Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Representation Question (again)

Reading John Nichols' "post-mortem" analysis ("Bye Bayh") of Indiana Senator Evan Bayh's decision to retire has returned me, once again, to why it is that our government continues to be so ineffective, no matter how dire the circumstances. Nichols' point of view is that the Democratic Party should not be bending over to make compromises with conservative Democrats for the sake of controlling 60 seats in the Senate. Nichols would rather see the Party go for broke over a progressive agenda. I sympathize with his position. The Republican Party seems to be on much firmer ground in attracting voters on the basis of "values," often by convincing those voters that the Democrats care about nothing other than "playing politics." The Republicans, of course, are playing hardball politics just as much as the Democrats; but their strategists are better at keeping this little pea of wisdom concealed as they play their shell game.

What gets lost in both the Democratic compromising and the Republican shell shuffling is that, left to their own devices, most people are not particularly interested in ideologies. They simply want to delegate the voices they would have in a "pure" democracy to representatives who will have the time and (hopefully) the wisdom to provide them with a satisfactory present and a promising future. This is the fundamental motivation behind the first Article of the United States Constitution. It is important to remember that the Constitution, itself, was the product of a gathering of representatives, who then had the responsibility of taking the result back to the people they represented and convincing them to vote for it. (The whole purpose of The Federalist Papers was to facilitate that convincing process.)

The "official" reason for Bayh's retirement was that he felt that the Congress had become too partisan. This is so easy to say that it hardly means anything. One can just as easily accuse the Congress of being not partisan enough, if one allows the adjective to expand beyond the boundaries of the usual political parties. The effective representative puts the interests of those he represents ahead of his own, but he must also put those same interests ahead of the political party whose organization may have facilitated his election. In other words, when being partisan towards the "political machine" becomes more important than being partisan towards the electorate itself, the electorate is no longer being effectively represented; and the principles of our Constitution are in jeopardy. This is why John Adams was so strongly opposed to having political parties in the first place, and his decision to stand on that principle probably contributed to his failure to get elected for a second term as President.

There are, of course, organizational assets to political parties. To some extent they reflect the precept that, when a government grows to a certain size, the representatives need representatives. This is because getting things done in politics is ultimately about having the right conversations with the right people, and there are only so many conversations that an individual can conduct each day. On the other hand we tend to think of conversations as limited by face-to-face contact time; and this may actually be a setting in which the Internet can change matters in a positive way. Consider the hypothesis that a well-managed and properly secured system of social software could broaden the scope of the conversations that a representative could conduct. If that hypothesis could be warranted, the representative might have less need of the organizational benefits of a political party, just as we have seen that Internet-based funding and campaigning is beginning to jeopardize the power of machine politics.

Perhaps all those announcements of exodus from the Congress are delivering the same message of an unwillingness to be part of a government that is no longer "of the people, by the people, for the people." Where are those with the wisdom to deliberate over whether this might be the case? If so, where are those with both the wisdom and the will to do something about it?

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