In a democracy, everything about the government stems from the participation of the citizens. Government is a reflection not only of the choices citizens make, but even more importantly how they participate. If the methods of participation are very restricted, citizens will have weak control of the government, and government will only weakly work in the public interest. If the methods of participation allow citizens to have a great deal of involvement, they will have strong control of the government and government will clearly work in the public interest. Democracy is defined by how citizen participation is defined, and the government can be no better than the methods of participation allow it to be.
We have defined political participation as a system of elections where millions of citizens vote at once for candidates to represent us in government. Therefore, for all practical purposes, the control we have over government is limited by what is possible with voting in elections. We use elections to determine who will represent us, but the nature of our government is determined primarily by the nature of votes and elections.
Are elections involving millions of voters a good system of participation? Do mass elections give citizens a lot of control over government or very little? What are the consequences of mass elections?
Large Numbers Lead to Corruption and Manipulation
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives represent on average 710,787 people each. As a result, the vast majority of people are unable to meet and communicate directly with candidates so they cannot truly judge whether they are smart, honest, or hardworking. Citizens have no way of knowing whether candidates really care about the things they care about, or if they are simply ambitious—willing to say and do anything to gain power and put on a good show. Instead, we are forced to rely on images we see in the media, coverage in the news, and political advertising.
This enormous ratio of voters to representative creates a disconnect—a barrier of numerical distance between the people and candidates and the representatives who are elected. Elections are about marketing and public relations rather than substance and informed decisions. They are the polar opposite of the hiring process for every other job in the country. Nearly all elections for public office in America are characterized by similarly enormous ratios.
This numerical barrier creates a need on the part of candidates—candidates need help financing and organizing campaigns (a military term) so they can influence and motivate people to vote for them. It just so happens that there are plenty of special interest groups who are happy to satisfy that need with money ($5.3 billion in all 2008 national elections and $3.2 billion in all 2010 state elections) and other electoral assistance. This creates a second set of constituents that candidates are accountable to once elected. Special interest groups, as it turns out, are very good at holding politicians accountable on the issues they care about, whereas disconnected voters are not.
From the very start of their political careers, in order to be elected candidates must raise money, which forces them to subvert their own morals and the interests of the public in order to win an election—they are forced to become corrupt. This serves to weed out the most ethical candidates and leaves us with candidates who are driven by ambition and self-interest. In addition, since candidates cannot get to know voters on a personal basis, they learn that they must manipulate voters with political marketing campaigns and by projecting carefully crafted images in the news in order to achieve their goals. Politics therefore becomes a game of corruption and manipulation. In general, candidates who refuse to play these games don’t stand a chance, while those who are most willing to subvert the interests of the public and manipulate the public are able to realize the biggest advantage. Politicians undoubtedly have good intentions, but these forces are unavoidable.
It is important to realize that it is the disconnect of voters that creates the need for the money that leads to corruption. Therefore, campaign finance laws only get at the symptom of the problem—money—not the root of the problem, which is disconnect. Applying fixes to symptoms will only cause the root problem to be manifested differently, leading to unintended consequences.
Disconnected Voters Are Easily Manipulated
This disconnect has an equally significant effect on citizens. There is an inverse relationship between the size of any group and each member’s sense of responsibility to it. With increased size, members increasingly feel as if they are among strangers and therefore care less about the group and lose interest in it. The group becomes increasingly disorganized and ceases to be a real group at all. In politics, large ratios cause citizens to become increasingly less involved and less informed, which leads to irresponsible votes and a feeling of powerlessness. Voting is reduced to a ritual that many see no reason to participate in.
In addition, when we are disconnected, we have no first-hand knowledge of our representatives and of government, so we are left wide open to manipulation. For most of us, everything we know comes not from experience but from the information provided to us by the news media. How political news is selected for us and presented to us determines what we know. Our political reality is created entirely by people we don’t know and who are not accountable to us. Anyone able to present political information to us can shape our reality and influence us in a way that may not be consistent with our best interest. This is why political advertising and bias “news” is so effective.
People will never appreciate government so long as they are disconnected from it. Taxes will always be too high and government officials will always be incompetent and wasting their money. Unless either you or someone you personally know and trust is in government, you simply can’t know what is really going on, so you will inevitably be skeptical and mistrusting of it. To make matters worse, there will always be people who are willing to bash the government for their own self-interest—candidates who are trying to justify their election, the news media who are trying to attract a large audience, and special interests who are fighting for their own self-interest—thereby destroying public confidence in our government.
Large Numbers Make Accountability Impossible
Since our representatives work on hundreds of issues during their term in office, our highest concern should be holding them accountable on all issues rather than focusing on only a few hot issues. While a few hot issues may stir our emotions during a campaign, in the long run we stand to be impacted far more by the great majority of issues that are not hot campaign issues. Regulating banks before a financial collapse, dealing responsibly with foreign countries like Iraq before war erupts, and managing environmental regulations before oil spills are cases in point. Who we elect is actually less important of an issue than whether we are able to hold them accountable.
How well do we hold our representatives accountable?
Each of us are responsible for electing representatives when we vote, including the President, representatives in our state and national legislatures, governor, city council, mayor, school board, and many others. While these representatives are in office we hear little or nothing about the hundreds of issues they work on. And what little we do hear about is selectively filtered through the commercial news media, whose need to make a profit from selling advertising is not consistent with the public’s need for democracy and good government. Our government is divided between multiple branches—executive, legislative (split between House & Senate), and judicial; multiple levels—national, state, and local; and two warring political parties—whose member politicians are free to vote as they choose. In addition, our economy is primarily dependent on private sector actors, deeply intertwined with those of other countries, and subject to many long-term trends.
With millions of voters each casting votes for many offices and each representative working on hundreds of issues while in office, we have an infinitely complex system. The primary means by which we participate is with a vote—a binary form of communication—the simplest possible form of communication. It is hard to imagine how accountability is possible in this environment.
Even if voters do make good choices in elections, is it reasonable to expect that representatives will do the job citizens expect? All managers know that employees must be managed—given direction and held accountable for results in order for them to be productive and contribute to the goals of the organization. People need direction and oversight in order to do any job. How can representatives represent people they never meet? It is frightening that the people with the most important jobs in the country are held accountable the least.
We could assume, as the Framers of the Constitution did, that by electing men of exceptional wisdom and virtue (as they were) they will do the best thing for the country and they will not need to be held accountable, except perhaps by the news media. But if such people even exist, how would disconnected voters know how to identify them? And besides, relying on the news media creates enormous problems itself. (See “How the News Media Corrupts Democracy.”)
The Collective Action Problem
To complicate the situation, numerous groups who have a special interest in government policy get involved in elections in pursuit of their own agenda. Special interest groups contribute billions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians willing to support their agenda, vilify candidates who oppose their agenda, and carefully frame and market their political agenda to the public. Politicians use the money they collect to hire marketing specialists who help them create carefully crafted images, develop catchy campaign slogans, hype issues to targeted voters, run 30-second campaign ads, and vilify their competition. Citizens are reduced to mere pawns and elections are reduced to contests of influence.
This problem was aptly described by economist Mancur Olson in his book The Logic of Collective Action. His theory of Collective Action states that small groups with a common interest and who stand to realize greater benefits per capita have a greater incentive to collectively organize and advocate for political advantage than do larger groups, which find it more difficult to organize, and whose members stand to lose comparatively less per capita. Put another way, in politics, small groups with a concentrated interest generally trump larger groups with dispersed costs. The related “free rider” problem predicts that as the size of a group increases, so will the incentive of each individual to “ride free” on the efforts of others, thereby diluting the political power and effectiveness of the group and allowing a more motivated minority to defeat it.
As an example, sugar consumers far outnumber sugar producers. A tax on foreign sugar that forces up the domestic price of sugar benefits producers to a much greater extent than it harms individual consumers. Therefore, sugar producers have an incentive to organize into a group and contribute to elections and hire lobbyists in an effort to get a tax enacted so they can reap larger profits. Meanwhile, the small additional price paid by individual consumers is too insignificant to motivate them to organize and defend themselves from exploitation.
Who Controls the Government if Citizens Don’t?
If citizens can’t control the government, someone else will. Naturally it will be ambitious politicians and the special interests who back them, and those who are best organized, have the most resources, and are most dedicated to the task over the long term will prevail. They will use the government to satisfy their own self-interests, just as rulers have throughout history. Our politicians hold prestigious positions in society with great power and influence, and the best job security in America. Special interests enrich themselves at the public expense, creating an enormous drain on our economy. They pollute and destroy our environment in order to serve their own needs with no concern for what they are destroying or the health of citizens. They manipulate government policy as they see fit, creating a society where unfairness and injustice is common. Government is made to work against the public interest rather than for it.
We the people are reduced to mere subjects, governed by those with more power than we have. We are being oppressed, exploited, and robbed of our freedom in many thousands of small, and sometimes not so small, ways. In many cases we take it for granted—accepting that that’s the way things are and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Our system of government may look like democracy when we go to vote, but large numbers make real democracy impossible. Citizens are left with little or no control of government. There is no consideration made for size in our conception of democracy and this is a huge mistake. It’s phony democracy, and it’s hard to imagine how such a government could be sustainable over the long term.
How Local Electors Would Fix Democracy
Under a system of Local Electors, the community would be the most basic unit of government and would consist of only about 150 members. Candidates for Local Elector would be neighbors who we could realistically get to know so we could truly understand how honest, smart, and hardworking they are, and elect people we trust. Then, throughout their term of office, community members could easily maintain two-way communication with their Local Elector, convey their own needs and concerns, and hold them accountable for pursuing those needs and concerns. By electing Local Electors, we would be delegating the responsibilities of managing the government, just as we delegate medicine to doctors, plumbing to plumbers, and the teaching of our children to teachers.
Local Electors would in turn be part of a hierarchy of representatives. Each of them would be part of a small groups of Local Electors (around 150) who would elect low level office holders, set their agenda, and hold them accountable. Low level office holders in turn would do the same for higher level office holders. Communication and accountability would flow easily up and down the hierarchy, just as it does in a business. Citizens would be connected to the government by a chain of connected representatives. Everyone would have access to the new public news media, itself led by elected officials, which would report exactly what is needed to ensure accountability.
In this connected environment there would be no need for money, so corruption would cease to exist. Special interests would have no incentive to manipulate citizens since citizens would not be involved in electing office holders. Representation would be based on authentic relationships, which would make government responsive to the public.
Local Electors would transform a messy, chaotic democratic process into a simple, sensible, organized one.
How do we get there from where we are now?
If you are like most people, you are your own worst political enemy. All of your life you have been told you were participating in politics by reading the news occasionally and voting once or twice a year—if that. You have come to accept that you have no real political responsibilities and that you are free to do nothing at all if you please. Being restricted to voting in mass elections is easy but it makes us terribly apathetic. Unfortunately it’s all we know.
So long as you don’t truly participate you will be governed by those who do, and we will have a government that borders on madness. Nearly all of the problems in our government and many in our society are a consequence of our not truly participating in democracy—whether by choice or because we could not. The solution to these problems is a different approach to democracy that allows for real citizen participation—that makes participation natural and compelling.
Political participation under a system of Local Electors would consist of talking with those around you about issues you care about. And fortunately, that’s all you have to do to make Local Electors a reality. If you tell everyone you know about Local Electors, and do what is necessary to get them to learn about it and do the same, soon the entire country will know about it. If you contribute to our organization we can organize supporters and spearhead the effort. And if the American people support Local Electors, we will make it happen together.
Will you ride free and let us wither and disappear, or will you step up and take responsibility?
“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not as dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy”. – Montesquieu
Continue Reading: Why Political Parties Are Antithetical to Democracy