Participatory democracy Representative democracy Democratic oligarchy
"On most major issues we've dealt with in the past 50 years, the public was more likely to be right -based on the judgment of history- than the legislatures or Congress."
--George Gallup, Sr."The only cure for the ills of Democracy is more Democracy."
"Democracy is the WORST form of government, except for ALL the others."
This essay does not argue the merits of democracy, but assumes citizens are sovereign, democracy is a legitimate form of government, and the popular vote is best way to choose government officials. This essays asks "how should elected officials govern? What should guide their decisions and actions while in office?".
The conventional view if that they should govern however they think best. This represents the wishes of constituents because they would be expected to elect someone who has views similar to theirs.
There are obvious flaws with this model. There may not be any candidates running for office who share your view on one or more make-or-break issues (e.g. abortion, the death penalty, or war). My objection to this system is that I want my fellow citizen's views to count equally to my own; I don't want my view to prevail, but the view of the majority to prevail. I could not vote for a candidate who was not going to govern according to the views of the majority of constituents.
Right and Wrong
What is the right way to govern? Is it what is morally right? Or what is the most practical, doing the greatest good for the most people?
Quarantining AIDS patients might be the right thing to do from a practical point of view. Forcing overweight people to diet and exercise might also do good. But these policies would also be considered wrong my many people, regardless of how effective or practical they are.
What is the most moral is subjective, and will almost always be in dispute. What is the most practical and does the greatest good can often be known with reasonable certainty, but never for sure except in hindsight. Is there a way for an elected official to do anything and know it is, in fact, "right"?
This question is similar to asking how to make a life or death medical decision. When the outcome of different medical options is unknown, the "right" decision is determined by informing the patient about their options and letting them decide, since they are the one facing the consequences, not the doctor.
If medical decisions where made according to the way we govern, you would be free to choose any doctor, but then have to submit to whatever decisions they made about how to treat you.
If we governed ourselves the way we make medical decisions, we would choose our officials and they would then govern according to the wishes of the majority of constituents.
I believe that that basic fairness dictates that those who are most affected by a decision, who will either suffer or benefit, and who are also paying the costs involved, should get to decide. What is right or wrong for the public can only be decided by the public itself, not by one individual who happened to win a popular vote.
In the US, citizens have the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. This is seen as desirable, because at worst it's inconvenient but at best can draw attention to real injustices. When the average constituent lobbies or petitions their elected officials, it's called participatory democracy.
Elected officials cannot arrest anyone for petitioning them, but they don't have to listen, either. If every single constituent demanded their representative voted a certain way, they are free to ignore them and vote differently. This substitutes their own wishes for the wishes of their supposedly sovereign constituents.
This is comparable to being free to boo at an umpire; you don't have any right to affect the umpire's decision, just to express your displeasure with it.
But being able to boo at an umpire doesn't make a spectator sport a participatory sport. I don't believe it makes politics "participatory" either, unless elected officials are under some obligation to give consideration to their constituent's views.
When voting, your candidate may not win, but your input is being considered in a definite way. When take the time to lobby your elected representative, you are more likely to be ignored than listened to. They are free to disregard the views of even the majority of constituents.
If elected officials are interested in learning the wishes of their constituents, they can conduct a poll like they do when they're running for office. I think "Town Hall" meet-your-representative meetings are great, but they are not intended to reliably reflect the views of the majority, just those with the free time and incentive to attend. They are not necessarily even constituents, but could be from a neighboring district.
Officials govern this way because it's what we, as voters, have chosen. We vote for candidates who never agree, even insincerely, to govern based on the views of constituents (to directly represent them). We are content with booing and cheering our officials once they're in office, instead of requiring a candidate to govern based on the wishes of the majority.
Representative Democracy in the United States
The Unites States of America is a Federal Republic. Federal and state governments choose officials for fixed terms based upon the popular vote. This is commonly referred to as "representative democracy", and depends upon voters choosing candidates who represent their views. Voters can remove an elected official when their term is up by voting for someone else.
Traditionally, candidates campaign by arguing the merits of their views on issues. They may commit themselves to specific policies, although this is not legally binding. Voters are expected to choose the candidate who's views and policies are closest to their own (or at least whoever is least contradictory).
After an election, the power vested by citizens in a public office is put in the hands of the winning candidate. They are then free to govern however they choose. They can make decisions based solely on self-interest, for example. The electorate generally does not secure any promise from candidates to govern according to the views of constituents.
A candidate for public office could potentially set their personal views aside for the sake of representing the views of their constituents. I believe this is in holding with the spirit of public service and representative democracy.
There is precedent for this relationship. Political appointments, like the chairman of the joint chiefs-of-staff, are obligated to serve the wishes of the official who appointed them (e.g. the president). A military official has the authority to order the invasion of another country, but cannot do so because they think it's "right". They are expected to observe the wishes of the president, or be removed. The electorate, as a whole, could choose public officials who treat their wishes with the same respect.
If this happened, and voters required accurate representation from candidates for public office, it would eliminate the influence of lobbyists on elected officials. Since the will of the electorate would determine the actions of elected officials, the public would be the only valid target of lobbying. If a majority of the public is persuaded by a lobbyist, the elected official would act accordingly.
This would give the average citizen a chance to participate in the political process, through holding an informed opinion and having it count. They have an incentive to learn about issues, because their opinion counts.
Polling would be necessary for a representative to accurately measure the views of the electorate. This is like the reverse of a town hall, where the electorate goes to meet with their representative; the representative is going to the electorate.
Through sampling, it should be possible to get accurate results for little cost. Newspapers and colleges do this now. It would be cheaper than, say, holding a referendum where everyone votes. And more fair, in that people who are genuinely too busy would still be included. Others, with no real opinion or who feel they are uniformed, could opt out. In cases where opinion is closely divided (e.g. 49% to 51%). a large sample may be required.
This might be called "accurate representative democracy", as opposed to our current system, which might be described as democratic oligarchy. That is, government by the few, although they are chosen by popular vote.
If voter's don't want government policy to be based on public opinion, they can choose conventional candidates who don't bind themselves to honor the wishes of constituents. This is what voters have chosen so far. This creates a system of government by the few, because elected official govern according to their own wishes, and are not bound in any way to represent the specific wishes of constituents.
Candidates carry out their own views and agenda, which is not the same thing as representing their constituent's views.
Cost/Benefit ratio of representative democracy
Cost/Benefit ratio of democratic oligarchy
Improving representation by elected officials
Campaign finance reform and an instant runoff election voting system would improve the accuracy of elections in choosing candidates who reflect the views of voting constituents. However, voters can begin choosing candidates who agree to represent the views of the majority with perfect accuracy immediately, without requiring a change in campaign finance laws or the election process.
When elections become a referendum on a single issue, voters have been able to effectively control any ONE government policy. This could be leveraged to choose candidates who offer to accurately represent the wishes of constituents (who own the public office, and suffer of benefit from how it's used).
Individuals with vastly different politics and points of view could support this approach, as long as they share a belief in equal representation; that their values, not those of one elected official, should determine how they are governed.
A general election could be thought of as being a single wish; you can wish for additional wishes if you want, by voting for someone who agrees to follow the wishes of constituents. Your views will not only count on election day, but every day thereafter.
Questions for candidates
If you are given the chance to address a candidate, as a voter, constituent, or member of the media, you can raise the issue of representation.
- "Are there any issues on which you believe the wishes of a majority of constituents should decide policy?"
- "If so, how will you measure public opinion?"
- "If not, are there any issues on which you believe the wishes of 100% of constituents should be determinative?"
- "If there are no issues on which you think the wishes of 100% of your constituents should be determinative, what role should the views of your constituents play?"
Consider the following four examples:
- An American General invades Canada, against the wishes of the current U.S. president.
- A lawyer enters a guilty plea against their client's wishes.
- A financial adviser puts a client's money in high-risk derivatives that the client doesn't want.
- A surgeon performs a medical procedure against a patient's wishes./li>
- A senator votes for a bill a majority of his constituents oppose
In each example above, a paid servant conducts the affairs of the person paying their salary, in violation of that person's wishes. They may be trying to look out for the best interest of their client, but they are depriving them of their right to self-determination.
In the case of the General, the lawyer, the financial adviser, and the doctor, there are criminal penalties for what they have done, including loss of their license to to practice. But in the case of the elected official, which ironically could cause the most harm, there is no penalty. This kind of mis-representation is the norm.
The best interest of the public versus public opinion
The best interest of the public is not necessarily objectively knowable. Sometimes "best interest" is a matter of priorities, such as public education versus lowering taxes versus lowering crime. Even in hindsight, the public's best interest can remain subjective.
Elected officials presumably try to govern according to the best interests of their constituents. Since that can't be scientifically proven, what is the best way to estimate it? Are the views of elected officials more accurate than public opinion at determining the best interest of the public?
If that's true, then why is the public allowed to chose who holds high government offices? If the public can't be trusted, shouldn't it be banned from choosing the rulers of the country? Hasn't the public shown that it is capable and deserving of the right to self-determination? I believe the best way of determining anyone's best interest, all things being equal, is by allowing them to decide it for themselves -- even if they decide wrong.
Lobbying and advocacy in a representative democracy
A lobbyist would have very little reason to visit a public official in a true representative democracy. The cannot change policy unless it's what their constituents want them to do, so that's who needs to be lobbied. If the public is persuaded, the elected official would vote or act accordingly.
Advocacy would not require access to elected officials. Any citizen could affect the political process by persuading fellow constituents of the merits of their views. Because public opinion would decide policy, talking to our fellow citizens would be talking to the decision makers. This would create an incentive to become informed on issues, and care about the views we and our neighbors hold.
For the purpose of this essay, the following definitions are used:
This page last modified 2023-04-29