Wither Representative Democracy?

Fenster writes:

Quillette magazine is always thought provoking and what good would a thought provoking publication be if you didn’t disagree with it from time to time?

Here’s a piece from Quillette defending representative democracy and criticizing the populist urge as undermining it.  It is well written and I agree with the basic premise about the virtues of representative government, so the article does not deserve my censure.  However the crooked timber spirit suggests that humanity is incapable of devising anything perfectly straight, and that goes not only for representative democracy but for arguments about it as well.  So in that spirit I offer some healthy criticism.

First, read the article.  The author makes the argument that representative democracy is a superior form of government and that there is nothing wrong with it that cannot be fixed, if you will, from the inside, through the workings of representative government.   Is that so?

In theory, a qualified yes.  In practice, a qualified no.

The author is dwelling in the world of abstract design, arguing as did the framers of the US Constitution that representative democracy is a sturdy design for living. But consider Franklin’s warning just after the drafting: a republic is not a wind-up toy that you design, enable and let run. It needs to be “kept”, and that calls for certain habits, values and frames of mind. The framers understood this fragility too.

It seems to me that the author leans to heavily on a wind-up toy argument. “Hey, representative democracy works better in theory so let us forgive its faults in practice since it makes for, despite those faults, the best of all possible worlds by definition.”

Because they are composed of fallible human beings political elites are capable of being corrupted in many ways.   If things start to go wrong they are likely to break along the fault line of, well, faction, as the political elites that are inherently part of a representative system take their own various kinds of self-interest into account, and game the system accordingly.  That is why no representative system will be stable without the presence of certain specific human virtues such as restraint and public-mindedness.  Of course since the stock of such virtues can never be stable no representative system can truly be stable over the long run, and we are back to Franklin’s conundrum.

So it is entirely possible–indeed inevitable over the longer run–that representative democracy will falter and not deliver on its theoretical promise of the best possible governance. And when that happens it is likely that the public will be justifiably angry.

One can argue–and the author does–that the public’s best and perhaps only recourse is the ballot box, and they can always turn out their local representatives. But just as political systems can be brilliantly designed the corruption of such systems can also be ingenious and diabolical.  In such instances I doubt that a call for a return to status quo representative democratic institutions, as the author has done, will do the trick.

No one is saying nation states ought to revert to direct democracy. But from time to time though the tree of representative government needs to be nourished by the blood of those would would corrupt it–even if they are not, strictly speaking, tyrants.


About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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2 Responses to Wither Representative Democracy?

  1. DN Poolside says:

    The Chilean model of recalibration appeals more and more as the political class grows larger and more self serving.


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