Monday, November 14, 2011

Representative democracy and its mutation

By Bill Kraus

The idea was that the people would elect people to represent them and their interests. Those they elected would become more expert at the job of governing and would lead where leadership was needed never losing sight of their followers.

If they tried to lead where their followers didn’t want to go or if they were defective in other ways, their constituents would lead them. To the door. At the next election.

For many reasons this simple idea has been complicated and corrupted.

The forces, events, whatever, that have warped what the founding fathers wrought and envisioned, in no particular order of importance or sequence, include:

Mass media. Person-to-person, face-to-face campaigning was replaced by third-party communications and contacts as the country got bigger and the peoples’ connection to their representatives frayed.

Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. At one point in time not so long ago, the people were the medium. I have on my wall a picture of a fully representative gathering of the citizens of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, who had assembled to pick up campaign literature which they in turn would take to their fellow citizens on a cold October Saturday. The message they were delivering was in the literature, but the fact that they were doing the delivering was an important part of the message.

Mass media was in play in the form of advertising, of course, but advertising did not become dominant until television became an important part of our lives and money a more important part of campaigns and campaigning.

Outsourcing. As campaigns professionalized and the medium depersonalized, campaigning evolved into a kind of arm’s-length, third-person, segmented-appeals operation.

The people didn’t gather anymore. They sent their money. Endorsements were still important as long as the endorsers were important, but the heart of campaign activity was professional marketers and the money to advance candidacies through the media.

As the people backed off the money to fund these longer, more expensive campaigns flowed in, and as candidates became convinced that money was crucial to success a new and ugly kind of beholdenism appeared.

The idea that candidates were being bought, or at least rented, became widespread. The people began to suspect that their representatives were representing them less and the people with the money that was fueling campaigns more.

The visible reaction to this suspicion is that iconic political leaders with big followings of enthusiasts are dwindling, and most politicians have favorable ratings below 50 percent.

The active reaction has been a turn to several anti-representative government ideas. Initiative and referendum, with all its flaws, is rising in popularity. Recalls of candidates or of specific pieces of legislation are gaining traction as well. The politics of the street--protesting--is no longer an occasional and small part of the game.

Even the free speech worshipping Supreme Court has taken judicial notice of this phenomenon by urging legislators to reveal the specific sources of the money that the people think is buying their representatives’ votes.

Wisconsin legislators are displaying the indifference, which is the occupational disease of fanaticism, by ignoring this supplication. A prior Speaker of our Assembly trashed a disclosure bill which the state Senate had narrowly and reluctantly passed. His successor has told his caucus that there will be no disclosure legislation coming out of his Legislature.

Their unstated but obvious reason for this legislative deafness is a fear that disclosure of donors would shut down the money flow needed to keep the incumbents in power.

Will the people who now suspect that they are not really the object of their representatives’ affection react by voting for disclosure and against tainted money and move more aggressively in other not always admirable ways to get their representative democracy back?

It’s there for the taking.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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