So You Want to Live in a Democracy

This is constitutional politics 101, but it helps me to think about America and I hope it helps you. The people are sovereign, by which we mean all power derives from the people, now approximately 340 million of them. In theory, the government of the United States is designed to discern the will of the people and then to legislate to fulfill that will. So if the people’s will is to build a wall on the Mexican border and they are willing to tax themselves for that purpose, our government should build that wall. It is never that simple, of course.

How do we discern the will of the people? In Jefferson’s time this occurred in three ways. If I’m running for Congress from Albemarle County, and I declare that if you elect me I will never build that wall, the people of my district will either elect me or choose not to elect me if that’s the central issue of the campaign. In other words, elections were imprecise plebiscites on public policy. The second method was for the statesman to go back to his district and have listening sessions. In Jefferson’s time this usually involved a very informal canvassing of public opinion in the district—letters from constituents, discussions in parlors and drawing rooms, brief listening sessions at the post office, etc. Not very scientific, and the sense one gets is that politicians hung out at home mostly with people of their own stamp and class, and paid little attention to the poor or the marginal. The third method was a kind of creative intuition: my sense is that the people are in favor of X and not Y.

Today we have scientific polls, social media, town hall meetings, and a much better and easier system of communication between politicians and their constituents, so that a worthy representative is in a better position to discern “what the people want” than ever before.

Would it were that simple. But there are complicating factors. First, the people don’t always agree. If 51 percent of the people of my district want to build the wall, but 49 percent think that would be moronic, what should I do? Jefferson believed that the principle of majority rule was sacred. So 51 percent should be regarded as “the will of the people,” but he also urged representatives to be more cautious when their constituents were evenly divided, and less cautious when he could discern what he called “the decided will” of the people.

Second, the people don’t always know. They may think they want a wall, when it is expressed in that simplistic way, but if they actually sat down to read and think about it, they might change their minds: what will it really cost, how effective will it really be, does it have to be a physical wall like the Great Wall of China or can it be largely electronic for vast stretches. Will it damage trade? Will it mean we cannot afford a space program or the National Endowment for the Arts? Will it actually solve the real or perceived problem? Generally speaking, the vast majority of the people have a very simple politics: Give me more, tax me less, don’t ask me to think, don’t ask me to sacrifice, don’t ask me to fight, don’t tread on me, and keep the stores and gas stations full.

Third, politicians are not always actually trying to discern the will of the people or represent that will. In my opinion the great majority of them are hacks and skunks, who lost their Mr. Smith Goes to Washington virtue long ago, if they ever had it. The pretend to listen but they don’t. They are in politics mostly for themselves, not to do good things for the people they represent. They go to Washington with a preconceived set of policy positions, and the only choice we get is whether candidate A with his baked-in worldview is a little more representative of my will than candidate B with her baked-in worldview. They are not especially distinguished for telling the truth. In fact, it appears that they have gone to a very sophisticated academy whose purpose is to teach them to speak at great length and say nothing and commit themselves to nothing, to prevaricate, to speak in code, to give the appearance of agreeing with me when they don’t agree with me at all, and frankly, don’t care either.

Fourth, money. We don’t have one person, one vote in America. That notion is ludicrous. If I am an average middle class citizen and I vote at every election, and write letters to my representatives when I feel strongly about something, I have what might be called one vote. I might get a reply to my letter, but it will be the usual, “We value your input, just the sort of thing we need more of in our democracy,” but I have no faith that I’m going to get a call from my representative, even if I write like Lincoln and think like Aristotle. But if I’m a semi-illiterate billionaire who wants taxes and regulations reduced on the iron ore industry, and I’ve given (through a PAC of course) two million dollars to Senator Hackinsack, he not only takes my call but invites me to join him at the Super Bowl. That’s more than one vote. Anyone who believes that money does not distort the political process, effectively marginalizing everyone but the richest, most swaggery, most selfish, privileged, and least democratic individuals in the country, has never really thought about it. It was bad enough twenty years ago, but the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United effectively put a gun to the head of the principle of one person, one vote, and killed off what was left of our democracy.

And finally, gerrymandering. If every congressional district were competitive, or at least as competitive as the science of demographics could make it, politicians would have to listen to everyone, not just to the extremists who dominate his or her district. Today we have gerrymandered the 435 congressional seats to the point that only a few dozen are truly competitive. It they were redrawn, not by the majority that happens to be in power, but by scientific demographers with a sole eye to competitiveness then incumbents would be in danger not of being primaried from the right if they are republicans or from the left if they are democrats, but from both edges of the spectrum if they did not work hard every day to listen to all of their constituents and to try to find ways to represent all of their interests to the extent possible.

I’m not an especially cynical person, but I can tell you that in the course of my lifetime I have rarely, if ever, felt that my will is represented by the people who claim to represent me at the local, country, state, or national level. I feel that almost every politician is owned by gigantic economic interests that are decidedly not working for my interests. And I feel that the United States is now a kleptocracy in which a handful of the very very rich are getting richer and richer in an active, if tacit, conspiracy with a series of corrupt politicians who don’t actually care whether I live or die.

The Gerry Mander, 1872, from New York Public Library Digital Collections.