March 26, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
One could argue the United States is a republic instead of a democracy because of bad roads. In the 18th century, not everybody could slog through the mud for days or weeks to get to Washington, D.C., and have their say on every issue, as citizens do in New England town meetings. So our government was set up as a republic in which representatives are elected to do our “saying” for us. The public does not even elect the president — the Electoral College does — as we were reminded in the 2000 contest, where George W. Bush won the electors but Al Gore won the popular vote.
In a cynical age, in a highly polarized political climate, under the duress of a recession, trust in our elected representatives has fallen to historic lows. Recently, according to The New York Times, trust in the federal government dropped to single digits. Public trust in state and local government is a bit better, according to a Gallup poll, but in such a climate, reports of government secrecy and abuse of power strike an ugly chord that can resonate broadly.
And in an age of instant communication, the public is weighing in on political matters in a more direct way. According to another New York Times article, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the daily social network barrage is making it harder for elected officials to stand their ground and engage in long-term planning. “We are basically having a referendum on every single thing that we do every day,” Bloomberg said.
So as we gain technology, we also gain the ability to micromanage — or at least to attempt to micromanage — our elected representatives. But is this a good idea?
The public — as anyone knows who follows reader comments in major newspapers and blogs — may be susceptible to short-term aberrations: torches, pitchforks, calls for impeachment, that sort of thing. And the public that is most vocal — the ones commenting on a blog or government announcement with vicious verbal attacks — can be just a little impatient about things.
A guy waving a month-old newspaper shouting into the trees outside a log cabin on the frontier is far removed from a guy in front of a computer screen ranting about a tweet he received four seconds ago from a talk-show host or one of his elected representatives. Online petitions, email blasts, social media swarms – the snowball effect can build to a crescendo in an instant. Few representatives concerned about their popularity can afford to ignore them.
But the hot issues of the second may seem trivial in the context of history, and the slow building of a major development may be overlooked in a society tuned to rapid reaction. So can elected officials really put things in context better than the public as a whole?
“Some writers have so confounded society with government,” said Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.”
And Thomas Jefferson, who perhaps more than any other Founding Father trusted the public to govern, still had some stipulations: “Whenever people are well-informed,” said Jefferson, “they can be trusted with their own government.” And he put some stock in reason: “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable.”
While it could be argued that our technology has advanced to the point where cities, states and even perhaps the nation could engage in referenda on important issues — as a form of direct democracy — has human nature advanced to the point where our "vices" no longer need restraining? Or do we still need “cooler heads” to make decisions in our stead?
At Issue: Has a representative form of government outlived its usefulness in the Information Age? Should we use modern technology and referenda to decide the issues of the day?