“Here, sir, the people govern,” said Alexander Hamilton in 1788, as he argued for the direct election of members to the proposed U.S. House of Representatives. “Here they act by their immediate representatives.” A working democratic republic was not a new idea, but what was new was putting the idea to the test. The task of the Framers was to build a barrier to tyranny, utilizing the best lessons of history in combination with the still-developing yearnings of diverse peoples whose sense of public spirit was as great as their sense of national direction.
As a result, the new Americans were edgy, determined to maintain their recently won individual independence by controlling their representatives, yet eager to show themselves as loyal citizens of a new nation. “An irritable patriotism” is how Tocqueville phrased the feeling, after his visit in 1831. The young Frenchman observed that the Americans kept themselves informed and involved because of their distrust of government authority.
Three basic assumptions lay at the heart of the Framers’ idea of a legislative body elected by the people, all valid at the time but all seriously eroded today. The first assumption was that voters can readily understand major issues and are generally well-informed. The second was that voters can evaluate the performance of their representatives clearly and accurately. The third assumption was that voters will vote inadequate representatives out of office and replace them with others more capable and more responsive to the principles expressed by the Framers.
The spirit of the tri-branch form of government is clear: To forestall tyranny, a system of checks and balances limits the roles of the three branches, in some cases specifically and in others not, but always within the context of a manageable size, with a sense of public interest guiding the action of all. A responsible electorate would, by Hamilton’s perception, place a fundamental reliance on the good faith and judgment of an even more responsible body of elected representatives.
But that vision of good faith and responsiveness is seriously clouded today. How could the Framers foresee a highly diverse nation of 250 million, or a Congress with a House of 435 members and a Senate of 100? They did not even write into the Constitution a maximum limit on the size of Congress; Article I merely states, “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand.” How could they, or anyone, expect efficiency and workable harmony to prevail in a Congress burdened with such numbers and such fractured interests as ours?
Nor could they foresee the extent to which political partisanship would shape events in Congress. Indeed, they made no provision for political parties at all. George Washington strongly opposed the idea of parties. Although for years the party system served a legitimate function, today it is primarily an election device rather than a base for political principle. Southern Democrats are generally more conservative than northeastern Republicans. When party differences are more rhetorical than real, posturing takes the place of forthrightness, and voters turn away in disgust.
Artful party appeals narrow the perceptions of voters instead of enhancing the quality of election campaigns. The parties tend to degenerate into vehicles for self-aggrandizement of individual politicians pursuing power without a commitment to the public good. Furthermore, with Congress controlled by one party and the White House by another, the result can be a paralysis of statesmanship that invites catastrophe.
But paralysis is only one of two major flaws which plague us today. The other is the growing alienation from government, felt by a resentful public. By definition, our system is intended to be a government by the people, but increasingly the public feels itself unable to participate. This, in turn, causes resentment, then helplessness, and finally, alienation. It is a process well underway.
In theory all we have to do to improve the quality of our government is to elect better people to office. But voters rarely evaluate the performance of their representatives with clarity; congressional incumbents today have virtually lifetime job security. The Founding Fathers could not have imagined anything so contrary to their intent; service in Congress was to be a temporary call to duty for able and patriotic citizens, motivated first and foremost by public interest. That vision of a fluid House membership, always responsive to the people, has faded into oblivion.
In the 1986 elections, of 392 House incumbents running for reelection, 386 were successful. Fully 246 seats, 56 percent of the total, were either uncontested or were won by more than 70 percent of the vote, meaning they were “safe”—no genuine election challenge could be made against them. Congressmen perform as candidates first and legislators only a distant second. They easily achieve a name recognition which is hard for most challengers to match. They have access to money based largely on their incumbency and seniority. Most importantly, the gerrymandering of congressional districts locks most congressmen into an impregnable position.
The people no longer select candidates and elect representatives. Instead, candidates are designated, prepared, packaged, presented, and placed in office by power brokers who control great supplies of money, influence, and election machinery. The election machinery consists of professional fund-raisers, pollsters, advertising and public relations experts.
But the public is not entirely a collective fool. With increasing alienation comes disenchantment with the election process itself In the congressional elections of 1986, over 100 million eligible voters did not vote, one of the lowest turnouts in our history. Crowing numbers of citizens apparently sense that their votes are irrelevant to the course of government. With many, the disgust at having to choose between equally unattractive candidates is even stronger than apathy.
Public indignation was generated—but only temporarily—in early 1987 when congressional members managed to increase their own pay without going on record as voting for it. Indeed, the pay increase was so skillfully managed that it was certain before the vote was taken. Members could tell their constituents they had, in fact, voted against it, after it was already a fait accompli. This act of gross hypocrisy was calculated with the voters’ short memories in mind, regardless of the immediate outrage.
It is not surprising that many citizens see today a Congress that has broken faith with the American people. What confronts them is the traditional pork barrel system, used by the congressmen as a device for boasting of service to constituents. Congress becomes an amalgam of local and regional interests while faking the role of a national legislature. In its legislation. Congress has become a purveyor of welfare and happiness. Endless bundles of public money have been thrown at all manner of social ills, failing to effect solutions to problems that will not be bought away. This is followed by cries of disillusionment and demands for more money. Congress battens on the faddish illusion of salvation through appropriation. It feeds on the belief that the world can become totally satisfying to all and sundry, if only the government is “sensitive,” and the Devil take the public debt.
Of particular concern is the growing intrusion of Congress into the executive branch of government, especially in foreign policy. The Constitution designates the President as commander of the armed forces and assigns him authority for foreign negotiations. In the Iran-Contra hearings, congressmen were out in full battle dress, not simply to enforce the checks and balances of the republic designed by the Founding Fathers but to destroy a President and usurp his mandated powers. Senator Robert Byrd piously declared that Congress only wanted the President to clear himself so the government could get on with the job of governing, thus imputing Mr. Reagan’s horrible guilt of intent.
The posturing was not lost on many Americans. They perceived the self-serving preachments, the hypocrisy, and the turf battles, as well as the partisan politics. They also saw an effort to divert public attention from the real, but failed, tasks of Congress: the budget deficit, a truly simple and fair tax code, the spreading problem of drugs, increasing crime, an ever-growing invasion of aliens mainly from south of the border, the trade deficit, illiteracy, welfare reform, problems of agriculture and the environment, and more.
This advance of Congress into foreign policy virtually assures paralysis, a failure in the nation’s need to serve as de facto leader of the non-Communist world and to demonstrate a strength of purpose and a measure of consistency to our allies as well as our adversaries. Long before we became a nation, Montesquieu warned: “Were the executive power not to have a right of restraining the encroachments of the legislative body, the latter would become despotic.” We have manifestly arrived at that state.
C. Northcote Parkinson takes a discouraging view of the long-term prospects for representative government. As democracy declines, he writes, the natural evolution leads to some form of socialism and then to a dictatorship. (Plato said the same thing more than 2,000 years ago.) In 1986, Parkinson’s views were more vivid. In an interview he said, “Popular democracy as an experiment is dead. No individual can be expected to handle the U.S. Presidency as it has evolved.” And of the legislative branch: “The key weakness is that no provision is made to insure that the legislators are cleverer or wiser than the population as a whole, or will vote in the public interest.”
Our Founding Fathers apparently assumed that our government would be shaped and managed by the brightest and most public-spirited citizens. Such has not been the case. For decades we survived the mixed performance of Congress, including ineptitude and rascality. But that was when the role of government was still limited, and our role in the world demanded no special responsibility or perception. And besides, we had a lot of just plain good luck.
But by 1945, national government was well on its way to massive intrusion into new areas of state, local, and family affairs. Internationally, instead of merely observing events, we were now at the vital center of critical action, facing challenges which we neither sought nor understood, with many other nations relying on us. In the 1950’s our luck began running out. We began to learn that nonpolicies as well as policies have consequences.
But how well have we learned? After 200 years we might do well to remind ourselves that we still are engaged in the great democratic experiment and that there is no guarantee of success. Our present perception of domestic disarray and foreign policy confusion can lead to loss of public faith and then failure to defend the national interest, first psychologically, then economically, and finally militarily. John Adams wrote: “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Certainly, nothing will happen until public indignation grows significantly. Congress will not change its colors nor its composition by itself. Public outrage must be the catalyst for that. Public sentiment brought down a President in the 1960’s and transformed our foreign policy and lost us a war in Southeast Asia. If such outrage can be evoked for a dubious cause, surely it can be aroused for a sane and vital objective which parallels the Constitution itself: namely, the preservation of a democratic republic.