The Trouble With Representative Democracy


This is the first of, hopefully many, posts by a guest writer.  Appropriately, my main man Stein Time gets the honors.

The criticism that politicians lack the testicular fortitude to back unpopular or broadly-impacting reforms because they must maintain relations with a local constituency is misdirected. Representative democracy is ill-equipped to deal with long-term issues- like climate change, healthcare, and social security- or acute problems that require a fundamental overhaul, like our financial regulatory system. But the reality of creating a majority coalition among 435 congressmen and 100 senators in a two-party system crippled by partisanship (see stimulus package) is that issues prone to negative-spin, like prison and drug reform, are consciously ignored.

Take prison reform. It is a system that, by design or not, is fraught with flaws: overcrowding, racial disparities, draconian penalties for non-violent drug crimes, etc. To suggest that reducing penalties for certain drug crimes, or that treatment, rather than incarceration, might be a part of the solution, is to risk being labeled “soft on crime,” an undesirable epithet for a politician in a close race. Even if a politician were able to successfully provide treatment, rather than prison time, with great success to non-violent drug offenders, he or she can rest assured that, like Michael Dukakis, everyone will know the name of the first one to commit a violent crime. So what to do? Nothing, don’t bother. It’s not worth it. The risks of failure far outweigh the benefits of success. The affected population is already marginalized, largely isolated, and of no value to anyone but the individuals, their families, and their communities. Hell, even if you help them they probably aren’t allowed to vote in your state. Standing up for logical reforms could jeopardize the success of (slightly) more palatable changes to other issues, like education. Your opponents will tear you apart, you risk alienating your core constituencies, and your political career will be short and undistinguished. Best to stick to more popular reforms, like the old John McCain pork-barrel special, that will endear yourself to your constituency, keep your job for a few more years, and allow you to gain influence through tenure, like Teddy the Lion or Smokin’ Joe Biden.

For the reasons described above, the legislative bodies of representative democracies are a quagmire by design. One way to break the gridlock is to drive reforms through from above through a strong unitary executive and a general “fuck you” attitude. But, as history tells us, this approach has its limitations (see George W. Bush). Another alternative is to look at other forms of government. Say what you will about human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government, they know how to get that double-digit GDP growth, and have managed to implement, by most accounts, a fairly successful stimulus package.  I am not advocating either of these alternatives – Winston Churchill says the democracy is the best form of government except for all the rest – but these two approaches know how to take care of a stalemate in the legislative body.

That said, Obama managed to send an $800 billion stimulus package and a $3 trillion budget through congress, and is in the process of moving climate change and healthcare reforms through the house and senate before the summer is done. Maybe there is a third way to break the legislative stalemate: wait for the other guys to massively fuck up, and then ram it through like a freight train. Kudos to Karl Rove.


4 Responses to The Trouble With Representative Democracy

  1. MAR says:

    First of all steiner, I’d like to compliment you on your a+ picture. That is fantastic.

    Good points, but I just don’t think its as big a weakness as you claim. Give the voters some credit, while US prisons are a global joke and drug policy certainly needs to be re-evaluated, these are hardly even among the top 5 most pressing issues in the US. Ur right that politicians avoid these topics because nobody cares, but…so what? Nobody cares. Instead people care about war, health care, the economy, social security, and education. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

    • Stein Time says:

      Well well well, if it isn’t my old nemesis, Nimitz. Are we going to graced with some content from you, Runnalls, or only criticism? Prison reform and drug policy are certainly not the most important issues, but the same argument can be said for any unpopular but realistic solution to those problems, like healthcare (higher taxes), war (higher taxes), climate change (carbon tax). Are you going to do some writing?

  2. MAR says:

    maybe. i need to get worked up about something first.

  3. Carr says:

    I think the founding fathers realized that democracy breaks down when it increases in scale when they denied the right to vote for the President to all but elected national representatives.

    The marginalized of which you speak would not be so marginalized if their particular communities were empowered to make the decisions that actually affect them.

    As it is, the solutions that impoverished communities may want to enact are impotent to more broad-reaching national and state policy, where every citizen, whether relevant or not, has an equal and basic and negligible say. I say let Compton decide what’s best for Compton. The people truly have power if their votes actually matter.

    As for GDP growth, the US, on a fundamental level, has one of the least-healthy economies among major industrialized nations. While remaining a center for innovation and harboring vast multinationals, the US economy is composed of a shockingly tiny number of small businesses.

    40 percent of US GDP is comprised of government spending. The ‘stimulus packages’, which could less-euphemistically be called ‘corporate bailouts’ essentially took money from taxpayers and gave it to large corporations that had essentially failed because, with government support, they mismanaged and overextended themselves, and now, we’re giving them money so they can eventually do it again. Somebody has to pay for this.

    I keep hearing bloggers and columnists talk about how our grandchildren will have to pay for this, but the truth is that we are paying for it now. Small business owners, instead of using revenues to expand and offer people jobs, are instead being forced to cater to the interests of multinationals like Chrysler and AIG, who are suffering because the comfortable markets they once had in East Asia and the subcontinent are being flooded with more efficient local businesses.

    When forty-percent of my income goes to the federal government and then on to large, stagnant multinationals, that’s forty percent less I can use to invest in my small business and actually grow the local economy.

    The engine of growth in countries like China is innovation and freedom to choose how to use one’s finances. With the global marketplace for American goods shrinking, the last thing we should be doing is propping up decadent multinationals.

    To avoid being a quagmire, the federal government should abdicate most of it’s authority to state and local governments to solve both the social and the economic problems that are otherwise ignored.

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