What follows is slightly rewritten due to being from 2006 and needing to be revised in certain sections to keep it evergreen. But it is essentially the same essay, otherwise.
Democracy, in its absolute purest form, exists only when all citizens are able to take part in the workings of their government. Representative democracy, on the other hand, is a government made up of elected officials voted into office by the people. These officials represent their interests in the peoples' stead. The greatest issue in a government run by unelected everyday citizens is that it could degenerate very easily into mob rule. Perhaps, it could lead to there becoming a group of most powerful voices that carry the whole mob. Neither of these things are something that is good for a democracy.
In a pure democracy, there would be so many factions. In practice, that sort of government could not possibly function efficiently or effectively for long. So what is the best way to combat faction? James Madison argues in the Federalist papers, correctly, that representative government is the best way to combat faction. In other words, a governmental body elected by the people to serve in their stead would be much more effective in representing the best interests of the people as a whole.
As Madison writes in Federalist No. 10: “There are…two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” As Madison once wrote, the destruction of liberty, in which only one set of opinions would be dictated to the people, and there would be no choice to follow them, would be no better than the monarchies that have existed before quite unhappily. However, to give everyone the second option would be most impractical as well. As has already been pointed out, faction is simply a major part of human nature. Madison would certainly agree to that, as he writes in Federalist No. 10:
“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
That is a very long quotation from Mr. Madison. But it is certainly a very accurate description on the role of faction in human nature. Considering that the two black and white options discussed earlier are impractical, there has to be found a balance between liberty and order. A representative democracy, also known as a republic, would appear to be the best intermediate option. This is what the American Constitution creates.
Also, another basic argument in favor of the republic is the matter of who would really participate in a direct democracy. Not every citizen is necessarily motivated or informed enough to have a particularly educated opinion on the issues that face the governing body. Electing representatives is the best way to remedy that problem. By selecting representatives, people can go about their everyday lives without having to involve themselves in every issue that comes before the nation.
It is the general belief that a representative government is only as representative as the people make it. This is obviously a serious issue. The majority of the people’s interests are represented in the legislative branch, the Congress. As Linda Monk reminds us in her book, The Words We Live By, the House of Representatives is the half of Congress that is closest to the people. This is because its members run for office every two years.
However, people need to care who is currently holding political office. Otherwise, those elected to represent the people’s political interests most likely will not accurately reflect their views. Alternatively, if people don’t keep up with what their elected officials do, then their vote may not be that well-decided. In a republican government such as America, these sorts of indifference are extremely counter-productive.
In America’s politically turbulent current state, the civic engagement of many Americans leaves much to be desired. Part of this may have much to do with the current state of the government and how divided it is. Not only is there division between Republicans and Democrats, but even within the parties many current issues have become divisive. Are Madison’s arguments for republican government still valid in the light of the current problems which our country is facing?
If America ran on a direct democracy system, there would be so many political factions. Also, there would be so much ignorance on many individual issues that the state of the nation would be even worse. There exists in America such a diversity of opinions and perspectives. So allowing every single voice of this nation to speak would make the political process practically impossible. Therefore, the representative form of government would still appear to be the best option for America.
Then again, people must ask themselves the question: what do I look for in a representative? Political representatives, in my opinion, are sometimes hard to figure out. Naturally, a good representative should be very much concerned with the interests of his constituents. Yet, this is a problem these days. Personal experience tells many folks that numerous politicians are most interested in getting re-elected to office. Of course, they should be more interested in what actual good they have done for their constituents. Essentially, politicians have become greedy and selfish, and so, many people have become apathetic.
People see pretty campaign sign, and are exposed to many political ads. These are what often lead them to make a decision on whoever they hear the most good about. Some just vote for the lesser of two evils, as they say, because no candidate really thrills them. To some people, voting for the incumbent just seems to be the responsible thing to do. In today’s political climate, people just don’t really like the choices presented to them.
My first ever election that I was eligible to vote in was in 2006. When I looked at the current political campaigns, it was hard to say who I wished to represent my interests. In my hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts, the races for political seats were virtually already decided. There was zero opposition in Representative Stephen Lynch’s case. Also, there was very little in Senator Ted Kennedy’s case. So the choices I had to vote for in my district were almost decided for me because of their unshakable incumbency.
Technically, I could just vote for “the other guy” like some people would do. But since I have little choice, there is not much that I can do to see that my own interests are well represented. To this day, I consider myself neither republican nor democrat. But in the 2006 general election, I leaned more towards the democratic candidates. But in Massachusetts, our Democrat incumbents were in no danger of being displaced by Republican or other interests. And following the election, they remained in office, as expected.
This is not the case in every US state, of course. But in races in which the incumbents are weakly opposed or unopposed, there is very little voters can do. Naturally, the only remedy for the lacking pool of viable candidates is to have more and stronger candidates available. Right now, a fresh body of such candidates is much welcomed. Some strong independent candidates could be decent vote-getters in some of the upcoming elections.
The two major party system is not going away. But a third or possibly even fourth option is good for politics because it brings more debate to the table and gets voters a little more excited. It also would help alleviate another major political problem in our country today, which is partisanship.
Party politics in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Parties can create platforms uniting a great number of people to focus on many short-term and long-term goals. It can also provide people with a group that many constituents can relate with when it comes time to vote. Supporters will trust that the party they support will pick the best candidates to represent their best interests.
Yet there is an almost equal split today between Republicans and Democrats. For many years, these have been the only two viable parties in America. The resulting bipartisanship has made this a very turbulent environment for politics. There are so many issues before the Congress. But so many people have become so civically disengaged that many people just vote either Republican or Democratic based on who they have supported in the past.
The partisanship of the current government can make it very hard to be in-between. Those in-between, many of whom live in the so-called “swing states,” naturally will represent a great majority of the population. People need to get more involved in staying informed and finding out what’s really going on. Every election, especially those that decide the Presidency, can be a fateful one.