It’s about Democracy

Oct 10, 2013

If you think the current standoff in Congress over the government shutdown is the failure equally of both sides to negotiate a compromise, suppose the party roles were reversed.  A Republican president is confronted by a Democratic House speaker whose most liberal party wing refuses to fund the government unless the president agrees to a single-payer, government-funded health care system.  We all know Republicans would howl that this is government by extortion, which it is.  Give a minority the laws it wants, or everybody suffers.  If President Obama gives in to current demands, this type of scenario is in our future.  So our standoff is not ultimately about House demands to suspend the Affordable Care Act.  It’s about how to govern.  Specifically, it is about two very crucial aspects of our democracy.  

First, the standoff represents a threat to democracy itself, including the fundamental principle on which it is based:  the presumption of majority rule.  Tea Party Republicans have every right to call for changes to the Affordable Care Act as it moves ahead, but now they are doing nothing less than holding the economic health of the whole country hostage to their demands to stop a bill that was passed by a majority in congress and signed into law by a president twice elected by a majority.  Extortion is a spit in the eye of good governance.  This very point should settle the argument.

It is true, however, that the presumption in favor of majority rule alone may not always be decisive, for sometimes majorities favor policies that we should nevertheless oppose.  What if, for example, a majority favored unjust discrimination against a minority?  This brings us to the second aspect of our democracy at stake here, namely, what it should really mean to be a representative of the people.

In an argument written in 1788 to convince New Yorkers to ratify the U.S. Constitution, James Madison argued that a representative form of democracy is necessary to control the mischief of factions.  By factions, Madison meant those groups—representing a minority or majority—whose passions oppose individual rights or the common good.  I would argue, therefore, that any group that shuts down government services and opposes health care to satisfy its particular interests is a faction.  Since factions are the result of our tendency to privilege our own interests over others, Madison argued that we should control them by a government of elected representatives.

How does this solve the problem of factions?  Madison believed that the positions of factions be passed through representatives “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 interests.”  This body of representatives should be of such number that they are forced to represent a diverse citizenry, inhibiting them from being beholden to factional interests only.  In short, the role of an elected representative is to love justice and exercise wise judgment in relation to protecting individual rights and the common good of the country and not be beholden to factions.

Such a view stands in sharp contrast to how many representatives pursue their jobs today.  A congressman should not simply claim, for example, that more citizens voted for him rather than for President Obama, so therefore he should oppose the Affordable Care Act, or any other of the President’s policies.  The views of citizenries are more complex than that.  As Montana shows, some people vote for Republicans and for Democrats, for various reasons.  Representing a population is not about reading polls at those times when they conveniently support a faction within your party.  It is also not about pledging to uphold party principles without compromise.

Being a representative means having the capacity to recognize factions, to work with them to, as Madison says, “refine and enlarge” their views in the interest of the larger community, and, if necessary, to resist them, despite what it may mean for one’s re-election.  This is true bipartisanship.  It requires evaluating the factional interests within a district and filtering them through wiser judgments about individual rights and the common good of a diverse population.  It demands reasoned debate about what is just. 

And it is about the compromise.  The exception is compromising good democracy itself, as the U.S. House of Representatives is now doing.  That is something we all should oppose.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.