Thoughts on Representative Democracy

A sound implementation of Representative Democracy must capitalize on the differences between people. Plato, if not others before him, felt 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 incomplete view of the people has survived through the ages and forms the cornerstone of political thought today.

The weakness in this concept is twofold. The first is the notion that the only proper view of democracy is as a condition in which all the people make all the decisions. The second is the failure to recognize that 'the people' is made up of many individuals: some good, some bad; some skilled, some unskilled; some with integrity, some deceitful; some brilliant, some dull; some sociable, some unfriendly; some interested in politics, some not. The task of representative democracy is to sift through these many types of individuals and elevate those best suited to serve as advocates of the common good.

The public perception of the value of voting is flawed. The word "voting" invokes an image of individuals visiting polls and expressing a preference for one or another of the options made available to them by political parties. We need to recognize that voting is not limited to that vision; we can vote in many ways, some more powerful than the ballot.

When the people vote for candidates chosen by political parties, the government is controlled, not in the voters, but by those who choose the candidates. Voting for options provided by others does not give the people control of their government; it is neither free nor democratic. It is top-down, not bottom-up, and, as such, is the antithesis of democracy. It expresses our status as subjects of those who defined our options.

Another flaw is the influence of one-way communications. In Plato's time 'the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians' was spread by orators. Although the technology of communication has advanced since then, its effectiveness has not improved because such communication, whether the printed word or the broadcast word, is uni-directional - from an author or an announcer to an audience. One-way communications propagate the inadequacies and biases of the source.

We know, intuitively, that true knowledge cannot be attained unless assertions are challenged and the underlying concepts examined. In other words, the acquisition of knowledge requires discourse. It is, and must be, a multi-directional undertaking. At present, our political infrastructure does not encourage public examination of public issues.

To correct this shortcoming, we need a political process that lets everyone participate. Dr. Alasdair MacIntyre of Notre Dame University, feels:

"Human beings, as the kind of creatures we are, need the internal goods that can only be acquired through participation in politics if we are to flourish."

Another flaw in the current implementation of Representative Democracy is the influence of lobbying on the law-making process. This is discussed in detail in the section Thoughts on Lobbying.

Government cannot be better than the people we elect to run it. The challenge of Representative Democracy is to seek out and elect representatives that advocate the common good. Dr. Jane Mansbridge, in a paper titled, "A 'Selection Model' of Political Representation", said:

"As a general rule, the higher the probability that the objectives of principal and agent may be aligned, the more efficient it is for the principal to invest resources ex ante, in selecting the required type, rather than ex post, in monitoring and sanctioning. If these objectives are well aligned, citizens will be better served by a constituent-representative relationship based primarily on selection than by one based primarily on monitoring and sanctions. From a normative perspective, the selection model also tends to focus the attention of both citizens and representatives on the common interest."

Representative Democracy, a bottom-up concept, has been forestalled by a top-down political mechanism. It should not be too difficult for thoughtful people to conceive a political process that lets every member of the community participate in the selection of representatives whose objectives are aligned with their own.