America, the House of Mirrors
I raised up this particular argument and vocabulary in my discussion and was just wondering how others felt. We were hashing over whether America was a democracy or a republic or how much of each. I propose that it is a democracy (at least in the realm of participation) and I do so thusly:
The main pivot of the argument involves blurring the distinction between democracy and republicanism. In the latter, groups of citizens are represented, and in the former, there isn’t this layer of indirectness – the citizens represent themselves instead of through an elected figure. Let’s consider then what these elected officials actually are. The council that leads a republic, as stated by Madison in Federalist No. 10, will act as a “medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” It would be too easy for me to attack the folly of this idealism with x amount of government scandal stories, and so I’ll try and go about it as subtly and philosophically as I can, and after this detached critique, its relation to the argument will be understood.
The first part of this quote to critique is the “filter of wisdom” aspect. These representatives we elect are not asocial, ahistorical, and apolitical. There can never be a pure think tank that can act just on ideas – they are humans constrained to surviving themselves and satisfying their constituents and those they represent. When it comes to community or national scale decisions, the people debating what to do will still reflect the views of their constituents, just on a smaller scale. In this sense, the representatives are imbued with the will of the people and all their flaws, becoming an avatar to represent a group of people in a council that is just a proportionately smaller scale version of the community or nation’s population at large. Therefore, at these republican councils, all the views are still voiced, just with fewer mouths. Granted, these senators may have a greater understanding of political science or the likes, but all political science can go out the window when a representative needs to make a living by pleasing a constituent or party (especially when it comes to pleasing sponsors, should they be so amorally inclined). The point is, these representives are humans, and are so flawed not by knowledge, but by practicality. Thus, the filter is broken, and has been since the beginning of our nation and quite possibly society itself.
The next part to critique is the temporal sacrifice of the representative’s actions. During the depression, FDR created the New Deal in order to bring about immediate gains for the destitute American people. Now, political analysts claim that this immediate action actually delayed the Depression a couple of years. I have a book on presidency published in 2004 that talks about Ronald Reagan and says that his economic plan would soon cause an economic bust that would cost upwards of 800 billion dollars to rectify, even though at the time it seemed like a good idea. So here we have two of our best political leaders, ones that each party rallies behind, and they were even thinking of pleasing the American people in the here and now. Perhaps they are so praised exactly because they were temporal and partial! And anything otherwise is halted. For instance, here we are in this trillion dollar bust, and the Obama administration at its outset wants to extricate the American economy from this boom-bust cycle. It’s interesting to watch this interview between Austan Goolsbee and Stephen Colbert from early 2009, having just witnessed the results of the midterm elections earlier this month.
So Goolsbee says that they can fix things in a year, which hasn’t happened yet as far as I know, and as for the long-term effects of reworking the economy to escape the cycle, how will we know? The American people do not want to suffer now for sustained grace in the future, nor can I rightly and justly blame them. The means do not justify the end. Therefore, trying to escape this cycle may never happen because the American people will always demand that the government act with temporary and partial sentiments because that is when the people of the present prosper most. And when a government claims to do otherwise and isn’t immediate with long-term adjustments (which is itself an impossible paradox) the people react by voting in the other party as seen this past November.
For the record, Goolsbee was back on the Daily Show on October 25, 2010 for a little talk. Again, 2 weeks later the American people collectively seem to say, “so what?” (although this assumption is really to say that every American watched the interview and rejected it, when truly not everyone did. But it is an interesting “then and now” situation.)
So what is the point of these two criticisms? What I mean by all this is that the representatives of a republic will reflect the misguided will of a misguided people who elected them. The representative cannot be above the people who elect him because he is constrained by the will of the people who voted him in. Granted, this misguidance is all potential, but it is just the pessimistic version of a two sided coin. Either way, representatives in a republic are the people, and so the layer is truly a façade. There is direct participation by the people because they elect who they think is best, and so that best is just a relative term among all the different constituencies of the republic.
For this, America is a democracy in the realm of participation. Persons representing the views of the people who elect them, who cannot be above the people because it is the people they represent. Thus, the condensed wisdom the federalists speak of with republicanism is merely just condensing – not condensing any one thing but condensing everything. Therefore, if we were to specify our terminology, it may be more appropriate (at least in America) to replace the term representation with reflection.
And at the peripheral of this argument may be a pragmatic attack on Madison’s idealism, however, I just mean to say that this is the way it is now. Whether it can be attained in the future is a different argument in itself.