedom to impose their interpretations of the Constitution and their political ideologies on the country, sometimes changing it more drastically than the other two branches.
Court’s judicial freedom can have both positive and negative consequences, but in a representative democracy, it needs to be subject to at least some of the same checks and balances as the rest of the government.
One change, already widely discussed among legal theorists would impose term limits on the justices of all the federal courts. If the system were staggered, every new president would be able to appoint justices that share his or her judicial philosophy.
A more significant fix would require that all but the most routine Supreme Court decisions require super majorities, of six or even seven justices. A more drastic alternative would establish a separate body empowered to review Supreme Court decisions and send them back to a lower court. If necessary, this body could even veto a Court decision, suggest that it be replaced by executive orders or instant Congressional legislation.
Such a body should minimally include the president and vice president, the Senate’s and the House’s majority and minority leaders, and the Speaker of the House. Someday in the future, a permanent solution can be worked out as a constitutional amendment. Eventually, the Supreme Court will find a way to live with the new checks and balances principle, and the judicial branch may even begin to follow the election returns somewhat more frequently.
Actually, term limits should be set for all branches of government. Losing the experiential and other wisdom of long term incumbents could be counteracted by offering them consultancies in the relevant offices in which they could be useful. This applies especially to members of Congress, who could advise the committees on which they served. Such a move might also discourage some from becoming “K Street” lobbyists.
As long as economic power leads to political influence, the economy must be subject to at least some of the values and rules of representative democracy. To be sure, many voters base their votes on the state of the economy, and they might do so even more if recall or no confidence votes were available to them. However, even these limit voter input into the economy.
One long discussed fix is a more sharply progressive tax system on income and wealth. However; a fuller employment economy with decent and well paying jobs would be even better for bringing lower income people into the electorate.
However, a literal democratization of the economy is required as well. Multi-class unions, which represent employees, are more representative than traditional working class unions. Employee lobbies are needed especially where unions cannot be established. Other citizen lobbies must also be organized, if only because reducing corporate funding of election campaigns will surely result in more corporate lobbying. Still, economic and even political democratization may ultimately be impossible without an employee’s party.
Employee and union owned firms, coops and other workplace forms that empower workers ought to be encouraged too. However, in a global economy, these are unlikely to ever constitute more than a minority of firms. All other but the smallest firms need direct employee representation in all firm decision making bodies, so structured that employees have enough power to influence decisions affecting them. Where relevant, customers need representation as well, even if it may not need to be as pervasive as employee representation.
Yet perhaps the most important step in advancing economic democracy would be the development of what is sometimes called a new social contract between government and private enterprise. One of these days the country may be unable to afford the economic and political costs of the current adversarial relationship, and the major decision makers in both will have to figure out a division of labor in which each performs the economic functions it does best.
If such a division of labor were possible, the public’s trust in both might increase.
All this is easier said than done, and perhaps it cannot happen until private enterprise faces a crisis or other problematic situation in which it needs government but cannot apply its traditional economic or political muscle to get what it needs.
Political and Economic Education:
In a democracy, citizens need to understand how their polity and economy actually work, but even though many Americans have now graduated from or attended college, they still know little more about both than earlier generations. This state of affairs could be corrected in part by their taking courses in political science and the political economy, or better yet, in the economy itself.
Although free adult courses could be offered now, all high schools and colleges should require such courses beginning with the student’s first year. Decades hence, most Americans should be expert enough in how their society works to be informed citizens, although this will not necessarily turn them into more involved or active ones. Perhaps the news media existing at that time can, however, continue and update their audiences’ political and economic education.
The federal government should incentivize this course work, with teacher training, model courses, and other funds required to initiate this program. Undoubtedly, many local school boards will reject such overtures, and a large number may offer courses that fail to instruct students in how the polity and economy actually work. Community discussions about and political conflicts over what should be taught will themselves be educationally valuable, but ultimately the federal government will have to step in both with funds and regulation to realize the program’s intent.
The program must also understand that despite America’s long-standing belief in the power of education to change minds as well as economic and political institutions, its actual impact is limited. Perhaps it can help teach citizens how to intervene politically, but they are unlikely to do so until they know, almost in a Biblical sense, how dependent they are on these institutions for their well being and their very survival.
Another Political Scenario
Although I have assumed that the suggested fixes would follow if a democratically minded political party were in long-term control of the government, a very different scenario can also be imagined. If the current level of political polarization increases and ultra conservatives continue to gridlock the government, its resulting inability to make crucial decisions will badly damage the ability of both economy and polity to function.
When the damage reaches crisis level, drastic fixes to put the government back in working order may have to be made, by executive order or emergency Congressional decisions as well as through the electoral process. Enough such crises may eventually require the modernization of the Constitution.
Unfortunately, political crises often result in negative effects, further embittering political blocs and economic interests competing for the same resources and increasing the conflict between them. Then a more representative democracy might be hard to achieve, and some will press for a less than democratic republic instead.
Undoubtedly, other ways of fixing the current polity could and should be imagined. So should different conceptions of representative democracy, and different ways of achieving them. Admittedly, such imaginings are easier if political feasibility is not required, but they may be useful as thought experiments and ideas for policies that might now be feasible. Consequently, they can be a productive exercise for future oriented policy analysts, think tanks, scholars and of course politicians and citizens.