Friday, September 27, 2013

Should Congress Listen to the American People?: The Myth of American Democracy

America is not a democracy.  Nor was it ever intended to be.  Let's get that notion out of our heads right now.  The founding fathers viewed democracy with great trepidation and fear, perhaps more so than they did 'big' government.  True, the American Revolution was fought to throw off the shackles of a distant government that ostensibly oppressed its citizens by taxing them to support the military campaigns waged on their behalf but without providing them with a voice about the level of that taxation.  But no one should be deceived by the notion that the revolution was about implementing the will of the people.  No, the revolution was begun and sustained by a small group of wealthy colonists who were fed up with British rule.  Once the colonies secured their independence the hard work of designing a new government began.  The first effort ended in miserable failure when Daniel Shays led a populist uprising that the new government was unable to put down, leading to the call for a constitutional convention to address the deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.  The result is what we call the United States Constitution, which does anything but establish a democratic system of government.  Let us take a brief look at two of the branches of government created by the Constitution in light of this argument.

The Presidency

For convenience sake I will begin with the presidency, though the authors of the constitution dealt with this institution in article II rather than article I of the document.  The framers clearly feared the rise of a demagogue as leader of the new nation so they instituted safeguards to limit popular influence upon presidential action.  In fact, the president was not to be the representative of all the people but the representative of all the states.  He would be selected by a majority of votes cast by electors, not citizens, in the states.  The selection of electors is left to the state governments.  Further, the president was to act as a check on unwise legislation originating from the Congress.  His job was to act in the best interests of the union, which is not necessarily the same thing as the best interests of individual citizens or even groups of them.  Modern presidents have developed constituencies comprised of the population and perpetuated the myth that they 'represent all the people.'  They do not and never were intended to do so.  The modern presidency is a bastardized version of what was created in Philadelphia in 1787. 

The Congress

First, let us consider the House of Representatives, which is probably the closest the U.S. Constitution gets to embracing democracy.  Yet, even here the only requirement is that every state shall receive a number of representatives proportional to its share of the national population but no fewer than one.  Exactly how the representatives were distributed within each state was a matter left for the states to decide.  As such it was not uncommon to have legislative districts that varied widely in terms of population and geographic coverage until the Supreme Court ruled in the 1960's that legislative districts must be as equal as possible, a concept found nowhere in the constitution.  This allowed states to structure their legislative districts to in such ways as to preclude majority rule and promote the agenda of the ruling coalition.  Most states continue to do this today by gerrymandering their districts so that a party that wins a minority of the popular vote can nevertheless control the House of Representatives.  For example, in the 2012 U.S. Congressional Elections, Republicans received 46.9% of the popular vote while Democrats received 48.3% of the popular vote.  Yet, Republicans hold 53.8% of the seats in the House while Democrats hold 46.2% of the seats.  If the House were truly a democracy, Democrats would control the chamber today. 

Turning to the U.S. Senate we can see the framers fear of democracy even clearer.  The constitution established a Senate whose members would be appointed by the state legislatures to represent the state for a six year term.  In the ultimate wisdom of some the constitution was amended in 1916 to establish the direct election of Senators, contributing to the system we have now where Senators are not dependent upon the state legislatures but upon the wealthy organizations and individuals who have the means to fund their very expensive campaigns.  Further, the Senate is granted the power to approve treaties, confirm presidential appointees, and hold trials for impeachment.  The framers did not place these powers in the hands of the 'people's chamber' but in the hands of the chamber that would resist the populist passions of the people.  Today, however, like the presidency, the U.S. Senate is merely a shadow of the Senate envisioned by the framers. 


Why does any of this matter?  Given citizens penchant to believe what they want to believe regardless of the facts, probably not much.  Yet, on the floor of the House and the Senate this week we have heard members of the Republican Party allege that the Congress is not listening to the will of the American people.  That's exactly right and that's exactly what the framers intended.  Yet, the politicians making these statements were lamenting the fact that Congress was not listening to the vast majority of Americans who are ignorant of public policy and its implications.  Consider this...would these politicians make the same argument if a majority of Americans thought it would be a good idea to bomb Canada?  Would Congress be right or wrong to ignore the will of the 'unwashed masses' in this case?  This is a key reason why the framers created a set of undemocratic institutions that would utilize their own wisdom to make decisions in the best interest of their states/districts and a president to do so on behalf of the nation as a whole.  Even if one were to concede that elected officials ought to be responsive to the wishes of their constituency, which I do not, none of these elected officials has a national constituency, popular perception notwithstanding. So Republicans are right about Congress not listening to the American people as a whole...but they're wrong when arguing that it should, especially when they themselves are not listening to the American people.

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