Whither Democracy, a Commentary on the American Political System

We are undergoing a troubling period in our political history. As Jane Mansbridge points out, "trust in government is plummeting in most developed democracies." Why is our political infrastructure a shambles that produces so few trustworthy candidates for public office? The answer lays in the foundation of democracy and the edifice we've built on that foundation.

Democracy In America

Democracy is a slowly evolving structure of government.

Centuries ago, Plato thought democracy could not work because 'ordinary people' are 'too easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians'. He failed to note that some folks are more easily swayed than others, and that some individuals are not swayed at all. Yet, Plato's faulty view of democracy dominated political thought at the inception of our nation and still governs political thought, today.

In the United States, our governmental system is defined by our Constitution. When it was written, although the details of elections were left to the legislatures of the several states, considerable effort was devoted to protecting the people from the adverse effects Plato thought inevitable. In Political Parties in the United States, John F. Bibby wrote:

"When the Founders of the American Republic wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787, they did not envision a role for political parties in the governmental order. Indeed, they sought through various constitutional arrangements such as separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and indirect election of the president by an electoral college to insulate the new republic from political parties and factions."


Hence, nothing in our Constitution expresses or implies the need for political parties. They are extra-Constitutional, quasi-official inventions designed to acquire the reins of government to advance partisan interest.

"In spite of the founders' intentions, the United States was the first nation to develop parties organized on a national basis and to transfer executive power from one faction to another via an election in 1800."

The Party System

A party system developed because our early leaders used their standing to consolidate their power. They created top-down political organizations that let them set the agendas and choose the candidates for which the people vote. In the process, they disenfranchised the people and corrupted the political process because those who choose the options, control the outcome!

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson did not seek the answers to contemporary problems among the people, nor did they entrust the people with the right to choose the individuals they thought best suited to lead them. Instead, certain that their own view of the issues facing the country were superior to the public's, they built organizations to attract people to support their point of view.

George Washington sat amid these strong personalities, and, as long as he was able, mediated the matters that concerned the country. However, the dangers that awaited us were so apparent to him that, in his Farewell Address to the nation, with remarkable foresight, he sought to warn us "in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party". He called partisanship an unquenchable fire that "demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume", and predicted parties were likely to become "potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government".

We stand in awe at the clarity of our first President's vision.

Hamilton and Jefferson and their followers invented 'political parties' with party names, voter loyalty, newspapers, state and local organizations, campaign managers, candidates, tickets, slogans, platforms, linkages across state lines, and patronage. They institutionalized their advantage by creating rules in the several states to preserve them and aid their operation.

These features advance party interest at the expense of the public interest. They show how political parties are an embodiment of human nature; they put self-interest above all other considerations. They function precisely as a thoughtful person would expect them to function.

Oligarchic Party Structure

The political parties that control all political activity in the United States are in no sense democratic. As Robert Michels explained in Political Parties, 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.

The American people do not elect the prime movers, those who control the parties. In fact, most Americans don't even know who they are. They are appointed by their party and serve at the party's pleasure. We, the people the parties are supposed to represent, have no control over who these people are, how long they serve, or the deals they make to raise the immense amounts of money they use to keep their party in power. They constitute a ruling elite above and beyond the reach of the American people.

When we allow those who control our political parties to usurp the power of governing our nation, it is foolish to imagine that we retain the power bestowed on us by our Constitution. It is a tragedy that so few of us recognize that we have relinquished our right to govern ourselves to unknown people who proclaim themselves our agents. Yet, party systems acquire a color of right because they are built on partisanship.

Partisanship

Partisanship is natural for humans. We seek out and align ourselves with others who share our views. Through them, we hone our ideas and gain courage from the knowledge that we are not alone in our beliefs. Partisanship gives breadth, depth and volume to our voice. In and of itself, partisanship is not only inevitable, it is healthy.

On the other hand, partisans have a penchant for denigrating those who think differently, often without considering the salient parts of opposing points of view. They seek the power to impose their views on those who don't share them, while overlooking their own shortcomings. Communism and National Socialism showed these tendencies. Both had features that attracted broad public 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 gained control of government. In general, partisanship is healthy when it helps us 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.

Partisanship is a vital part of society, provided it is always a voice and never a power. The danger to the American people is not in partisanship, it is in letting political parties control the government.

Disenfranchising Non-Partisans

According to National Voter Turnout in Federal Elections, in 2004, which, at the time I did this research was the most recent presidential election year for which all data is available, 79% of the voting age population (VAP) was registered to vote and 55.3% of the VAP actually turned out to vote.

Using the numbers provided by Pew Research Center Publications to get a very rough estimate of what this means in terms of democracy in the United States, 35% of registered voters in 2004 were Democrats, 33% were Republicans and 32% were Independents.

Thus, in the 2004 election, 55.3% of the voting age public actually voted, and the likely distribution of those voters was about 15.3% (79% * 55.3% * 35%) registered Democrats and 14.4% (79% * 55.3% * 33%) registered Republicans.

Since the Republicans 'won' the 2004 election, we can see that when the winners took office, 100% of the people were ruled by the party of 14.4% of the voters. Furthermore, since the actual political decisions of any party are made by a small portion of the party members (Michels' oligarchs), the result of partisan elections in the United States is disgracefully undemocratic.

Corruption

Corruption pervades our political system because the parties control the selection of candidates for public office. Candidates are not chosen for their integrity. Quite the contrary, they are chosen after they demonstrate their willingness and ability to dissemble, to obfuscate and to mislead the electorate. They are chosen when they prove they will renounce principle and sacrifice honor for the benefit of their party.

The result is a circular process that intensifies over time:

  • Candidates for public office cannot mount a viable campaign without party sponsorship, so they obtain sponsorship by agreeing to support the party.
  • The party, assured of the loyalty of its candidates, attracts donors because it can promise that its candidates will support the objectives set by the party, i.e., the goals of the donors.
  • From the donors, the party obtains the funds it needs to attract appealing candidates and bind them to the party's will.

This cycle makes political parties conduits for corruption. The organizations they target for funds are not altruistic. They demand - and get - the laws they demand in our state and national legislatures in return for providing the resources the parties need. Businesses, labor unions and other vested interests give immense amounts of money and logistical support to political parties to push their agenda and to secure the passage of laws that benefit the donors.

The political parties meet their commitment to the donors by picking politicians who can be relied upon to enact the laws and implement the policies the donors' desire. The politicians so selected are the least principled of our citizens, but are the only choices available to the American people in our 'free' elections.

The result is a system that renounces virtue and is ruled by cynicism.

None of this is a secret. The parties conduct their business with our knowledge and tacit approval. We know, full well, how they operate. We know about the 'party bosses', 'pork barrels', 'party loyalty', 'slush funds', 'party whips', 'soft money' and the whole lexicon of political manipulation. Since we know these things exist and do not prevent them, we are responsible for the very corruption we decry.

The Corrosive Effect Of Campaigning

The high cost of election campaigns makes party-based political systems susceptible to the influence of money. Even worse than the inherently corruptive nature of soliciting funds to finance a campaign, which invites demands from the financial backers, is the corrosive effect of campaigning on the candidate's psyche.

Candidates must appear to stand for something but, to attract support, they continually adjust their assertions to appeal to the diverse groups whose votes are required for their election. Their personal beliefs must be subordinated to the interests of their audience. By campaigning, they gain expertise in avoiding direct answers to important questions and diverting attention from unwelcome topics.

Campaigning is the antithesis of open inquiry, it is one-way communication centered on deceit, misdirection and obfuscation rather than integrity and commitment to the public interest. That is why the term 'politician' is pejorative. The process of campaigning produces people adept at appearing to champion some idea while standing for nothing but their own success. Political campaigning is a training course in the art of deception.

To make matters worse, candidates are incessantly lionized by their supporters. This, coupled with the insidious effect of repeatedly proclaiming their own rectitude seduces them into believing their own press clippings. These things have a debilitating effect on the candidate's character, and, since morality is a top-down phenomenon, choosing political leaders by this method destroys society.

It is frustrating that the people already know these things but have come to believe them unavoidable. If we wish to improve our political systems, we must acknowledge the adverse effects of campaign-based politics and devise a better way to select our political leaders.

The Myth Of Corruptibility

Some people say we cannot remove corruption from our political systems because humans are corruptible. Why should we believe such a canard? We are misled by the high visibility of deceit and corruption in our culture. The idea that it is inescapable leads to the self-defeating notion that trying to correct it is futile.

The reality is that the vast majority of humans are honorable, law-abiding people. They have to be, for society could not exist otherwise. By far, the greater percentage of our friends, our relatives, our co-workers and our neighbors are trustworthy people.

The reason our political leaders are corrupt is that party politics elevates unscrupulous people by design. Since the goal of a party is to advance its own interest, it rewards those who do so unfettered by the restraints of honor. Once these unprincipled people achieve leadership positions, they infect our society because morality is a top-down phenomenon.

The idea that we can't remove corruption from our political systems because the people are corruptible is nonsense. It is a myth. The problem is not the people; it is a political system that intentionally seeks out and elevates unscrupulous politicians. The vast majority of our peers are honest, principled people. When we make probity a primary concern in our electoral process, the pervasiveness of dishonesty in our society will diminish.

Separation Of Powers

The U. S. Constitution separated the powers of government in such a way as to operate as checks upon each other. Among the methods used were the definition of separate Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, and the further division of the Legislative Branch into two distinct bodies, each intended to represent a different constituency, namely, the interests of the several states and the interests of the people of those states, and the Electoral College to insure broad-based support for a successful Presidential candidate. Separation of Powers is lauded as a cornerstone of our Constitution. I'm unaware of any substantive disagreement with this view of the intent of our Founders.

Political parties persistently attack the Separation of Powers. They use their leverage to force elected officials to vote en bloc on crucial issues, making a mockery of the safeguards we rely on to protect our freedoms. When one party succeeds in controlling multiple branches of our government, it is ludicrous to imagine we have a system of checks and balances.

Passion And Intellect

Partisan political systems divide and conquer the people by a destructive confrontational method that thrives by inspiring emotional (rather than reasoned) responses to the challenges facing the community. Political parties appeal to emotion by applying the principles of behavioral science to manipulate the public. They mount, finance and staff campaigns designed to inflame the passions of the electorate.

Communications during election campaigns are one-way. There is no genuine attempt to consult the public interest and the serious issues are seldom those raised during a campaign. 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 in a flood of misinformation. It is a rabble-rousing technique.

Intelligent decisions require dialogue; 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. They have no opportunity to do so.

Carefully reasoned decisions are anathema to political parties. They will do everything in their power to prevent the ascendance of reason as a basis for political decisions. Their strength is based on their ability to inflame the passions of their constituents. They are expert at doing so.

Obstacles To Achieving Democracy

A major deterrent to the advance of democracy is the fact that democracy offers no rewards for individuals or vested interests. It is easy to pay lip-service to democracy, but it is more difficult to advocate it in a meaningful fashion. Political activists declaring democratic intent are invariably seeking power for some out-of-favor ideology. Since democracy seeks to empower all the people rather than the adherents of a particular ideology, it has no champions.

Another deterrent is the frequent assertion that the people are an amorphous mass of dullards. Such an attitude a disservice to humanity. The weakness in Plato's opinion of democracy, and the weakness that curses democratic theory to this day, is the failure to recognize that, even though many citizens are not interested and informed enough to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, we still have among us a multitude of citizens who do have those qualities.

The reason our talented people do not rise to leadership positions is that our modern pseudo-democracies do not permit meaningful public participation in the political process. The people have no practical way to influence the policies of their government or the choice of candidates for public office. They have no incentive to improve their knowledge and awareness because, unless they are ready to sacrifice their principles for the sake of one of the major parties, they have no hope of public office.

Alasdair MacIntyre has theorized that the people need participation in the political process to achieve their fullest potential, and Esterling, Fung and Lee have shown that deliberation in small groups raises both the knowledge level of the participants and their satisfaction with the results of their deliberations. Our political institutions do not allow such participation.

The real challenge of democracy is to devise a political system that lets every member of the electorate participate in the political process to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability. We must construct an infrastructure that lets the people find, among themselves, those individuals best equipped to advance the public interest when resolving the issues of their time and place, and raise them to positions of political leadership.

Seeking Improvement

The 200-plus years of our nation's existence have created innumerable tentacles of habit and belief that have a firm hold on our minds. To loosen that grip we must pry back its fingers, one by one, with irrefutable logic. Doing so is a challenge. The difficulty is increased enormously because vested interests have usurped the reins of our national and state governments. They will not yield their power easily.

Since partisanship is the one human trait corrupt politicians can rely on to manipulate the people, they will use it to divide and conquer us. We can eliminate this devastating use of a natural, healthy human trait when we have a practical way to deliberate among ourselves to:

  1. determine the issues that concern us and
  2. select the people we believe best suited to resolve those issues in the common interest.

Constructive resolution of political issues requires, first of all, lawmakers with the ability to extract value from competing points of view. The challenge of democracy is to sift through the multitude of individuals to find those with the wisdom to accept the best parts of competing opinions, the ability to integrate them into productive proposals, and the persuasiveness to motivate others to adopt solutions that advance society.

Given the range of public issues and the way each individual's interest in political matters varies over time, this can only be done by examining the entire electorate during each election cycle and letting every voter influence the outcome of each election to the best of their desire and ability.

This approach has two drawbacks. One is the seeming difficulty of sifting through the huge number and broad diversity of the populace. When examined, we find that problem is no different than harvesting grain. It is simply a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff. That is neither difficult nor time-consuming, if we use the right sifting mechanism.

The other drawback is more difficult. We cannot achieve democracy until we achieve humility. We must be able to admit (at least to ourselves) that there are others whose perspectives are better suited to address common concerns than our own. For the least capable among us, that's a pill they may find hard to swallow.

Conclusion

Political parties, in their omnivorous quest for power have, during my lifetime, gone a long way toward destroying the greatness of my homeland. Unrestrained, they will succeed.

It need not be so.

Those who seek good government need not tolerate the corruption of party politics. We do not need an adversarial political process that sets one faction against another to achieve power; we need to let the American people select from among themselves those individuals with the qualities required to advocate the common interest and resolve matters of public concern. In other words, we must change the way we select our representatives.

We have the technological ability to support a more democratic method; the big hurdle is to get people to acknowledge the need for change. Many fall victim to the common malady of believing our press clippings. We've been told so many times through so many years that our political system is the best in the world, some of us can't admit it is a cesspool of corruption, funded by special interests that buy the laws we endure.

Most Americans assume political parties are legitimate centers of power under our Constitution. They're not. Nothing in our Constitution authorizes, institutes or enables political parties, they were created by what George Washington called, "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men". We now see what they have done to our country. We must take back the power they usurped.

The difficulty lies, not in our Constitution, but in our will. There is no Constitutional bar to devising a more democratic process; the only impediment is ourselves. We must want to build a political system that puts public interest above partisanship, a method that responds to vested interests but is not controlled by them.

Political systems are always an embodiment of human nature. Since we can not divorce our political institutions from our nature, we must learn to harness our nature. The political process we build must make virtue a desirable attribute in those who seek political advancement. That is best done by having candidates compete with each other for advancement; they will not overlook their competitors' flaws and, knowing that, will have to maintain their own integrity.

Once one transcends the arrogance of those political theorists who are so blinded by their own brilliance they are unable to see the wealth of talent around them; once one realizes that the human race has no shortage of gifted people with integrity, the road to a viable democracy is less unclear and we can start to sketch a few basic requirements for a democratic political process: It ...

  • must let every member of the electorate participate in the process to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability.
  • must let those who do not wish to participate opt out.
  • must provide a practical way for the people to select, from among themselves, the individuals they believe have the qualities needed to resolve the issues of the time.
  • must recognize that the individuals chosen for public office at one time may not be the best individuals to address the public concerns of a different time.
  • must ensure that candidates for public office are examined by people with a vital interest in the selection process and who are in a position to influence their acceptance or rejection.
  • I would like to work with those who see the need to create a better political system.