Is representative government failing?

The decline of social capital has increased the power of the rich and the weird. Photo: AP

CHICAGO, July 31, 2013 ― Americans are frustrated. We live under one of the most democratic regimes on the planet, yet our government seems incapable or unwilling to respond to our needs. Demogogues are flourishing. Pragmatic problem-solvers with their feet rooted firmly in facts are almost beneath ridicule ― ignored and irrelevant.

How can a government which is entirely accountable to its citizens foster so much alienation and dysfunction?


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Our frustration with our government may have roots in cultural forces that have slowly undermined some critical institutions that we seldom notice. The decline of social capital may be weakening the machinery of representation in ways too subtle to draw a headline. Any solution to our current frustrations may need to start with this neglected component of our system.

In junior high civics we learned that American voters elect representatives who govern on our behalf by passing laws. That has not changed. There is, however, a neglected element of that structure which has undergone dramatic changes over the course of a generation.

Saying that voters elect their representatives is like saying that a wall is made of atoms. It is true in the strictest sense while being useless in practice. You don’t build a wall by stacking atoms. You go buy some bricks. Representative governments are founded not on the thoughts and feelings of citizens, but on the influence of thousands of organizations that channel and filter those opinions, shaping policy and candidates the way a river shapes stones.

You don’t build a wall by stacking atoms and you don’t win elections by chasing voters. Few voters know much about the character of their candidates. They can’t. Candidates win elections by winning the battle for institutional support.


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Yes, block-walking plays a role (sometimes), but it doesn’t enter into the political process until long after a candidate has approached community leaders, major donors, the boards of important advocacy groups, and other aggregators of votes. The ground level effort is like the mortar. You don’t even start using it until you have the bricks you need.

The individuals who have the most influence on our government are the people with the deepest and most effective involvement in those institutions. The voters who have the least influence are the ones who merely show up on Election Day.

By the time an election season arrives, a pool of thousands of potential candidates has, over the course of years, been whittled to two, or sometimes only one. The machinery of representative democracy has churned through prospective public servants, vetting them by their interactions with Chambers of Commerce, Elks Lodges, churches, Junior Leagues, even kids’ sports clubs. They often cut their teeth through experience with down-ballot offices or work with local candidates.

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We seldom think about the critical role of these mediating institutions and thus their decline has gone largely unnoticed. What we are noticing is the increasingly weird characters who survive the vetting process to land on the evening news. Social capital institutions of almost every size and description are shriveling under the heat of our busier, freer lives. Fewer of us are participating in voluntary institutions at every level of the culture. Those institutions are then exercising diminishing influence over the political process.

This gap has been filled by two elites, of a sort, whose influence was once blunted by social capital: the money-rich and the time-rich. The majority of the money contributed to both party’s Presidential campaigns in 2012 came from 0.07 percent of the donors, a total of about 2000 people. The Koch brothers alone spent $400m on politics in the 2012 cycle. One major donor was enough to propel Newt Gingrich through an entire Presidential primary challenge.

Money buys more than it used to, but the financial rich do have rivals for power. Those with more time than they know what to do with are finding a wide open environment in which to play.

As the pace of life and the pressures to succeed grow exponentially, many who in a different time might have been the backbone of community organizations remain uninvolved, or badly under-involved. In this climate, the pool of citizens with the time required for real political involvement excludes the majority of the culture’s most sober, solid folks. Odd characters are flourishing in an environment from which ordinary people have largely fled. The bricks are weakening and the wall is growing brittle.

The decline of voluntary public institutions has increased the power of the rich and the weird, leading to political behavior which is increasingly self-interested when it isn’t patently bizarre. Ordinary people feel unrepresented because they have lost most of their influence in the pursuit of their private goals. Their government has been bent to suit the needs of the few remaining characters who can afford direct participation, through an extreme surplus of money or time.

Often overlooked in this picture are the responsible politicians driven by passion to serve their communities. Squeezed between moneyed interests and surprisingly well-organized wingnuts, the daily pressure takes a toll. With little to gain from pragmatism or public interest, sometimes the best they can hope to accomplish is a smooth transition into a lobbying career.

We will find a solution to this challenge. We always do. In particular, social media and new communication channels offer promise that may ripen soon. Perhaps the best we can do for now is to at least recognize what we are experiencing. A more dynamic world may require a less ambitious government, smaller, more responsive, and likely less powerful. How we get there without demolishing the load-bearing walls of our democracy is perhaps the challenge of our time.


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Chris Ladd

Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area.  He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. 

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