Friday, February 10, 2006

Why doesn't representative democracy work?

In the literature on democracy, writers have identified several different approaches to achieving a democratic society. For our purposes here, we can make a distinction between direct democracy and representative democracy. In a direct democracy, which was approximated in classical Athens, the people themselves, through some kind of deliberative process, make the important societal decisions. In a representative democracy, which is the system we have in our modern "democracies," the will of the people is expressed indirectly, by voting for parties and candidates.

A representative democracy, in theory, is a compromise between hierarchical government and popular sovereignty. These societies are ruled from the top, through hierarchical governmental institutions, by officials who have considerable discretionary power - and in that sense these societies are hierarchically governed. But since the top officials are elected, there is some hope that their decisions will reflect popular sentiment, and be directed towards the common good. The hierarchical aspect of a representative democracy, the theory goes, provides efficiency and order, while the electoral aspect ensures democratic guidance.

However if we look at the historical experience of representative democracies, both our modern ones and going back as far the Roman Republic, we find that the actual behavior of these systems has never matched the theory. When we bring in the realities of political parties, expensive election campaigns, competing propaganda messages, hidden elite agendas, government secrecy, etc., we always end up with a system whose dynamics are quite different than those presumed in the theory of representative democracy.

Rather than a simple dynamics - involving only voters, candidates, and issues - we get a dynamics based on competing factions. Political parties compete for funding support and for voter loyalty; grassroots movements, special-interest groups, and wealthy elite factions compete amongst one another to influence public opinion and government policy, etc. This is not an equal struggle: wealthy elites, with their ability to fund campaigns - and in various ways to influence candidates, the economy, the press, and government officials - end up having a distinct advantage in the competition among factions. This was true in the Roman republic, and it is true in every so-called "democracy" today.

What we actually end up with in representative democracies is a close collusion between top political leaders and wealthy elites. It is in those elite circles that policy agendas are debated and decisions are made about which policy packages will be presented to voters. If there is strong competition between different elite factions, then we typically see that expressed as parties with different programs, and the people then have the opportunity to choose among different elite agendas. More recently, with the advent of neoliberalism and globalization, we see a growing consensus among top elites, and voters are increasingly left with an empty choice between tweedly dee and tweedly dum candidates.

There are to be sure significant differences, as regards democratic responsiveness, between governments - as for example between Switzerland and the UK, or Norway and the USA, or the USA of the 1960s vs. the USA of today. Popular sentiment does have some influence on policy, and the existence of the vote places some limits on elite designs - in some places and times more than others. But the basic pattern of top-down policy making, with elite agendas being sold to populations, is universally characteristic of representative democracies now and in the past.

Every once in a while popular sentiment raises its voice, in some kind of mass movement or wave of popular consensus, and frequently this has led to policy gains for the people vis a vis elites. This is the only way the democratic aspect of representative democracies has been able to find effective expression. In this sense we can characterize the dynamics of representative democracies as being a struggle between the people and elites, where elites routinely control the setting of policy agendas, and the people occasionally wake up and temporarily disturb those elite agendas.

In representative democracies, elites tend to push for ever-greater concentration of power in the central government. This has been clear over the course of American history, and has been dramatically evident in the short history of the EU, beginning with the Maastricht Treaty. The more power can be centralized, the easier it is for elites to pursue their agendas, and more difficult it becomes for the people to disturb those agendas. From this perspective, we can see popular struggles for democratic reforms as being an attempt to resist the ongoing elite project of power centralization. In the case of the recent No votes against the proposed EU constitution, we see a very clear example of people struggling against an elite-sponsored centralization initiative.

In the American Constitution, we find perhaps the most successful effort yet made to create a representative democracy and avoid the over-centralization of power. In the early days of the republic, power was devolved successfully downwards, with cities, counties, and states having considerable local sovereignty, and clear limits were set on the power of the federal government in Washington. But even this relatively well-crafted system succumbed incrementally to the forces of centralization, until finally today, under the neocons, even significant parts of the Constitution itself have been de facto nullified.

In envisioning a new democratic system, we might think we could do better than America's Founding Fathers, and design a representative democracy with even stronger safeguards against the centralization of power. I suggest that we would be deluding ourselves. In the compromise between hierarchical government and popular sovereignty - which is the defining characteristic of representative democracy - the tendency toward hierarchical centralization will always eventually win out. The forces pushing toward centralization - both elite pressures and legitimate concerns for efficiency - act relentlessly over time. In the contest between stone and water, the stone, no matter how strong, eventually succumbs to erosion.

At its best, representative democracy provides only a very limited version of democracy, and it always goes downhill from there, as regards responsiveness to popular sentiment. If we want to establish genuinely democratic societies, we need to look for models of governance that are not based the delegation of power to hierarchical institutions, and which enable people to participate directly in the process of setting the agendas of their societies.