Wednesday, October 01, 2008

An open and shut case

I've been away, so I've only just found a moment to post something I've been itching to say for days. And I know modesty should forbid me saying so, but the events of the past week have underlined just how important my odd obsession with direct vs representative democracy is, and how mistaken anyone who has downplayed this question has been.

This week, it has been demonstrated that politicians that are in more contested seats have voted differently to those that aren't. They have, effectively, allowed themselves to be mandated on a massive issue.

There is a world, somewhere, where it's possible to argue that liberal democracies will benefit from the stalling of US Congress earlier this week, but I really don't understand it's inhabitants at all. I understand those from the left who don't mind watching capitalism come crashing about our ears. I also, despairingly, understand that there is a libertarian perspective that says that all we need is even more medicine. But I don't think that most of the voters who have been jamming the switchboards of Congressmen are from either camp.

Politicians who have allowed themselves to be mandated by their voters have made a decision that they know to be damaging and wrong. Unless the principle of representative democracy can be widely sold and re-established (and it's on the wane over here as well), we have seen that this democratic failing has the potential to seriously damage - and perhaps, ultimately to destroy - liberal democracy.

The US has - demonstrably - more of a direct democracy than anywhere in the EU. Politicians are routinely stalked and triangulated by single issue pressure groups, and voters can have no confidence that their representatives are adding anything to the quality of public governance.

No wonder no-one trust their politicians.

Anthony has offered a much milder view than mine here - but he illustrates just how impoverished the understanding of the word 'democracy' is - even on a site like OpenDemocracy.

So. Advocates of a more direct democracy within our current framework, and advocates of Thatcherism: Both proved to be utterly stupidly wrong in the space of a couple of weeks!


donpaskini said...

Here's an alternative way of analysing the same set of events:

A powerful special interest group has been trying to stampede Congress into giving it an enormous handout. Thanks to the workings of good ol' representative democracy, what's happened instead is that there has been a bit more time for sensible reflection and discussion about whether that is really what is needed.

Instead of the representatives in swing districts being the ones who were mandated, the ones under the thumb of the special interests are the ones who ignored their constituents, and were acting in accordance with particular vested interests (e.g. most of them will have taken large sums of money from the people who were pushing the bailout).

The truth is probably somewhere in between your and my analyses, but since people like Stiglitz and Krugman (hardly examples of libertarians or revolutionaries) are amongst those who thought it was a bad bill, I think the threat to liberal democracy can be overstated.

I also think that pressure from constituents is an essential principle of representative democracy - if calls are running 40:1 against a measure in your district, then any good representative should take that into consideration, otherwise it is less a case of being a representative, and more a kind of benign autocrat.

Paulie said...

OK, OK. Fair point. I can't see anything to disagree with in the first three paras there.

I still disagree with your last one though. I know it sounds otherworldly to say this, but no amount of weight of opinion should interfere with one's judgment, should it? Would you say the same thing to a juror?

If a lot of people are making a point that you don't agree with, maybe you have to ask yourself if you're stupid or have some blindspot or a lack of proportion, or something. But if you're still not convinced having exercised your self-doubt to the full, you have to trust your own lights.

I'm no classical scholar, but I'm told that Socrates would be with me on this one.

snowflake5 said...

The USA is a republic rather than a democracy - which means that the founding fathers didn't really want a system where the voter had to decide in a referendum what to do on everything, but elected a representative to make decisions on his behalf, taking things in the round.

Something has gone badly wrong in their system, but it might be down to the people they choose to become representatives these days. Not much political or moral courage among them.

FWIW I agree with you about the dangers of direct democracy - California is one of the few states where they have referendums on all sorts of things, and as a result they have a nasty budget deficit, because voters choose more spending in one referendum, and less taxes in another, and are never asked to look at things as a whole.

There was an infamous referendum there that froze property tax in the 70's - and the freeze is still in force. Warren Buffet wrote a scathing article pointing out that he paid more property tax on his $500k property in Omaha than he did on his $4 million property in California, and that Californian inability to raise property tax was the cause of their deficit. But they will never solve it due to the need to have a referendum to un-freeze the freeze of the 70's vote.

Paulie said...

"....but it might be down to the people they choose to become representatives these days. Not much political or moral courage among them."

Is it not the case that the problem isn't diagnosed, hasn't been widely recognised, discussed and agreed upon. To use the language of the moment, aren't you putting the blame on individuals for a systemic problem?

As far as I can see it, you can't put this any less strongly than this:

The main -perhaps the only - focus of the liberal left should be that we need to establish an across-the-board political consensus on the dangers of direct democracy.

We will acheive more by the way of social progress by doing this than by advocating any particular progressive policies.

Chris said...

Without other details - demographics and the like - isn't there a bit of chicken and egg here? That is to say, is it the case that politicians with safe seats are more able to vote on their own lights because they are safe, or is it that their seats are safe because they more often do what they're told?

cian said...

I think the mainstream analysis of what happened is pretty wrong headed. For a start, a large part of the Republican party voted against for (rather stupid) ideological reasons, and a chunk of the Democrats probably did as well. Secondly, due to gerrymandering most Representatives are not at risk of losing their seat, they're at risk of losing their party's nomination (the votes for which have already happened). Congressmen typically face much tougher pressure from their various funders, than voters.

There are better arguments in the US for the point you're trying to make. The ongoing disaster that is California is one. Or the system of electing judges, police chiefs, etc - which has a hugely corrupting influence on the criminal justice system.

Incidentally - haven't Labour come out rather well from all of this. Not only do they seem to have taken sensible, but radical steps in extremely difficult circumstances, but the Conservatives have fallen off the planet with that moron George Osbourne treated as something of an irrelevance.

Paulie said...


"There are better arguments in the US for the point you're trying to make."

I'm concious that this is far from being one of my better posts, and I'm relieved that what you've said here is the case.