The Death of Representation
We hear a lot of talk about how desirable it would be to have bi-partisan legislation. Oddly, however, a piece of legislation can be considered bi-partisan if it has the support of only one Republican in a Democratically controlled congress. And yet, we don’t hear anything about representation and that member loyalty to the party has actually resulted in the death of representation.
Although each party these days, especially the Progressive wing of the Democratic party, talks about the importance of maintaining “our democracy,” there can be no democracy without true representation. At the same time, such false piety when it comes to “our democracy” really misses the point. The U.S. Constitution does not create a democracy, but a republic. The first allegiance of Congress, then, is to the public interest, not the power objective of each respective party.
At best, the U.S. is a representative democracy, but if there is no true representation, it cannot even be that. The framers of the Constitution envisaged a House of Representatives that would be close to the people. That was the primary reason for the House to stand for election every two years. The Senate, however, was envisaged as representing the states. Each state would get two senators, regardless of population size, to denote coequal sovereignty between the states.
Members of the House would represent their district, and the number of districts in a state would be contingent on the population size of each state. That meant that each member’s constituency would be the district; not the political party each was affiliated with. And each senator’s constituency would be each’s own state; not the political party each senator was affiliated with. In principle, the Senate would take a broader view than the House, because its constituencies were indeed broader than the House’s.
Today it appears that members of Congress primarily represent their parties, and often at the expense of their districts. The framers of the Constitution took a dim view of political parties. In their view, they were no different than selfish factions which were inimical to republican government. Factions were considered evil because they placed their self-interests above those of the public interest.
In Federalist Paper #10 James Madison writes about the evils of factions. For Madison factions were interest groups, guilds, various industry organizations, political parties, and of course the states themselves. His solution to factions was to ironically have more because increasing the numbers would effectively dilute the power of each one. Members of Congress overwhelmed by too many factions would be forced to look for the common denominator among them, and that common denominator would be deemed the public interest.
One implication is that a democracy serving the public interest would require a multitude of parties; not just two. Democracies in Europe have multiparty systems. With a two party system, and one where parties can exercise discipline over its members, members are simply not representing their districts. If they were, we would hear any number of cases where members of Congress are voting against the party leadership because that is what their districts want.
Members of Congress in contemporary politics simply tow the party line, and then use public opinion polls to sell the party position to their respective districts. Responsiveness to the district, even if it flies in the face of the party position is how you achieve representation. Polarizing partisanship actually undermines democracy because it does not allow for dissent. But within a congressional district, especially a diverse one, there is bound to be dissent. It is the free flowing marketplace of ideas that gives rise to democratic expression.
It is the type of partisanship characteristic of contemporary American politics that enables party leaders to bypass true democratic governance, which is often messy, and many times viewed as a pain. Some of the framers, like Thomas Jefferson, saw party government as a means of overcoming the constitutional structure of checks and balances, which itself, because it required consensus, meant that nothing could get done. For his part, Madison, the architect of checks and balances who railed against faction, would as Speaker of the House ram through Jefferson’s party positions.
Partisan leaders all too often view allegiance to the party as a way to bypass true democratic governance in order to shore up their power. The last thing they care to hear are the wishes of the masses. Opinion polling is not there to be informed, but to manipulate the public. The same leaders who decry authoritarianism in the name of “our democracy” are only too happy to be authoritarian in order to preserve their power.
If democracy is what we want, then compromise is essential because that is the art of the democratic process, built on consensus. But when AOC makes it clear that she will blow up any infrastructure bill that doesn’t include her Progressive demands, we are effectively hearing that representation, and by extension democracy, that interferes with her power machinations cannot be tolerated. But then this is the same AOC that chased Amazon and any number of jobs out of her district because it was contrary to her ideological objectives.
It is also for this reason that the needs and interests of the middle class have all but been ignored. Party leaders who serve the interests of the elites, who for the most part support globalism, don’t care for the plight of the middle class, whom they see as backwards. That members only demonstrate their allegiance to their parties actually frees them from having to listen to their constituents in their districts.
We have unfortunately become a country whereby the preferences of the party override the interests of congressional districts. The legislative branch of government in the name of democracy has become the antithesis of democracy. Is it any wonder, then, why fewer people trust the government and have no confidence in Congress?