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Saturday, August 1, 2009


I have just returned from collecting more signatures on a petition supporting Obama’s health care proposals, as well as on postcards to be hand delivered to our new, and wavering, senator, Kay Hagen. This time, I was stationed at the entrance to the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, which, like the public library, is a very productive site for garnering support for any sort of progressive cause. Would that the world were like the Carrboro Farmer’s Market! With the House having risen for the August recess, and the Senate about to do the same, this seems like a good time to take a deep breath and think yet again about the ugly legislative process. If nothing else, such reflection may guard me – and you too, I hope – against the ulcerative effects of the endless reports of Blue Dog Democratic opposition to a public option and Max Baucus’s Pharma-fueled efforts to dilute and slow down anything remotely resembling reform. [Baucus is the senior senator from Montana, a state that is fourth largest in area and forty-fourth in population. By way of comparison, Brooklyn has two and a half times as many people in it as all of Montana. Yet the genius of the American political system dictates that Baucus, not, let us say, Chuck Schumer, shall hold the fate of health care reform in his hands.]

As always, when confronted with a particularly distasteful bit of reality, I like to retreat for a bit to pure theory in order to clear my head. So let us remind ourselves of some simple truths, often forgotten, about competing theories of political democracy. We can then return to the disheartening spectacle to which we have been exposed these past weeks, and try to gain on it some perspective.

In the eighteenth century, when the structure of the American political system was put in place, there were two competing and absolutely incompatible theories of electoral democracy. The first, advanced by thinkers like Montesquieu and patterned on the newly emerging phenomenon of free market competition, understood the goal of the legislative process to be the resolution of competing interests through negotiation and bargaining. Guided by expectations like those to which Adam Smith gave voice in his famous metaphor of the invisible hand, these democratic theorists hoped that through the expression of private interests and the legislative resolution of the conflicts among those interests, an aggregated collective decision would emerge that constituted the public good. Despite Montesquieu’s role in advancing this conception of democracy, it was the English who most fervently championed it, and it was the rebellious English colonists in North America who enshrined the theory in the structure of the Republic they brought into existence.

There was, however, a competing conception of democracy, given its most brilliant expression in the writings of the Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, according to which the goal of the legislative process was to set aside private interests all together, and engage not in a negotiation, but rather in a deliberation about the nature of the General Good. Rousseau argued that a republic whose members sought merely to advance their private interests could not enact laws that commanded the respect and obedience of the public. Only those commands issuing from an assembly, all the members of which were aiming at the General Good, could rightly be given the honorific title of Laws.

It is obvious upon even the most superficial reflection that these two theories imply totally different, indeed, opposed standards of behavior for the men and women chosen to act as representatives of the sovereign people [for the theories agree that true sovereignty resides in the citizenry as a whole]. According to the first theory, the task of Representatives is to advance the private interests of those whom they represent. Representatives from farm states must, in order for the system to work, press for legislation that will benefit farmers. Representatives from heavily urban states must press for legislation to benefit city dwellers. And so forth. The purpose of elections is to give the citizens of any district an opportunity to choose a representative who will advance their interests, as they understand them [for the theory also asserts that we are, each of us, the best judge of our own interests.] There are massive practical problems in realizing this conception of democracy, of course, the most obvious of which is that those whose interests in a district are in a minority [even farm states have cities, after all] will find those interests without an effective voice in the legislature. [As I have argued, in In Defense of Anarchism, it is this problem that undermines any and every claim that a representative democracy can make to legitimacy. But that is for another day.] Nevertheless, through pressure brought by interest groups on elected representatives, and through the constant shifting of alliances among interest groups, some measure of genuine representation, it is argued, does happen.

According to the second, Rousseauean, theory of democracy, the responsibility of elected representatives is totally different. [Never mind here that Rousseau thought representative democracy to be no better than slavery.] In all his or her deliberations, a Representative or Senator must ask only “What legislation will advance the General Good?,” and never “What legislation will advance the interests of my constituents?”

Under ideal circumstances, representatives would be motivated solely by their fiduciary responsibility to advance the interests of their constituents, but of course the American political system is, in many ways, not ideal. Some of these ways were anticipated by the authors of the Constitution, and in fact counted upon by them. For example, the representatives are themselves individuals with private ambitions and interests, chief among which is to win re-election, and as campaigns become more expensive, they tilt ever farther in the direction of the interests of those constituents [or even non-constituents] who can contribute heavily to their campaign funds. A problem of a quite different sort is posed by the fact that some of the elected representatives actually have strongly held convictions about what is in the General Good, and quite mistakenly, although understandably, act on those convictions [the example of Arlen Specter demonstrates that not all elected representatives fall into this error.] A representative who votes for what he or she believes is right, rather than for what is in the expressed interest of his or her constituents, is like a lawyer with power of attorney to execute a real estate closing who decides that buying the property at the agreed upon price is not really in the best interest of the client, and invests the money in preferred stock instead. Grounds for disbarment, not for the encomium of “statesman.”

In a huge democracy like the United States, an enormous variety of private interests find representation in the legislative processes of the Congress. When Sheldon Whitehouse holds a whispered conversation with Orrin Hatch in the Senate cloakroom, it not a progressive Democrat and a reactionary Republican who are talking to one another, though that may appear to be what is happening. In reality, it is the people of Rhode Island who are bargaining with the people of Utah. The only available alternative to that bargaining is a war of all against all [which may, of course, on occasion be preferable, but not usually.]

To be sure, the bargaining process is distorted by the realities of American politics and by the structure and rules of the Senate. The practice of carrying out the writing of legislation in standing committees, and of assigning the chairmanships of those committees by seniority, results in such anomalies as the one we noted earlier, of Max Baucus, and through him, the people of Montana, exercising a disproportionate influence over the writing of health care legislation. Still and all, it is the same system that gives Barney Frank, and through him the people of Cape Cod, so disproportionate an influence over the writing of legislation to control the destructive greed of Wall Street.

Which brings me back to where I began this meditation, standing behind a table at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. The Blue Dog Democrats [I will not even speak of the unspeakable Republicans] are, I suspect, accurate in their representation of the perceived and expressed interests of their constituents as the Black Caucus is in their representation of the perceived and expressed interests of theirs. I say “perceived and expressed” because the theory of democracy underlying the American system is not intended to make allowance for representatives who know better than their constituents do what is in their constituents’ true interests. That way lies Rousseau.

So if you hate the compromises and watering down of Obama’s already watered down proposals for health care reform, as do I, the only rational response is to mobilize popular support for acceptable reforms, and hope either that you are in an actual majority, or, if not, that you are in a better mobilized minority able to have a disproportionate influence on your representatives.

How can you do that? Simple. Go to, find your way to the nearest political action, and join it. In the words of the old union mantra, ORGANIZE

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