Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The intent of the founders: representing the people while avoiding gridlock

I've always been a moderate person who believes, contrary to Herman Cain, that the problem with America isn't too much compromise, but rather a lack of compromise. My vision of a smoothly functioning American government is when civil and well-informed representatives of the people converge on Washington, hash out their differences, and produce well intentioned legislation based on the best possible compromises. The goal is to give everyone some of what they want, nobody all of what they want, and always to move America forward.

Some people have intimated, from time to time, that it is fundamentally anti-democratic that I might wish that the representatives decide among themselves what the important issues would be and deal with them accordingly. And I fully admit that I believe that representatives should prioritize their constituents' interests, and even ignore some of them. Some would claim this position reeks of elitism, and that the truly democratic model is to elect representatives who follow their constituents' short-term inclinations to the letter.

If my view is wrong, why did the founders make America a republic? If the founders wanted direct democracy, they would have written into our constitution a form of direct democracy: but they didn't. I believe the founders understood that most Americans have better things to do than worry about politics, or alternatively, don't have the information access or facilities to really grasp the complexities anyway. Elitist? Sure, I'll cede that. But the founders counted on the people electing competent representatives who would follow the spirit of their constituents as best they could within the context of the federal government of a very large and diverse nation.

I've been trying to figure out what exactly is wrong with our political system, and it seems to me that we really almost have moved to a form of direct democracy. Especially with the advent of rapid communications, information technology, massive advertising budgets, messages matter. A hundred years ago, a well meaning representative could sacrifice some of his constituents' priorities in order to gain a compromise that was essential for the nation or one that advanced his voters' interests in other ways.

These days, its different. When a representative insults that small fraction of his support, he gets crucified for it. This is particularly true among the GOP today, which is more a consequence of them being the out-of-power party than anything else. Any one Republican who has bucked any one interest has paid a price. Mitch Daniels saw what most credible economists see: we cant balance the budget without some revenue increases. So why not a VAT? And yet, in today's GOP, proposing a tax of any sort is sacrilegious. Dick Lugar recognized a good START treaty with Russia and supported it along with all of the top military brass, and he was rewarded with a primary. I don't see any way that John Boehner makes it out of the 2012 election with a job. He will vote to increase the debt ceiling, and he will get primaried because of it.

In essence, the rapidity of the response to politics has moved us into an era of what is essentially direct democracy. And unfortunately, the American people don't always know exactly what they want. We want the government to keep its miserable hands off of our Medicare. We want to cut spending, but not cut medicare, social security, or defense. We think that cutting foreign aid to Pakistan will balance our budget. Direct democracy was most obvious in California, where the people consistently vote themselves more services but then refuse to increase taxes to pay for them. The founders knew that there needed to be a competent crew manning the rigging of the ship that we call America. Just let the passengers run things and there is chaos.

Many try to argue that this sad state of affairs is the fault of a misleading media or lying politicians, but I don't buy that. Politicians have always lied, and the media has always been biased. The single biggest thing that has changed is that politicians are now held in an environment where they are unable to make any sacrifices in the name of compromise whatsoever. It is this inability which has led to the intractable gridlock that we now see, and probably will continue to see, for some time. Until American politicians again act as the founders intended them to act, as representatives of a great republic rather than as mere puppets of fickle and conflicted constituents, this ship will continue to drift aimlessly at sea.

No comments: