PART THREE IN A SERIES ON AMERICA’S CONCEPT OF DEMOCRACY
Democracy’s role as a core American belief began inauspiciously. The founders considered it to be a volatile and unstable form of government, only marginally better than the monarchy it supplanted. Fast forward to 2021, however, and democracy is often placed at the forefront of the founding ideals; it’s ensconced as the alpha belief.
For example, while Ben Franklin and his peers valued liberty over democracy, many of today’s citizens value democracy over liberty. Both sides of the left-right divide have experienced rights reductions due to this shift, because simple majority votes in congress can curtail a swath of dissenting citizens’ liberties.
Unfortunately, despite rising to first rank among the founding ideals, the concept of democracy is rarely defined with any specificity. Instead, it’s uncritically held aloft as a spotless virtue. This myopia must change if Americans want to address the country’s accelerating dysfunction. In truth, various divergent processes can be called “democracy” and each of those processes contains particular strengths …… and congenital weaknesses.
The form of democracy currently favored by many Americans is straight majority rule. In this manifestation, a single vote, at one point in time, can determine the future fate of a society. As a derivative of direct democracy, it exhibits significant advantages, and can be a potent process for forging decisions.
But direct democracy has only been effective when practiced at very small scales …… as is seen in villages and tribes across the world. Americans unquestioningly assume that it functions at larger scales as well. But this unexamined premise has created long-term difficulties.
A crucial development has been ignored: initiatives that were promoted as shifts toward a purer democracy have gradually led to dangerous concentrations of power within national institutions.
The seventeenth amendment was Patient Zero for this trend. It stripped power from the state legislatures that had been constitutionally directed to appoint U.S. Senators. This transition to statewide popular elections was heralded as a move toward a more democratic system.
But an unseen consequence of direct election was the shift of political decision-making away from fifty state capitols …… toward one national capital. Political control became concentrated, where it had previously been distributed across competing regional interests.
The assertion that state legislatures suffered from corruption, opacity, and the improper influence of big money in their senate selections is beyond dispute. But few have acknowledged the seventeenth amendment’s contribution to the unprecedented scale of those same maladies within today’s Washington.
Thus, the movement toward direct democracy has become a Trojan horse that entrenched centralized political power within national institutions. The trend continues today, unnoticed and unmitigated.
New questions require responses: …… Would power concentrate further if the electoral college were abolished? …… How should we define the concept of populism within this paradigm? …… Will the other founding ideals be further weakened if the trend toward direct democracy continues?
The relationship between pure democracy and the centralization of power within a national left-right oligarchy will be explored further as this series continues.