Buffalo Bull


Issue E.28 – Sunday, 2018.12.09

Shopping Carts Against Democracy

Choices Made for You

Imagine going into a supermarket and being confronted with a limited choice of shopping carts, with the items in them already selected. You don’t get to go to the shelves to return any of the items, or to add other items: the selections made are the only ones available. To make matters worse, all of the shopping carts contain a few items you don’t need or want – but you still must pay for them at the checkout stand. Most people would not be happy with such a supermarket.  

That’s exactly what you get, however, in almost every one of the false democracies such as the United States, the members of the European Union, the United Kingdom, the former Commonwealth countries and colonies, Japan, Korea, and the other major “advanced” countries: when you go to the polls to vote, you get to choose a candidate representing a party with pre-selected ideas. You choose a party, but you don’t get to select or to reject individual laws or policies.

For example, in the U.S., some policies are advocated by all of the parties on the ballot. Not only have you no choice, you can’t even speak your mind on individual issues. You’re given a “take it or leave it” choice, an entire package without options.

That’s not democracy. It’s not even close.

This illustrates a fundamental difference between a true democracy, and a government run by representatives elected by the People. There are other problems possible with a government by elected representatives, such as corruption, the best way to establish districts, et caetera, which can be managed and mitigated by various means. However, this shopping cart problem illustrates that, no matter how well a representative government is run, it is fundamentally different from a true democracy. You can bring a government by elected representatives farther from or closer to a true democracy, but it will never be the same as a true democracy. The difference is basic.

This essay explores some of the problems with government by elected representatives, even in the absence of corruption and other maladies, and discusses ways in which such a government can be adjusted to make it closer to a democracy.

Several Factors Severely Limit Your Choices

Although the U.S. and many other countries are called democracies, almost none really are. In fact, in the case of the U.S., the founders explicitly promised that the new Constitution wouldn’t result in a democracy. It has only relatively recently been called a “democracy”, an incorrect description that serves to obscure the fact that most of the people aren’t really in charge. For most purposes, it’s an oligarchy, controlled by a few, not by the majority.

There are a great many mechanisms used to prevent democracy, but I’m going to limit this essay to a few of the most important ones, to the biggest contributors to the “shopping cart problem” just described.

Some of these mechanisms have been here from the beginning of the U.S., while others are new. Some are intentionally incorporated into our system of governance in whole or in part to thwart democracy, others have that effect more as an afterthought. However, we’re going to cover the problems – with solutions –  and not the histories.

In a real democracy, in a pure democratic system, the People would make the decisions themselves, without use of elected or appointed officials. However, in many cases that’s not practical, nor is it necessary. The way in which laws, policies, and decisions are an entire topic by themselves, and I’ll leave that topic, as well, to another essay. Herein, I’m going to assume that there will be some kind of elected (or randomly selected) officials or representatives to facilitate the operation of the government, although the People themselves should always have the ultimate control.

Curbing the Improper Power of Political Parties

Initially, when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, there were political parties, formal and informal groups with common interests, and factions, but they had no special power. You won’t find mention of parties in the Constitution. Over time, they gained power and acquired special privileges. For example, recognized parties usually get to put their candidates on the ballot without having to go through the process of gathering signatures for each specific candidate. The signature collection process is, depending on the state, often difficult. It is designed to make it difficult for minor parties and for candidates not affiliated with one of the major parties. In other words, it limits the number of shopping carts from which the voters can choose.

The parties themselves attempt to enforce their platforms upon candidates running within those parties. For instance, candidates will support – with money and otherwise – their own candidates which support their platforms, and fail to support or even work against their own candidates which deviate from the party platform.

Parties are private institutions, and are not accountable in many ways to the voters. They may use very undemocratic means to organize and manage themselves. They are, in practice, marketing organizations, each supporting a brand. There are various blocks and categories of voters, and each party attempts to capture certain types of voters, and those strategies change from time to time. They’ll happily sell out or abandon a group of voters they had previously supported. Their “customers” are their donors, and their functions are to support the donors’ interests and to deliver voters to the customers. They adjust their platforms, and attempt to adjust their images, from one election to the next to get the greatest number of voters. They don’t really care much about the voters, beyond the degree to which they can be attracted to vote for their donors’ interests.

If politics were commerce, this would make sense. In a democracy, however, it’s inappropriate behaviour because the only platforms you get, the only shopping carts, are the ones designed to keep the donors happy.

The solution is to eliminate all special treatment of parties. All candidates, regardless of whether or not they belong to any particular party, or whether or not they belong to any party at all, should face the same requirements to be placed on a ballot. Incumbents ought to endure the same burdens as new candidates. The process for obtaining a spot on the ballot should be simplified and made easier, and the ways to choose write-in candidates should be easier as well. Affiliations of candidates and of office holders have no place on ballots, or, indeed, anywhere in law.

Even though they would have no special legal privileges, parties would still serve a purpose. There is no need to eliminate them: free association is an essential part of a free, democratic society. However, when it comes to the electoral process itself, parties should get no special treatment.

In a democracy, people have power, not parties. As far as the law is concerned, everyone should have the same power, regardless of membership in any party.

This elimination of parties should extend as well to the organization of elected and appointed bodies such as Congress. A democratic Congress, not organized on party lines as it is now, would better represent the people, in part because the independent candidates in the Congress would not be at such a disadvantage as they are now. As it is now, even if an independent candidate is elected, he or she is at a disadvantage after assuming office, which, in turn, disadvantages those who voted for him or her.

Aside from the unjust and unjustified power that political parties hold in the U.S. system, their very existence, and the primary system, almost guarantees that the majority view on some issues will be disregarded. Suppose there are various issues A, B, C, D, and so on. The “ideal” candidate might be imagined as having the majority view on A, the majority view on B, and so on. But we’re not likely to see such an ideal candidate, because practically all parties support minority positions on at least one issue. There aren’t any parties that support the majority view on all issues: it doesn’t happen for a variety of reasons, outside the topic of this essay. From one election to the next, the issues might change, but each party always supports one or more minority positions: that’s how they distinguish themselves. So if you get a candidate from a political party, he’ll almost always disagree with the majority on at least one issue.  

More Elected Offices, Fewer Appointed Offices

In the current system, elected officers appoint many other officers, depriving voters of a say or a choice in the appointed office. You don’t get to choose the appointed officers, you only get a package deal, a pre-loaded shopping cart. This limits the variety of choices available to voters.

A democratic system would reserve to the people themselves the power to decide who fills offices. It would not collect appointed offices into fewer shopping carts: we, the People, would not get the appointees along with the appointer, and we would keep more of our power.

Voting on Enduring Policies and Laws

In the current system, elected or appointed officials with short terms of office often decide regulations, laws, codes, and policies which will be effective for far longer than the officials’ terms of office. This makes little sense in a democracy: it allows officials to engage in a kind of hit-and-run governance, wherein their actions will have consequences long beyond the intervals during which they can easily be held responsible. Furthermore, the People elect them – unless they are appointed – for short times, incommensurate with the possibly longer term effects of the officials’ actions. While, to some extent, this is not always avoidable, often it is, and this situation deprives the People of control over their government, because the effects of the decisions are inflicted beyond the current election cycle. In other words, the People in future years “inherit” their government, rather than choose it.

To correct this situation, all major proposed laws, codes, regulations, and policies with lasting effects out either to be limited by sunset clauses, or to be submitted to the People directly for approval. In this way, when we elect an official for, say, four years, we aren’t forced to accept his or her decisions for decades.

(Note that, because we all have finite lifespans, all enactments, even by the People, ought also to have limited lives. I suggest that every law or other enactment should expire after maybe forty nine or fifty years or so, else our ancestors will control our governments and our lives from beyond their graves. If we still like a law after fifty years, then we can renew it.)

Initiative, Referendum, and Recall

Despite the above precautions, there will inevitably occasions when officials act, or when they fail to act, contrary to the will of the People. In such instances, initiative, referendum, and recall must be made available.

The people should have an easy mechanism to pass laws themselves, without recourse to officials, to repeal laws, and to recall officials, forcing new elections, or to amend constitutions. About half of the states in the U.S. have some of these mechanisms for their own governments, but they are completely absent on a national level. (The men who drafted the U.S. Constitution explicitly promised that there would be no democracy, and they certainly kept their promises in that regard.)

Although half of the U.S. states allow ways for the People themselves to bypass or to override their officials, they usually make it excessively difficult to get measures on their ballots. For example, they may have burdensome requirements such as rules that large numbers of signatures on the petition must be gathered in short periods of time. Often, these onerous requirements render the mechanisms mostly useless as a practical check on the officials.

Some other countries implement these mechanisms – initiative, referendum, and recall – on national, state, or provincial levels. Most notable, perhaps, is Switzerland, which has allowed constitutional amendments by the People since 1891; local laws may also be changed directly. The Swiss people widely approve of the mechanism, which has frequently been used, and clearly it has not reduced either the stability and integrity of the Swiss government or the quality of life of the people.  

Keeping the mechanism for popular control easy improves government: officials are less likely to engage in mischief if the People can more easily counter them, and make it more likely than officials will act in the interests of the People pro-actively to avoid being pre-empted by popular action. It also increases citizen participation and satisfaction with the government and with society in general. It’s more difficult, as a citizen, to feel that you’re not being treated fairly, if you believe that you and your neighbours are more in control.

Popular control helps to defeat special interest groups which act against the interests of the majority. In the current system, a bad actor can get a bad law passed by rewarding a few politicians, but, if there were a democracy, it would be necessary to bribe (or at least to fool) most of the population.

If no candidates are running or available to support or oppose some policy or action, then these procedures allow the People to add specific items to their shopping cart, or to remove items already there.

Practical Aspects of Implementation

We need regular, frequent plebiscites and referenda if we’re going to change to democracy from our current oligarchy. I suggest that, for a start, quarterly election periods are appropriate on a national and state level. Once a ballot measure qualifies – and that qualification should be easy – it should be scheduled on one of the quarterly ballots. Some time should be allowed in order to facilitate public debate: more time in the case of constitutional changes, less time in the case of ordinary laws. Perhaps even less time is needed when the measure is to repeal, void, or nullify a law enacted by the officials.

Under my suggestion, voting would be allowed any time during the last month of each quarter. A citizen should be allowed to vote anywhere, to accommodate our mobile population. This implies that voting rules must be regularized among all the states.

Cooperation Essential to Democracy

Democracy cannot work if the People are too divided. Healthy debate is one thing, deep divisions are another. We cannot artificially (that is, using artifice) get everyone to come together. This is a whole, separate topic, and cannot be well explored here. However, it is important to realize that, often, it’s the so-called leadership and the structure of government as a separate entity from the People that encourages many divisions.

Democracy would be work: we’d have to participate. However, properly done, it can also help us all feel as if we have a common bond. Instead of “us” versus “them” trying to control the “government”, it can become “all of us” are the government. If we don’t look at it that way, we’ll never have a democracy. If we’re going to have a democracy, and we still insist on looking for enemies, then we ought to look for them among those who oppose letting the People gain control.

Notes on the Athenian Democracy

The ancient Athenian democracy was a successful, working institution that lasted for centuries. They had some ideas we might profit by considering.

Many offices were filled by random selection, by lottery. The reasoning was that this made it impossible to influence the selection by swaying the voters using clever speeches and other forms of propaganda. In order to avoid a situation where an incompetent person might be selected, they used committees instead of single office holders: chances were that not everyone on the committee would be incompetent, and the strong were expected to guide the weak.

They met regularly and frequently. We can do that now using the Internet, despite having a much greater population.

Reasonable payment was made for service, not like the pittance that is often given for jury service in our oligarchy today.

Term limits were enforced, so that a person couldn’t serve more than once without a waiting interval.

Everyone was expected to participate in meetings and debates. Those who did not were called idiots.

Public service was required of everyone who wanted to vote. You could not vote without military service. The wealthy were expected to contribute more than equal shares to the public good. Furthermore, the wealthy – who could afford armour for battle – were sent to the front lines in military ventures. If you advocated war, you were expected to take personal risks. (Somehow, this didn’t prevent the Athenians from fighting in a lot of wars.) War was conducted for various reasons, but it wasn’t for private profit. (How long has it been since you’ve seen Congress adjourn, or the President take leave, so they could head off to the front lines to fight?)

The word of the People was supreme: the People always controlled the government, not the other way around.


Edit history:

Sunday, 2018.12.09 – Initial release

Sunday, 2019.05.05 – Correct spelling error; reformat (larger print size).

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