The US government is a based on a model of a democratic republic, where the population has democratic elections of representatives that go on to govern the population. We often describe this as a democracy. The term democracy is presumed to be the best form of government, and what we have is at least a working model of democracy if not the best one.
Democracy is government by the people but in the specific sense that we get to pick our representatives and leaders. Abstractly this sounds reasonable, but in practice it is very different. When elections occur, we may have the freedom to vote for some fringe party or some write-in choice, but realistically we have to confront the choice of the two, maybe three, front runners. Voting for someone who is guaranteed to not win has to be balanced against a vote to prevent someone from gaining office. Most of time, I end up voting not for the person I want to win, but instead I vote against the person I want to lose. From that perspective, I am not voting for my representative, but instead I’m voting for the front-runner that is least antagonistic to my interests. If I’m lucky, my choice would win, but when that happens, that person is not going to represent me.
Even in the unlikely case that my representative is very close to my own thinking, that representative will necessarily become part of some caucus that will collect all of the issues into a platform. In this case, the measure of success is the passage of anything in the caucus’s platform. My reward from democracy is that my representative’s caucus won something, even if that something is not in my interest.
I suppose many people are in fact satisfied by a team win over the other team. To this population, democracy is the opportunity to defeat the the other side. Democracy is not so much about government but more about dividing the population into typically two groups. We claim that democracy distinguishes two populations by their politics, but it is odd to me that the membership of the competing parties remains stable despite what often appear to be complete reversal of actual political principles. Democracy is a perpetual war of conquest between different groups. The stable stalemate of roughly equal forces becomes our definition of government.
For this discussion, I will dismiss that objection. Let me grant instead that a democratic republic does in a sense operate as a proactive government instead of a preventative treaty. This government has over time delegated most of the governing from democratically elected representatives with fixed terms to an unelected bureaucracy with typically lifetime careers. Most of the rule making that affects me or concerns me are out of the hands of my elected representatives. The most they can do is perhaps change the charter or the funding for the departments, but the actual rule making and enforcement are firmly in control of the unelected bureaucracies.
We do describe our form of government as a form of democracy. It is a democratic republic with at least a popular vote to select the government that oversees and funds the bureaucracies. This somehow qualifies as a democracy.
I have a different goal for the term democracy. That goal is governance by the the people instead of government by the people. We should have popular input into the actual actions of the government. I would like the opportunities to have my personal interests represented when the government makes any decision.
One example I have in mind is in foreign policy. Over the recent decades, I have watched more or less passively as my government has lunged into different conflicts or confrontations. We have to treat Russia and China as adversaries bordering on all-out-war not because there is a democratic consensus on the topic, but instead that they represent some kind of direct affront to our principles supposedly inherited from our ancestors. We have been obliged to fight wars at great expense due to some duty derived from some patriotic ideal (such as the defense of human rights or of democratic ideals) instead of a democratic consensus following deliberative consideration of the particulars of the moment.
I can think of examples in other policy areas such as labor, commerce, taxation, environment, land-use, food and drugs, etc. In each case, I see decisions made under some presumed principle of what it means to be “American” rather than an honest debate about what the population feels about these topics at this time in history, irrespective of what our ancestors or historians thought about the topics.
Contrary to the democracy label, our government governs independently of the opinions and desires of the current population. The democratic satisfaction does not come from government, but instead of an acceptance that we are part of the American way.
Our current definition of democracy is primarily about a consensus to be governed by something that we have very little influence over. In this definition, the real benefit of voting is that people show up to vote. Having two competing parties animates the population to vote for their preferences, but the outcome of the election will have very little effect on the trajectory of the government. Instead the very act of voting is an assertion of consent to be governed by whatever it is that is governing us.
Instead of being government by the people, our definition of democracy is the people consenting to be governed by the system that has been governing us. That government will probably continue to govern without our consent, but it is easier when it has a super-majority consent.
Having an election where 1/3 of the eligible voters vote for one party, 1/3 for the other party, and 1/3 stay home means that a super-majority of 2/3 grant their consent to be governed. Democracy is that super-majority consent. The government itself could as well be an inherited aristocracy so long as the people offer their super-majority consent to be governed by it. As our republic matures, it is increasing aristocratic where people entering bureaucracies are relatives of people who are already in government. This is helped by the need for specialized education and experience requirements that are more likely to be pursued by children of bureaucrats.
We democratically accept our aristocracy, whether they are perpetual representatives or they are bureaucrats.
I think we should rethink our goals for a democracy. With the rapid changes in technology and increasing complexities in human relationships on a global scale, we need a more agile form of government that will reflect current concerns of the people who have to live through it. The concept of a historic American principle or the prejudices of an isolated aristocratic class are incapable of addressing the modern challenges. The problem is compounded by the pace of change in the challenges and their priorities.
We have seen with the rise of globally interconnected communications, that there is a wisdom of the crowds that exceeds the wisdom of any individual. The collective consensus about problems and preferred solutions are often more accurate or effective than whatever comes out of an aristocratic bureaucracy and perpetually re-elected representatives. There is a wisdom of the crowd that eludes the wisdom of any individual, including those individuals that attempt to understand the crowd.
Tapping into this wisdom of the crowd would lead to a crowd-sourced government. This would be closer to my concept of democracy.
A direct democracy, getting rid of the republic form of government, is not a workable answer. As noted above, the benefit of the republic form of government is that it infers a super-majority consent by the number of people who attempt to vote for their preferred representatives. Whatever representatives are selected have at least a claim to represent all of the voters. A direct democracy would lose this super-majority consent. Simple majorities or even pluralities would be decisive and that implicitly leaves the rest as nonconsenting to that decisions. The benefit of a republic is the implied consent by the super-majority.
Super-majority consent may have a substantial portion of people who dislike the results, but they will offer their support to defend the system from any rebellion or external threats. A simple majority consent of a direct democracy would not have have that kind of defense and consequently be more fragile.
A direct democracy may work if we demand super-majority ratios to decide elections or referendums. Nearly all of the pressing questions facing this nation have nearly equal divisions of supporters. If some issue had that kind of super-majority support, the existing system would accommodate that automatically without the need for a change to a direct democracy.
The demand for a direct democracy comes from the observations about very thin majority opinions about very contentious issues. Direct democracy would demand that we accept that thin margin of approval to be decisive. By definition, that decision would not enjoy a super-majority consent. A marginally minor portion of the population explicitly rejected that decision.
I respect the historically proven system defined by the US constitution with its three branches of government. A legislative branch of two houses, one directly representative of populations, one directly representative of states. An executive branch led by a president selected through an electoral college approach that is distinct from the selection of the legislature. An judiciary branch nominated by the executive branch and confirmed by the upper house of the legislature.
When I feel that this government doesn’t represent my interests, I don’t think this is an inherent problem with the structure of the government. Instead, the problem is that this single instance of government is covering too many different aspects of my life. As a result, I have to vote for a representative that will have preferences about many topics of government and I will agree with only a few of them. In all of the other areas, I am forced to elect a representative who has preferences that are opposed to my own.
The administrative state that we have today has many departments and agencies (that I’ll collectively refer to as agencies). Each of these agencies have their own hierarchies and missions that persist across all election cycles. In addition, each of these agencies are self-contained with their own enforcement groups, effectively a specialized police force or army.
My proposal would be to split up the existing government into multiple copies, each governed by the same constitutional constraints. There would be still one constitution constrained by one amendment process. Each copy would follow the same basic structure with its own executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
There would be one copy for each agency.
The current government of White House, Capitol, and Supreme Courthouse would be limited to government concerning foreign affairs, border enforcement and citizenship, and resolving conflicts between states and the different agencies.
Each agency would be additional constitutional copies with different administrative districts (probably distributed over the country) and each would have its own president, its own legislature, and its own judiciary. We would elect these on different election schedules so that there would be a separate election season for each agency.
We would end up with multiple presidents and legislatures. A possible division may be
- Agency for interior land-use policy including agriculture and environmental concerns
- Agency for coastal shores and waterways policies
- Agency for trade and commerce
- Agency for human-consumable food and drug regulation
- Agency for human welfare, labor, and rights regulations
- Agency for treasury, revenue, currency, etc.
The goal is to continue to benefit from a democratic republic but giving us more direct participation in the particular topics that affect our lives. Having different constitutional instances for each agency governing a different aspect of our lives would give us more precise selection of representatives that match our particular concerns about that exact area. Such representatives may have differing opinions on other areas of government, but his position would not allow him to have any more influence on those other areas that I would have. The representative would represent me only in the specific area of the agency he is elected into.
These government copies would be mutually exclusive. A representative could only serve in one agency at a time.
Each government copy would be narrow in scope, narrow enough to have shorter legislation sessions, allowing more time for the representatives to serve their local districts or states. The narrowness of the government will likely also increase the competition for the seats and thus reduce the incumbency advantage in future elections. The goal is to have representatives within each agency to be more reflective of the current concerns and interests of the constituents.
Each government will inherit the existing bureaucracies (with some reorganization). However, instead of being limited to setting budgets and defining scope of jurisdiction, the elected government will be expected to have a more direct role in approving and enforcing policies. Having distinct governments for each agency makes this possible because they can make decisions specific to their agencies with no pressure or opportunity to create compromises with unrelated agencies. Each agency has a specific and non-overlapping charter to address.
Each agency-level government would have its own electorate. The electorate may be organized into territories that are distinct from the current states. The current states would remain relevant for the government involving foreign policy and interstate conflicts. Different agencies may define different territories that may better reflect the competing interests for the agency’s specific charter.
The territories that replace states within a particular agency government may be along some other criteria rather than geography. For example, an agency for managing land, agriculture, and environment may have territories defined as flood-plains, plains, hills, mountains, deserts, urban areas, etc. These territories would replace the states in terms of representation of the Senate and definition of an electoral college.
I would suggest further that citizenship would vary between governments. Due to the more specific charter of each agency, voting rights and office eligibility may depend on whether the individual has a direct interest in the charter. This similar to the concept of standing for raising a court case. For example, an agency chartered to manage monetary policy and revenues may exclude people who are not employed or involved in businesses.
I make this suggestion out of a desire for more public visibility of the work within the agency. In particular, the voting public should be able to view (even if in restricted access areas) any information that the agency uses in its policy making or enforcement. If a special clearance or background check is required to access information, the electorate should be able to obtain that check in order to be better informed in their election choices. This could be more feasible if we divided government within different agencies: interested voters would obtain clearances only in the specific agencies they are interested in. Once this happens, there will become two classes of voters: those eligible to see the restricted information, and those who aren’t. I expect that eventually, voting rights would be restricted to just those who meet the appropriate background checks.
The above is described as a progression of first having separate governments for each agency, then having separate elections for each agency, and then having voters being able to access information within the agency. However, this is something I think is needed in the first place. In particular, voters for an elected office should have access to agency information at least at the sensitive but unclassified level, but probably also to the secret but not top-secret nor compartmentalized information. The voters should be free to observe the work of the agency even if they are not directly employed or contracted to do the work. I dislike the current system where only those who are employed or contracted within the agency are eligible to hold clearances to see the non-public information the agency works with.
The above idea is to replicate a single constitutional form of government multiple times for each agency within the government. There would be up to 12 different such governments with staggering elections every couple months. The constitution itself will be similar to the current one, with small adjustments to clarify the limited scope of each instance. It is an object-oriented idea of government, the object defined by the constitution would have multiple instances, one for each agency.
To complete the model, there will have to be some accommodation for the inevitable conflicts that will arise between the agencies. To address these conflicts there would need to be a different government that consists of representatives from each agency government. It too may have three levels of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but it will need to resolve the conflicts that have electoral mandates within the each of the agencies.
As mentioned above, the current government occupying the District of Columbia would take on existing responsibilities limited to foreign policy and inter-state regulation. There would be a new government, probably occupying a different location that will resolve the conflicts between the agencies. The details of how this would work would depend on how the different agency governments will end up working. I admit there is a risk that this may become the most powerful and prestigious government taking over what our current government is doing. That may be avoided by restraining its charter as to its authority over the agencies. Even that fails and this government of agencies ends up being as unaccountable as the current government, we may still benefit from having direct electoral influence at the agency level. It is the individual agencies that set and enforce the policies that impact our lives.