Not Really Representative   Leave a comment

Unlike the mass media and those heavily-influenced by them, I do not blame our current political mess on a particular party, but on politicians in general and the current system of not-quite-representation in particular.

When the United States reformed its inadequate government under the Articles of Confederation to something more workable, there was a great deal of debate between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists about the very nature of representation. Today’s liberals like to say that the Federalists won, therefore, those of us who believe in states’ rights should shut up, but that betrays their lack of historical understanding. The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists compromised on separation of powers in a way that was really quite brilliant. Although the federal usurpation of states’ rights is one of the symptoms of the rot that is destroying the tree of liberty, the fungus causing the rot is much more fundamental. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention spent a great deal more time wrangling over the issue of representation, hoping to strike a balance that would work. We have neither of the two proposed forms of representation that were debated during the original ratification. What we have is a hybrid that combines the worst of both forms without the virtues of either.

At heart, the discussion at the Constitutional Convention and, following, in the newspapers, was the role that would be played by elected officials along with their relationship to the citizenry. Although focused on the organization of the House of Representatives, the topic of the debate was really about the very nature of representation. The Federalists sought to structure the Constitution so as to create fairly large districts with numerous constituents so as to dilute the political passions and participation by the electorate. Larger districts, they hoped, would cause only “the cream of society” to rise to political attention, ensuring the election of “fit characters” to office, who would be better able to discern the “public good” than if the entire body of the people had gathered for that purpose. They advocated that citizens should be private-minded, with relatively little interest paid to political matters which should be left up to the “experts”. The Federalists hoped the ambitious representatives of their system would set aside any regional or constituent differences for the ultimate goal of achieving American greatness.

The Anti-Federalists argued for relatively small and homogenous districts in which there would be frequent rotation in office and shorter terms (a year, at most), thereby ensuring that representatives would be drawn from the body of the citizens, creating a close bond between constituents and their representatives. They hoped representatives would be drawn from the “middling” part of society, whom they believed would be less prone to vices of the “great”. The Anti-Federalists hoped to foster a high degree of deliberation and political discussion among the whole of the citizenry, favoring more local and deliberatively forms of self-government. The Anti-Federalists hoped for contention within the lower chamber that would thwart the ambitions of the elite and keep the central government relatively ineffectual, allowing for strong local political self-rule.

The Federalists at the Constitutional Convention were elitists who were interested in ruling the masses. The Anti-Federalists were yeomen citizens who wanted the masses to rule themselves. When the Federalists did not get their way to the degree they imagined they would, they devoted themselves to business and let the people take up the task of self-rule.

In Federalist 10, James Madison argued that the form of representation favored by his side of the debate (Madison was a Federalist), would combat the formation of “majority factions” and prevent a portion of society from using the levers of government to manipulate the process to achieve its narrow ends. They feared “special interest” politics.

The Anti-Federalists insisted that their version of representation would forestall the creation of a “consolidated” government, making frequent agreement at the federal level unlikely, while also fostering civic virtues and practices that would keep governance close to home. They feared a powerful central government at the beck and call of the wealthy and powerful.

In reality, both groups really feared special interest politics, but the Federalists saw no reason to fear the special interests of their own social class. Neither side “won” a complete victory in the writing of the United States Constitution, but the Federalists won on large districts and longer terms of office. Interestingly, according to Democracy in America (d’Toqueville), the Anti-Federalist system was very much in evidence in the 1830s. He felt this might be one of the reasons democracy worked in America where it had mostly failed in France and elsewhere. Politics were mostly local, representatives were not “great men” and most did not stay in office more than one or two terms. In fact, he noted, that the “great men” seemed mostly uninterested in politics while the people were quite involved. The French nobleman thought it regrettable that America’s wealthy were more interested in business and the interior of their homes than politics and yet he agreed that the lack of strong special interest groups like a nobility or an engaged wealth class kept the American government responsive to the people. Federal law had little effect on people’s day-to-day lives and the frequent changes in representation meant that if a law was passed that did negatively impact people’s lives, it could be repealed soon after the next election. It seems that for a brief period in American history, we actually exercised self-governance.

Today, we have combined parts of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist theories and arrived at a highly unpalatable and toxic mix. The Constitution allowed for this to happen, but I don’t think the Founders would have approved.

The Federalists would be floored at how large our districts are today. Alaska has one Congressional representative for more than 750,000 constituents. Don Young is a former riverboat captain and teacher from Ft. Yukon, a rural Interior village. To the extent that he has, after 40-odd years, maintained an Alaskan mentality, that’s wonderful, but it’s ridiculous to think that he has ever represented the views of all or even most of the people of Alaska. He represents an extremely heterogenous district made up of urban and rural interests, environmentalist and development interests, tough-minded construction workers, statist government workers and dependent-minded Natives. There is no way he can represent us all.

 Senators in most states have way more constituents than Don Young has. Only those with power, status or wealth have any chance of being heard, let alone elected. Almost all senators today are millionaires and draw funding from the entire nation rather than the state they represent. Why should Lisa Murkowski (a wealthy lawyer before Daddy, the wealthy banker and governor put her in office), care what I (a middle-class administrator with a construction worker husband)  think about the federal debt or ObamaCare when she gets the majority of her $3 million war chest from groups located outside of the State of Alaska?  She gives zilch about what Alaskans think. Daddy put her in office so she could inherit his donation list.

It’s a similar situation with the senators in your own state. Washington DC lures them with power and status and once there, they seek continuous reelection. Moreover, most citizens can’t be bothered to be knowledgeable on the issues and even the ones who vote often vote without understanding of what’s at stake. Modern representation resembles the Federalist view of governance in its elitism and disconnection from the electorate.

However, because of the nearly universal use of gerrymandering, districts today, while large, are increasingly ideologically homogenous. Representatives must appear beholding to the electorate, so they seek to vote in accordance to the perceived wishes of their constituents, resembling the Anti-Federalist view of governance. While constituents today have very little opportunity to actually interact with their representatives, they still hope these representatives will honor their community values. This resembles the Anti-Federalist view.

How did we get here?

After the ratification of the Constitution, politics came into play. Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry (an Anti-Federalist at the time of the ratification) signed a bill redistricting Massachusetts to benefit the Democratic-Republican Party. It became a system adopted throughout the nation.These really contorted districts (called gerrymandering) created the homogenous districts the Anti-Federalists hoped for, but it also provided the means for later generations to establish a professional political class. If a particularlar party couldn’t get the election results they desired, they would concentrate on electing a governor who would simply redraw the electoral boundaries to assure that their party would win the next legislative election. Because the districts the Constitution created are so large, homogeneity achieved through gerrymanding concentrated power in a wealthy elite who stay in office for a generation rather than engendering self-government with a high degree of political participation and frequent changes in representation.

The reforms of the direct primary ensured greater say by the citizenry in the selection of their representatives, but predictably, this reform has resulted in an increase in the monied or famous being nominated, probably because of their greater visibility prior to the election, but also because they have the money to buy the advertising cycle. We have massive districts without real opportunity for deliberation, but constant efforts by representatives to learn the views of the constituents by means of polling. Citizens are largely disconnected from politics, but those who vote demand obeisance to their views. Representation today is driven by private demands of constituents over a professional political class who want to be seen as acting on those demands while actually doing the bidding of those who paid for their election campaigns. Deliberation has been replaced with polling which takes a snapshot of “public opinion” consisting of the aggregation of opinions as manipulated by the wording of the poll. It invites the appearance of participation by citizens who are not adequately equipped to render an opinion on complex subjects. No surprise that our Congress “mirrors” an increasingly querulous, divided, private, and civically-emaciated citizenry.

When d’Toqueville admired the politically astute yeoman farmers and laborers of 1830s America, he was seeing an educated (though not necessarily schooled) citizenry who were aware of the issues thanks to multiple (not necessarily unbiased) newspapers and the willingness of their neighbors to discuss the issues of the day. When a farmer or a trademan voted, there might be passion and personal interest involved, but it was knowledge-based passion, as opposed to today’s passion as defined by sound-bites.

The liberal-progressive voices of our day want us to believe that this is how it is, how it always has been and how it must continue. It’s in the Constitution! The Federalists won and we have big disconnected government that represents the interests of those who put them in office. That wouldn’t be you plebs obsessing over your iPhones. You vote like you’re told to vote and the “experts” will take care of you. Pay no attention to the liberties you’re losing or the national debt that has exceeded GDP. Just focus on the latest hit reality TV show and don’t worry your dumb little heads about it.

No! This is what our Founders hoped to avoid and it is what we must correct. Our government is out-of-control because we allowed it to get of OUR control. That’s what we have to fix.

How to do that is a topic worthy of civic concern, deliberation, and renewed debate. Most Americans are not up to that task today, but the good news is that some of us are (or can become) and if we can create enough stir with our ideas we might wake up a large enough minority of the population to actually affect needed change.

Are we ready to get started?

Posted October 23, 2013 by aurorawatcherak in politics

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