23 March 2010

While I'm On The Subject

Not health care reform, but the nature of government, it seems a good time to do a little mock campaigning about real values. (see my post from Feb 13)

In all the hoopla about the role of government, one question that never gets asked is what do representatives represent? Ours is a representative democracy, which means we select people to deliberate on our behalf, all the way from town council to US Congress.

Direct democracy is actually rather rare. For a few years in young adulthood I lived in New England, where smaller towns still have 'town meeting' where any citizen can attend and decide the budget and other matters. But that is the exception, and even they elect selectmen and other officers to manage the town between general meetings.

Now, in those smaller towns and cities, a representative may well know the local folk, and bring their perspective to bear on parks and roads and public safety. But as the catchment gets larger, the idea that the representative can literally know the people gets harder and harder.

In the US, a Congressional district contains about 600,000. For Montana and Vermont that means the whole state. No one person can know them all. What's more they will have such a diverse array of needs and ideas that there is no single point of view that comprises them all. So when they elect a representative what does that person represent?

Integrity and honesty. We like to believe that we should elect a good soul. This is what the founders had in mid, a sort of moral aristocracy who would deliberate the needs of the nation as a whole not the agenda of sub groups like farmers or merchants. I commend professor Sean Willentz' book, The Rise of American Democracy, to explain why that didn't work out.

And yet, cut to the bone, that's still what we want. Thus I conclude that a representative exists to represent America, not the district. We should send a representative American, whose job is as much to tell those in the fly-over regions and elsewhere why this or that law is good for the nation and therefore good for us as well.

A real representative brings the country to the district more than the district to the country, is a teacher of national interests and national virtues and national dreams.

Perhaps we would be better off if we drafted them, plucked 435 people by lottery, and brought them to Washington DC to talk, listen, and find out what divides us and what unites us how to overcome the former and strengthen the latter.

That's why I am not actually on the ballot. (OK, that's a little dishonest. In full disclosure mode, it is that but also not having people to go out and get all those blessed signatures, and not being willing to play the political game of trading promises for votes and all that.)

Still, wouldn't it be great if our overnment was not dependent on winning elections, paying your supporters for helping you win, and then doing it all over again every two years? Is this representative democracy, or is it just representative politics?

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