Rediscover Representative Democracy

Apr 18, 2012Herbert J. Gans

Vote HereTo create a more civilized economy and political debate, we need a democracy that represents more than just the rich and powerful.

By now, common sense should tell us that whether our form of government is called a plutocracy or a corporate democracy, its three branches and the constituencies that control it are unlikely to solve the country's critical economic, political, and social problems. But what if we could enlarge the citizen constituency, and thereby rediscover representative democracy?

Representative democracy entitles all citizens to be properly represented by their elected officials, and right now, American democracy is clearly unrepresentative. Since the Reagan era, the already economically powerful have obtained more political clout than ever. As a result, many other citizens are deprived of their fair share of political voice and political power, as well as the help government can provide.

The economic and political power-holders will never surrender any powers voluntarily, and the recently emerged Occupy, union, and other protest movements have not yet raised national power-sharing issues.

Suppose, however, that new players could enter the electorate and other parts of the political playing field. They would add new issues and demands to the political agenda, remove some old political warhorses, and upset a variety of political applecarts. If more people feel that voting and other ordinary forms of political participation can do some good, they are likely to make themselves heard, and their elected representatives might then push the economy and politics in a more egalitarian direction.

Representative democracy will not come easily or quickly, and in a huge country like the U.S., it can never be fully achieved. Changing a political system long stacked to favor profit-seekers over rank and file citizens is politically very hard work, and neither the big corporations, other fat cats, or their organized allies are going to let go without a humongous struggle. Persuading larger numbers of citizens to vote, and to do so thoughtfully, may be no easier.

Still, representative democracy as an issue sits on high moral ground and opponents cannot reject it out of hand. Consequently, it is very much worth thinking about and publicly discussing it now, so that the right moves can be undertaken if and when the political time becomes ripe.

For example, if large and varied protest activities develop, or if the religious and cultural conservatives find they must vote their economic interests, the country might elect a liberally inclined populist president and Congress. If and when that happens, several essential first legislative and executive steps can be taken. One is to begin to rapidly enlarge the electorate by making voting faster, easier, and more pleasant. 

Another step is to require, or bribe, the relevant media to run political advertising free of charge, and at the same time start pressing for the public financing of elections.

These changes will take time and perhaps some political miracles as well, but when they can be accomplished, further progress might be a little easier.

For example, a larger and economically more representative electorate could well demand that government and private enterprise jointly become employers of last resort. Many more voters would also support progressive tax reform, especially if they understand that putting some money in more pockets will grow the consumer economy and thereby the rest of the economy. Even corporate executives that profit from the consumer economy might turn a bit more liberal.           

Eventually, however, a truly representative government will require reforming the governmental structure. In a properly democratic Senate, senators from the four smallest states, which have less than 1 percent of the population, would no longer cast the same number of votes as their colleagues from the four largest, which have nearly 33 percent of the population. Or maybe the Senate should be turned into the equivalent of the British House of Lords.

Fairer congressional districting is also needed, and the same reforms are needed in state and local government. A federally mandated recall procedure should be instituted for all levels of government. 

The Supreme Court needs reforming as well, for right now it is not accountable to anyone. At some point the country must figure out how to amend or revise the Constitution in order to modernize the intentionally weak and divided government with which the Founders saddled us. 

Meanwhile, and as soon as possible, the federal Department of Education should institute courses in everyday politics and economics, beginning in the first year of high school. The citizenry needs, and has always needed, all the help it can get to understand what politics and the economy do for and to them.

Greater representative democracy may take decades to realize fully, and even then it is no panacea; it will not eliminate economic or political injustice. It should do away with political polarization, but it will not eradicate political disagreement or economic conflict. In fact, if more people are politically involved, their elected officials will have to cope with a larger number of viewpoints, values, and interests among the electorate. However, if more people know they have a voice and a government that is really listening, America could end up with a more civilized economy and politics.

Herbert J Gans is the Robert S. Lynd Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Columbia University and the author of Imagining America in 2033.

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