Thursday, March 30, 2006

Unresponsive Leaders (Nephew's Homework)

I received an email from my brother, Steve, yesterday asking for some help on his stepson's homework:

> I am sending this out to a few key individuals on behalf of my stepson, Mike,
> who has to write an essay for school on the topic of "How our Leaders are not
> Responsive to the Majority of the American People." . . .

My other brother, Miles, replied, in part:
> ... The old question
> is, "Did you elect the person to represent your opinion? Or did you elect the
> person for their judgment when a decision needs to be made?" ...

Here's my response and input into the essay, for what it's worth:

If you want to get technical about it, the latter is true. The United States was set up to be a democratic republic. Democratic referring to the selection of the representatives, republic being the form by which those representatives would govern. The founders did not envision, and would have thought crazy, any sort of system where the people made decisions for themselves. They referred to that sort of direct voting as "mobocracy."

(Originally, citizens did not even vote for their U.S. Senators; they were chosen by the state legislatures. It wasn't until 1913 and the 17th Amendment that direct election of Senators came about - More on the Progressive movement in a minute...)

Over the years, there has been more direct democracy, including direct election of Senators, the introduction of recall, initiative, and referendum at the state level (many, but not all states), and now even discussion of canning the electoral college.

So, I suppose the question for Mike's essay could be, is this a good thing? Do we like being a "true democracy" where the whim of public opinion is worth more than either facts or history, or would we rather stick with the founders and go for a republic where we select the "best and the wisest" to make decisions on our behalf?

When the Progressive movement (1890's-1920) introduced direct election of Senators and the initiative process, they argued that the republican form of government was simply a step on the evolution from monarchy to democracy. The Progressives believed that the people should be the watchdog of the government, not the other way around. They also introduced the civil service, attempting to separate the administration of our nation from the clutches of corrupt politicians and cronyism.

[The Progressive movement rose out of the corruption of the post civil war era, where we had single party rule (the Republicans), a host of scandals (from cover-up in Lincoln's assassination to Tea Pot Dome), a thrown election or two (Samuel Tilden beat Rutherford B. Hayes), and culminating in the assassination of James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau, "a disappointed office seeker" (ie: he didn't get the cushy government job he thought he deserved)].

Since the Progressive era (Progressive presidents include both Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson), literacy rates have only climbed. If the Progressives felt that the mass of illiterate, ill-fed immigrants at the turn of the last century could choose their own fate, then certainly our modern, well-educated electorate, with 24-hour access to news and opinion, can do the same, and even better.

So, what could be wrong with that? "Money and corruption are ruining the land. Crooked politicians betray the working man." The initiative process itself has been hi-jacked by the big monied interests. The people's ultimate tool to enact legislation is nearly impossible for a small group of citizens to use. The cost of collecting signatures and qualifying an initiative for the ballot in this state makes it prohibitive for all but the best funded causes and "special" interests.

(BTW: I HATE the term "special interest." It is used as a pejorative to describe -other people's- interests. In truth, we are ALL special interests to somebody else. The NRA and Handgun Control are each interest groups. Which one is your buddy looking out for you, and which one is "special," depends solely on your point of view.)

Beyond the "money and corruption" argument for what went wrong, I would also say that many of the issues are far more complicated as well. When it took three months to send a battleship across an ocean, wars took deliberation. When you can press a button and wipe out a city on the other side of the globe, decisions must be made quite differently. Likewise, technology also changes the administration of our nation, and makes it far more complicated.

The Progressives thought that once women had the right to vote (19th Amendment, 1920), citizens could vote for Senator (17th, 1913), and the initiative process was spreading across the states, their work was done. They didn't envision even the need for the Civil Rights Movement. They would have been entirely unprepared and ill-equipped for Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the rest.

Our own lives have gotten more complicated as well. We are not the simple agrarian nation we once were. Citizens cannot be called upon to fully understand the nuances of all the issues facing the nation today. It's not that we're stupid; it's just simply not realistic that we would be specialists in all that needs to be mastered.

And mastery is what it takes. A novice legislator is useless. The reason senior legislators have power is that they actually know what they're doing. It takes professional legislators to run a government today; it's not a job for amateurs and dilettantes. Jefferson's vision of the yeoman legislator making wise decisions for the nation and then returning to his farm is a naïve dream today.

From here, you can get some idea of why our "leaders" might not be responsive to the majority of the people.

Or you could argue that our "leaders" are TOO responsive to the majority of the people. An argument could be made that the mess we have today is the result of governing through poling. The reason I insist on putting "leaders" in quotation marks is that they have failed to lead us. They simply check the insta-polls to decide which side of a fence they should stand on.

But insta-polls do not get to the heart of any issue. Initial opinions of the people on most issues are pure emotion and are un-hindered by any checking of the facts, any understanding of the history surrounding an issue, and damn little thought about the repercussions of our actions.

It is the leader's job to explain the intricacies of these issues to the people (not make up excuses and justifications) and actually LEAD public opinion, not simply follow it.

You could argue that we have exactly the government we deserve (Who are you going to vote for the guy who raises your taxes to pay for what you asked for, or the guy who'll give you whatever you want and send the bill to you kid?).

As H. L. Menken once put it, "The masses are asses."

Long live the republic,

- krg

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