Let’s get democracy back

We don’t live in a democracy. Democracy is where the voice of the people shapes government, but I can point to four clear reasons that’s not true in the US today: campaign finance, political parties, tyrannies of the majority and, in other cases, the minority.

Ways We’re Not Democratic

Campaign finance means that money affects politics disproportionately. It doesn’t determine elections completely, as hundreds of millions of losing dollars thrown at each Presidential election show, but it’s too much of the answer.

Campaign finance contributes to another aspect of the problem that is more exacerbated by political parties, the barriers to candidacy. Does anyone believe that our best possible leaders are entering politics? The way the game is played today, you have to jump too many hurdles, irrelevant to public service, just to be considered for some of our best potential leaders to bother.

Then, when candidates win—at whatever level– they take that victory as a call to implement their policy positions, even if they won by a few thousand votes. They may hedge a little, to be sure they can maintain their majority for the next election, but once they are confident of their majority, they tend to push their agenda fully. That can ignore 35-45% of their own constituents! That’s called a tyranny of the majority.

But we also have tyranny of the minority on many issues, since campaign finance (and protests, where I started this discussion) allows lobbying groups to wield disproportionate influence.

Too Big to Be Democratic

Leaving all that aside, the sheer size of this country has made democracy less workable. Democracy started out in small towns, where everyone could truly have a voice. Representative democracy sought to provide that voice even when we grew too big for direct democracy.

Well, we’ve grown bigger still. Members of the House of Representatives today represent around 700,000 people each. The Constitution said that states should not have more than one Representative for every 30,000 people, showing how far we’ve come.

Here’s the problem: there’s no way to represent 700,000 people (or close to a million, in some states) in anything but the most large-scale ways. Perhaps more important, there’s no way to know your Representative well enough to evaluate if he or she is the best candidate for the job. No one can make a meaningful judgment of one person they see in an ad, or read a newspaper story about, or see on a campaign stop. We walk into polling booths on Election Day, check off the names of people we barely know, and congratulate ourselves for making a reasonable choice.

We need to face the fact that that doesn’t make any sense. We don’t know those people, and we have no way of judging whether they’ll be good school board members, judges, mayors, or Congresspersons. That’s not democracy.

But we can change all that.

Forty Years is Long Enough to Have Left the Constitution Alone

It would take a Constitutional amendment, but we have been tinkering with how we change our leaders throughout our history. We’ve expanded who can vote and at what age (15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th) we’ve changed how senators are chosen (17th), we’ve changed how the Electoral College works (12th and 23rd), we’ve changed Inauguration Day and the number of terms of office a president can serve (20th and 22nd). But in the last forty-one years, times of enormous change technologically, economically, and socially, we haven’t changed how we choose our national leaders.

The first step in bringing us closer to true representative democracy is remembering Tip O’Neill’s line: “All politics is local.” I’d add, “to be democratic, it has to be local.”

Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point (p. 179), wrote that people can’t have social relations with more than 150 people at a time. Whether literally true, or applicable to all situations, it suggests that small scale elections are better than large-scale ones. We need to be able to feel confident that we know the person we’re selecting well enough to be sure he or she can do the job for which we’re selecting them.

Who do we know well enough to pick them as the leader for our group? We do it best in small groups, of ten to twenty people we know well.  What good is that? Well, if our self-chosen group of ten to twenty people picks a representative, that representative can meet with ten like him or her and choose one of them to represent that whole group. And ten of those representatives can meet and choose someone to represent them… well, you get the idea.

Six selections like that get you to a Member of the House of Representatives, with the difference that this Member knows the people he or she represents. A Member of the House in this system is responsible to the seven or eight Hundred-Thousand Reps who selected her (for example), the nine other Ten-Thousand Reps who put her into the Hundred-Thousand selection, the nine other Thousand-Reps, the nine other Hundred Reps, and the original ten to twenty people who put him or her in the race.

Instead of pretending to represent 700,000 people, in other words, Representatives would represent 45-50 people they know well, they consult with frequently. Most of those 45-50 would themselves be representing other people, presenting composite pictures of what their constituents want, so that the messages coming to this Representative would necessarily reflect all the opinions in the district, in rough proportion to how they are held.

This system can work for the presidency, as I hope to lay out next week, but it also works for any organization that wants to meet the needs of a large, diffuse, and diverse constituency (as I laid out a bit here). The best way to meet people’s needs is to know people’s needs and to feel accountable to all the people, and we can’t know them or feel accountable to them without being connected to them. We have to take better care to maintain those connections, not assume them. This is one way; I think it’s the best way. What do you think?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.