A Really Bad Representative Democracy

Representative DemocracyI’m not sure if it is the state of politics or the state of my mind, but I am trying to avoid politics. It is so depressing for reasons that are more implicit in my writing than explicit. But let me see if I can make it more explicit here. At one time, politics was almost exclusively retail. That doesn’t mean it was good. To a large extent, that just meant that so few people qualified as voters that any given politician didn’t have to work all that hard to have actual interactions with the voters.

But I still think that the size of the electorate does matter. This is why I have long been for greatly increasing the size of the House of Representatives. And it turns out, there is a group that believes this same thing, Thirty-Thousand. They note that, “The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights intended that the total population of Congressional districts never exceed 50 to 60 thousand. Currently, the average population size of the districts is nearly 700,000 and, consequently, the principle of proportionally equitable representation has been abandoned.” I don’t know just how accurate this is, but the idea is basically correct. The fewer people a politician represents, the more accountable he is.

Then we have the Senate, an anti-democratic compromise. When the United States was formed, the largest state (Virginia) had about twenty times the population of the smallest state (Tennessee, which was growing—fast). Now the largest state (California) has about 70 times the population of the smallest state (Wyoming—smaller than a California Congressional District). And that actually understates the problem because we have a whole bunch of little states now and a couple of really big ones. The 9 (18%) most populous states have more people than the 41 least populous states. In 1790, the 5 (30%) most populous states had more people than the 12 least populous. And things were improving because the new states like Tennessee and Kentucky grew rapidly after becoming states. We have the opposite now as people want to move to the two biggest states California and Texas.

So even under the best of circumstances, we do not have much of a representative democracy. But I suspect we could limp along with this. The real problem here is that politics is no longer retail. Let’s look at the 2012 California Proposition 37. It required that GMO products be labeled as such. As you probably know, I don’t really care about this issue. But what matters is that the measure was logical and it was hugely popular. And then Monsanto came in, spent millions of dollars on ads that showed small farmers who claimed that the law would put them out of business and the measure went down to defeat.

This sort of thing could never happen in a small community. For one thing, everyone would know who would be affected and how. But the ads that the GMO industry ran were total distortions. And they worked! And the truth is that when you have huge elections, people with money can distort if not destroy democracy. And I’ve seen little but that my entire life.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that local government is so great. I’m not making some kind of libertarian argument about only having local government. For one thing, if this can happen at the state level, it can happen at any level in the modern world. Even if Proposition 37 had been just for Sonoma County where I live, it wouldn’t have mattered. I don’t know any farmers and I don’t know anyone who knows any farmers. So unless we are going to go back to an agrarian economy that hasn’t existed since the 18th century, we are going to have this problem. (And libertarians are disingenuous when they claim that local control is better; they are just trying to destroy government piecemeal.)

Anyway, this is why each day I dread even reading about politics. That’s not to say that I don’t still do it obsessively. But even if our political trajectory is positive, it is only barely so. And it will take decades to repair the damage done by the last four.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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