Are ‘the people’ of US ready for democracy?

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Greg Cusack

In his address commemorating the bloody Civil War battle fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, Abraham Lincoln said that the government of the United States was by, for, and of the people.
But what can this actually mean in a nation with 326 million people spread out over 9.8 million square kilometers? Moreover, given the questionable wisdom displayed in such decisions as Brexit and the election of extreme candidates in certain regions, is it even desirable that “the people” be in charge?
Two books that offer substantially different perspectives by which to ponder those questions are Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains,” which focuses on the political theory and efforts of those who distrust majoritarian democracy, and Christopher Achen’s and Larry Bartels’ “Democracy for Realists,” which demonstrates how citizens’ rosy belief in the “folk theory of democracy” is belied by actual voter behavior.
In MacLean’s account, it is the relatively obscure political economist James Buchanan whose writings and organizational efforts made an important contribution to the plutocracy’s rise to power in the second half of the 20th century.
Like other conservatives, Buchanan believed that the federal government’s growing regulatory powers were interfering with, and constraining, those who made the greatest contributions to America: the “productive class” of risk-taking businessmen and their corporate organizations.
Buchanan also recognized that this expanded federal bureaucracy was far from being a neutral player in the political arena, as such agencies – created to, for example, ensure food and drug safety or protect the environment – would inevitably assist citizens championing the same causes, further tipping the scales against the productive class.
‘Wealth creators’
Not only did Buchanan, therefore, like all other modern conservatives, advocate for a smaller, less intrusive government, but he also concluded that because majoritarian democracy was inherently imbalanced against the “wealth creators” there was an urgent need for an effective counter-force.
In taking this line of thought, he was echoing the prominent pre-Civil War congressman John Calhoun who most forcefully expressed the fears of wealthy Southern slaveholders about growing Northern sentiment against the slave system.
It was Calhoun who developed the theory of a concurrent majority that would allow the propertied minority to have veto power over proposed actions that would deprive them of their rights. Buchanan, MacLean notes, likewise concluded that it was imperative to find ways to put “legal – indeed, constitutional – shackles on public officials so … (that) they would no longer have the ability to respond to those who used their numbers to get government to do their bidding.
“Once these shackles were put in place, they had to be binding and permanent. The only way to ensure that the will of the majority could no longer influence representative government on core matters of political economy was through what he called ‘constitutional revolution’.”
Despite the obvious intent of the Right to implement precisely this kind of minority control over government, the Left has yet to articulate either a clear picture of the Right’s goals and methods or a coherent alternative argument in support of true majoritarian rule.
If they are to do this successfully, they will need to address the clear weaknesses of what Achen and Bartels, in “Democracy for Realists,” call the “folk theory” of democracy. This democratic myth maintains that “the people” are capable of rendering wise decisions on complex issues because they possess innate common sense, take the time necessary to become acquainted with political candidates, are informed about important issues, and use their morally informed values when deciding upon which candidates to support.
Herded by manipulators
Through this process the wishes of the majority become government policy.
Unfortunately, however, numerous studies spanning many years have revealed that the vast majority of voters are, in fact, startlingly ill-informed, unable to accurately distinguish facts from biased misinformation and, because they are motivated more by partisan and tribal loyalties than thoughtful assessment of issues, easily influenced and herded by skillful manipulators.
Furthermore, the vast majority of citizens have little or no say in the decisions reached by members of Congress who are beholden, instead, to the pocketbooks of the wealthy elite.
Importantly, however, these studies also suggest that current voter behavior is a symptom of the real problem: that the United States has become a plutocratic republic in which a minority governs!
The “average citizen” apparently well understands that – because the wealthy dominate policy formulation and candidate selection, the primary voting system consistently advances more extreme candidates to the general election, and voter suppression efforts and partisan-gerrymandered districts are all designed to undermine the actual views of the majority – their voice and vote have little if any impact.
From this perspective, low levels of citizen interest and participation in elections are actually a rational response to rituals that lack substance.
“In the United States, we have drifted far from the view of the Founders that popular sentiment needs to be respected, but also tempered and refined by experienced, well-informed political judgment,” Achen and Bartels write.
“The Founders were neither elitists nor populists; they sought a balance.”
In truth, we have allowed our political system to deteriorate and become corrupted.
We have allowed the political parties – and the numerous well-placed and well-financed groups that fund them – to create a state of affairs in which candidates are rigorously vetted according to primarily ideological and partisan expectations.
The last thing this state of affairs can produce are men and women possessing a “well-formed political judgment” capable of “tempering and refining” popular wishes.
I believe the US desperately needs to reinvent “federalism” for our own time.
Too much power has moved to the federal level, especially to the executive branch, and the Congress has repeatedly abdicated its constitutionally derived powers to other political actors.
In accordance with the concept of subsidiarity, we should re-examine which functions could best be handled at the state or regional level, thus bringing important matters closer to effective oversight by “the people.”
But we also have to tackle the mechanisms that have allowed corruption to so badly mar our political process, including:
1. Eliminating the dominance that the wealthy elite currently possesses by severely restricting the amount any single individual, corporation, or third-person entity can contribute, and instead substituting election funding from public funds.
2. Replacing partisan primaries with general elections using ranked-choice voting, also known as preferential voting, a process that will elevate moderate voices over the extreme fringe.
3. Making Election Day a national holiday so all have the freedom to participate.
4. Ending all voter-suppression efforts of any kind and expanding educational and transportation options for citizens in need.
5. Recognizing the great dangers hate speech and intentionally false speech pose to stable and diverse societies.
The agenda is daunting, but the cost of continuing to do nothing is the irrevocable loss of the Republic.
The author was a member of the Iowa State House of Representatives and also served in the Iowa executive branch. He retired in 2004. -Courtesy: Shine.cn