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Op-ed: What we need is less democracy

Published June 6, 2014 4:16 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In last week's Tribune, Kirk Jowers offered a thoughtful and hopeful perspective on the future of the U.S. political system. Jowers expressed faith that senior leaders such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, together with the optimistic young people he and I are both privileged to mentor on our respective campuses, can remedy the dysfunction that now plagues our system. I wish I shared his optimism.

Jowers correctly noted that political posturing and ideological hyperventilation have supplanted compromise and problem solving in Washington. Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that an alliance of the young and the wise will change any of this. Populist democracy resides at the core of our political paralysis. As populists, we celebrate the wisdom and virtue of all the people: rich or poor, powerful or powerless, informed or not so informed. We take pride in these values, and rightfully so.

In the political system, however, poorly conceived attempts to advance these values have become fundamentally counterproductive. John Dewey once wrote that "the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy." Not necessarily. Not at all.

One fundamental defect in democracy arises from vast disparities in individual incentives and abilities to participate in politics. Senior citizens, for example, often depend on government for health care and income, giving them substantial incentive to be politically attentive. Additionally, they often have flexibility with their time, reducing their "costs of participating" in politics. The result, as any congressional staffer will tell you, is that they lobby the government ferociously.

Much the same holds for other interest groups and political ideologues. High stakes in particular issues, and intense value commitments, provide strong motivation to engage politically. Organization and communications technology facilitate political participation, reducing its "cost."

Many "democratizing reforms" designed to level the playing field in favor of the general public have had precisely the opposite effect. Reformers have promoted primary elections, ballot propositions, campaign finance regulation, and voter-driven presidential nominations as ways of bringing government closer to the people. Instead, unintended consequences of these reforms have made the system user-hostile. They have produced elections that are vastly more expensive and complicated. Not one person in ten can explain how presidential nominations are determined. The 2012 elections cost roughly $6 billion. Data from 2008 indicate that less than 1 percent of the population accounts for more than 80 percent of this money. More than 95 percent contribute nothing.

Worse yet is the profound effect that these "democratizing reforms" have had on our political culture. As we become more bewildered and suspicious, we demand more than ever that our representatives reflect public opinion directly, and not think for themselves. But representatives can respond to citizen preferences only when they are articulated. Much of the general public is now so alienated that it has surrendered. It articulates anger, but little that is actionable. When politicians deal with the general public, the rewards are few and the trials are many.

In contrast, interest groups and ideologues articulate their policy views eagerly. They greet politicians with open arms and rich rewards. They vote on an informed and predictable basis, and, by and large, they also pay the campaign bills. To survive in our political culture, politicians have no alternative other than to defend the positions of these groups and ideologues. This paralyzes the system.

The constitutional framers saw dangers in the populist democracy we practice in the U.S. today. The framers envisioned representatives not purely as transmitters of public opinion, but instead as brokers who would act upon a broad and dispassionate vision of their constituents' interests. As James Madison put it in Federalist 10, the representative's task is to "refine and enlarge the public's views."

A constituent once famously wrote to a Texas congressman: "We didn't send you to Washington to make intelligent decisions; we sent you to represent us!" To have a truly representative political system we need, somehow, to reverse that expectation. To have more democracy, we must also have less of it.

Michael Lyons is a professor of political science at Utah State University.