There are two ways of looking at democracy: as a great shining ideal, or as a form of government that with all its many warts is the least bad kind that we know.Americans would like to think about it the first way; we get in trouble, however, if we forget that the second, more prosaic way of looking at democracy is the one that matters most day to day.Right now, Americans are unhappy with our democratic government. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 75 percent of the American people are angry at the policies of the federal government. This isn’t partisan, though it is bad for incumbents. The left and the right blogospheres are both inflamed; liberals and conservatives are mad at each other and at their own leaders. A furious left raged against the Bush administration from the invasion of Iraq to the day Bush flew back to Crawford; an equally furious right is boiling over with populist energy and an anti-Obama, anti-liberal drive. The hottest political movement in the country, the Tea Party movement, defines its goals in revolutionary terms.Let’s not get too overexcited here; the tea partiers are talking about a peaceful revolution, the kind that takes place at the ballot box on election day. Despite the undeniable and sometimes creepy wackos on the fringe, tea partiers calling for tax cuts aren’t brownshirts marching through the streets — just as the creepy wackos on the fringes of the anti-Bush movement didn’t affect the fact that the goal of that movement was peaceful and democratic electoral change reflecting the will of the voters.Even so, however, it’s clear we’ve got a problem when so much negative energy is running through the political system and when, from collapsing California to the stalemated DC debates, we seem to be having some trouble with this whole self-governance thing.Some of the unhappiness is clearly due to poor policy choices by both parties in recent years — we can all make a list. But something more is at work. American democracy today suffers from two structural problems: government is farther from the people than it used to be, and the people are less tolerant of frustration. The combination is an ugly and potentially a dangerous one; one of the challenges facing the United States in our new decade will be to find ways to renew the democratic system.The first problem is inherent in mass democracy. There are more than 300 million people in the United States — and they don’t all want the same things. The bare ugly truth is that the individual citizen in a mass democracy doesn’t have very much power when it comes to determining the policy of the federal government. We each have a one three-hundred millionth share in political power. We use a rhetoric of empowerment to describe what democracy does for us, but the reality is somewhat different. At the federal level, as individuals we are largely without influence or power, as helpless before the will of the majority as a Roman legionnaire before his emperor. It might actually be more accurate to say that the chief purpose of democratic institutions is to reconcile us to our lack of power over the state — both by limiting the power of the state and reducing the degree to which other people have more power than we do ourselves. It’s not so much that democracy fairly distributes power; it fairly distributes impotence.
This problem has become more acute over time. When the Constitution was adopted, there were about three million people in the whole country. State legislators were generally people known personally by all their constituents; the same thing was often true of congressmen. These days we have cities with larger populations than the entire United States in 1789; relatively few of us know either our state or our congressional representatives personally. The government is farther from the citizens than it used to be. This is inevitable, and it comes with success — but while in some ways American society has become more democratic since 1789, power has moved steadily farther away from the people.The second problem is that the people are less tolerant than they used to be. (more…)