Sunday, May 24, 2009

Representatives without Representation

I have never been shy about criticizing the workings of the United States Government, but I have always tried to frame my criticisms in the context of the foundations of our Constitution and the ideals to which that document aspired. Most important among those foundations is the principle that our government is run by duly elected representatives to whom we delegate the responsibilities of making decisions and taking actions, rather than relegating those responsibilities to the "wisdom" of our own crowd in a democratic process in which every citizen would have a say in such decisions and actions. For that reason I found myself attracted to yesterday's contribution to Truthdig by Stanley Kutler, which began with the following paragraph:

Congress is broken. The framers of the Constitution, building on nearly six centuries of parliamentary experience, situated Congress at the heart of the American constitutional system. Representative government was believed to be the purest, and yet workable, means of self-government. For the past twenty-five years, however, Congress has made a joke of that system, as it has trivialized and mocked any meaningful representation in the sense that the makers of the Constitution framed it.

Kutler then proceeds to explicate that concept of "meaningful representation" through two sources contemporary to the drafting of the Constitution. The first is Edmund Burke:

Burke had much to say about the role of peoples’ representatives. He acknowledged that representatives owed the “strictest union . . . and the most unreserved communication” to their constituents, yet he insisted that representatives possess “independent judgment and enlightened conscience.” A representative must strike a delicate balance, offering constituents “his judgment,” said Burke, while bearing in mind that “he betrays, instead of serving [them], if he sacrifices it to [their] opinion.” Burke recognized it is easy to “run into the perilous extremes of servile compliance or wild popularity.” Instead, the interest of the whole community must be pursued, not some local, individual interest, or a “momentary enthusiasm.”

His second source is one of James Madison's contributions to The Federalist Papers (whose overall advocacy of a representative system has always struck me as the best antidote for too much "wisdom of crowds" Kool-Aid):

In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison saw the danger of representatives pandering to “factions,” or groups “actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest adverse to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.” Burke and Madison alike would be appalled by Congress’s ready acquiescence to executive power.

Kutler is in good company with this second source. A little over two years ago I discovered that it had been invoked by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the essay "Has Democracy a Future?," which took on explicitly the question of whether or not that future was being jeopardized by use of the Internet to empower that "wisdom of crowds." I cited the following passage from this essay:

Interactivity encourages instant responses, discourages second thoughts, and offers outlets for demagoguery, egomania, insult, and hate. Listen to talk radio! In too interactive a polity, a "common passion," as Madison thought, could sweep through a people and lead to emotional and ill-judged actions. Remembering the explosion of popular indignation when President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, one is grateful that the electronic town hall was not running the country in 1951. The Internet has done little thus far to foster the reasoned exchanges that in Madison’s words [The Federalist, Number 10] "refine and enlarge the public views."

Kutler's argument is that Congress has lost its "independent judgment and enlightened conscience," using the current debate (or lack thereof) over the future of the prison facilities at Guantanamo as a case study. I have no argument with his choice of case study or with his analysis, but I would have preferred had he less time demonstrating that Congress is broken and more on how it came to be broken. As Schlesinger pointed out, we have always had both individuals and mechanisms for swaying public opinion away from matters as subtle as "enlightened conscience." However, recent technology has brought the manipulation of public opinion to a new level at which the Constitutional ideal of representation has been placed in jeopardy:

The Computer Revolution offers wondrous new possibilities for creative destruction [my hyperlink]. One goal of capitalist creativity is the globalized economy. One—unplanned—candidate for capitalist destruction is the nation-state, the traditional site of democracy. The computer turns the untrammeled market into a global juggernaut crashing across frontiers, enfeebling national powers of taxation and regulation, undercutting national management of interest rates and exchange rates, widening disparities of wealth both within and between nations, dragging down labor standards, degrading the environment, denying nations the shaping of their own economic destiny, accountable to no one, creating a world economy without a world polity. Cyberspace is beyond national control. No authorities exist to provide international control. Where is democracy now?

I would suggest that the answer to Schlesinger's question is that the representative foundations of our government have now been replaced by plebiscitary processes enabled by Internet technology. Congress is broken because it can no longer function according to the principles under which it was constituted, and it can no longer function because its rulebook has been undermined. Schlesinger's invocation of the concept of creative destruction is particularly apposite, since it suggests that the loss of such rules is an entropic process that cannot, by its very nature, be reversed.

Forty years ago Gore Vidal was calling for a new constitutional convention. This suggestion has frequently been rejected on not only the grounds that you should not fix what is not broken but also the presumption that the delegates to the original Constitutional Convention were wiser than we could ever be. Kutler has now made a case to dismiss the first of those reasons. As to the second I would suggest that we are not necessarily more foolish than our founding ancestors and we may even be the wiser for the experiences of social pathology that have played out around the world since our Constitution was ratified. Whether or not Vidal still holds to his forty-year-old suggestion, I think the time has come to take it seriously.

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