Practical Democracy: Why It's Necessary
Democracy Is Not A Team Sport
Democracy places political power in the people, but the people can be fooled into using their power against themselves. As George Washington warned us in his Farewell Address1, "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men" were able to "subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government" by encouraging the people to take sides on public issues rather seeking agreement on the best resolution.
More than two hundred years experience with confrontational politics has shown how easy it is for people seeking political power to divide us. Dividing the people into confrontational parties provides a base for power-seekers but does not find constructive solutions to common problems. Dividing the electorate into competing parties lies at the heart of the failure of so-called 'democracy'. Democracy is not a team sport.
Party-based political systems are not a good idea. They divide the electorate rather than uniting it. In addition, they disenfranchise the non-partisans in the electorate, the very people who have the most balanced view of the community's needs.
Communities are made up of diverse interests and the relations between those interests can be contentious. Constructive resolution of political issues requires, first of all, lawmakers with the ability to recognize the value in the various points of view, from the people's perspective. That is impossible for legislators elected to represent partisan interests.
Even though partisanship is natural for humans, political systems built on partisanship are destructive. When the people are only allowed to vote for party-chosen candidates, the ability to vote for one of them is neither free nor democratic. On the contrary, since those who control the options control the outcome, it shows that the people are subjects of those who defined their options. As Robert Michels pointed out 2 "... the oligarchical and bureaucratic tendency of party organization ... serves to conceal from the mass a danger which really threatens democracy."
The Danger Of Partisanship
Experience teaches us that, when politics is based on partisanship, the partisans form oligarchic power blocs that become an end in themselves and ultimately transcend the will of the people. National Socialism and Russian Communism had features that attracted broad partisan support throughout a national expanse and both degenerated into destructive forces because their partisans gained control of their governments.
The danger in Communism and National Socialism was not that they attracted partisan support; it was that the partisans controlled the government.
Party politics is a potent tool for those with a thirst for power but it does not foster government by the people. It results in government by a small fraction of the people. For the people as a whole, the flaws in party politics are devastating. Their cumulative effect victimizes the public by the most basic and effective strategy of domination - Divide and Conquer.
The Value Of Partisanship
In spite of the dangers inherent in partisanship, we must recognize that it is a vital part of society. People differ, and it is essential that they should, because we advance our common interest by examining conceivable options. Differing people seek out and align themselves with others who share their views. In the process of doing so, they hone their views to help form a consensus. That is the way they give breadth, depth and volume to their voice.
In general, partisanship is healthy when it helps give voice to our views. It is destructive when it achieves power. All ideologies, whether of the right or the left, differ from Communism and National Socialism only in the extent to which their partisans are able to impose their biases on the public.
The Influence of Money
Political party operations, including selling political candidates to the public, are extremely expensive. Those who supply the money are not altruists; they demand a return for their money. The only product the political parties have to sell is the laws their candidates will enact when elected. This is the way the people who finance party operations are able to draft the laws the people endure. It is the root of the corruption destroying America.
Passion Versus Intellect
Political parties mount, finance and staff campaigns designed to inflame the passions of the electorate. There is no genuine attempt to consult the public interest. Instead, surveys are conducted to find "hot buttons" which generate a desired response and professionals use the information to mold "messages" which the candidates and the parties feed the public. It is a rabble-rousing technique.
Intelligent decisions require discourse; assertions must be examined, not in the sterile environment of a televised debate, but in depth. The electorate must be able to examine candidates and discuss matters of public concern, and, with the knowledge so gained, make decisions. In the existing political environment, they have no opportunity to do so.
It is reported that incumbents in the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives are returned to office over 90% of the time even though Congress has an approval rating of less then 15%. 3
Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection. With wide name recognition, and usually an insurmountable advantage in campaign cash, House incumbents typically have little trouble holding onto their seats... 4
This circumstance obtains because the people have no options. When the only names on the ballot are those chosen by the parties, the voters have no choice. When the parties repeatedly choose the same candidates, the people have no way to bring new minds to their government. Systems that let organized groups decide who can be a candidate for public office are profoundly undemocratic.
Dynamic systems require fresh minds. The current and emerging problems facing the electorate change constantly. The inability to select new representatives equipped to resolve contemporary issues injures the entire community. In addition, rot thrives in a closed environment. Just like with apples in barrels, corruption flourishes when incumbents are repeatedly returned to office.
Political parties are top-down arrangements that are important for the principals, the party leaders, financiers, candidates and elected officials, but the significance diminishes rapidly as the distance from the center of power grows. Most people are on the periphery, remote from the centers of power. They have little or no influence, as shown by Gilens and Page.5 As outsiders, they are effectively excluded from the political process.
Party-dominated political infrastructures deny the people the right to decide the issues they want addressed and the right to agree on the candidates they want to address them. As a result, the people's political skills atrophy because the system gives them no meaningful participation in the political process.
Machinery that gives the entire electorate a voice in the political process must accommodate the fact that the desire to participate in political affairs varies from one individual to the next. To reconcile this diversity, a democratic process must be open to all, without coercion.
We cannot know what treasures of political ability will be unearthed when people are invited to deliberate on their common concerns - with a purpose. Some, who start out unsure of their ability, will, as they learn they can persuade others of the value of their perspective, gain confidence in their ability to influence the political process. In doing so, the people gain the internal goods that can only be attained through the practice of politics. That, as Alasdair MacIntyre6 explained, benefits the entire community.
Correcting The Flaws In The Existing System
To correct these flaws, new machinery to support a democratic political process must be a bottom-up arrangement that lets every member of the community influence political decisions to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability; must enable and encourage the people to deliberate on political issues; must let the people agree among themselves the issues they want resolved and the people they want to resolve them; must incorporate partisanship without letting partisans control the political process; must eliminate the influence of money on the political process; and it must let the people change their representatives, as they deem appropriate.
- 1. Washington's Farewell Address http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp
- 2. Robert Michels, Political Parties, p27 http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/michels/polipart.pdf
- 3. PolitiFact.com http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2014/nov/11/facebook-...
- 4. The Center for Responsive Politics https://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect.php
- 5. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page (2014). Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.
- 6. Political Philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre, http://www.iep.utm.edu/p/p-macint.htm