Rotten Boroughs Everywhere

The British people’s decision to leave the European Union reveals that Britain, like the EU itself, suffers from a “democracy deficit.”

Several commentators have noted that that reality suggests the problem is not so much a political one, but instead concerns a feeling that “globalization can and has run roughshod over the economic and social orders of old,” and “the extraordinary movement of populations in the world today.” Ramesh Ponnuru argues that it is not Britain but the EU that suffers from the problem; but he probably overcorrects.

Voters have little say in European lawmaking. Similarly, they have not had all that much say over the project of “ever closer union.” Recall that when the French and the Dutch rejected the European Constitution, the Euro-aristoi essentially went ahead with their plans, anyway. It’s worth noting that, with the Brexit, an overwhelming majority of the Members of Parliament opposed it even though 52 percent of the British people supported it.

The British disparity, on something so fundamental as national sovereignty and even national identity, reveals a serious problem: that purportedly representative institutions are not, in fact, representative. In Britain—and in the United States as well—an increasingly important dynamic in our politics is that of the “people” against “the establishment.” That is precisely the dynamic that a well-constructed constitution is supposed to manage.

Part of the problem might simply be the size of the British Parliament. It might be that, given the number and distribution of Britons today compared to a century ago, the representative units, or “constituencies,” are simply too large to expect to create a truly representative Parliament.

In the months leading up to American independence, John Adams published his “Thoughts on Government,” discussing how independent states might construct their governments. Of the lower house, Adams wrote:

“The principle difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed in constituting this representative assembly. It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them. That it may be the interest of this assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or, in other words, equal interests among the people should have equal interests in it.”

Brexit suggests that Parliament is not representative in that sense. Classically, Britain had the Lords to balance the Commons. That has long ceased to be the case in any significant way. The result is a de facto unicameral government, which might be part of what’s gone awry. The House of Commons itself now seems an elite or even aristocratic body serving the interests of the ruling class rather than the interests of the people.

That said, part of the reason for Brexit is that electoral politics made it necessary for David Cameron to promise to allow the vote in order to win re-election for his party. In that sense, the referendum represents the demos reasserting its place in a mixed regime. The job of the governing class, therefore, is to moderate and balance the real and legitimate interests and desires of the people, rather than to rule them by fiat.

The problem is slightly different with both the EU and the United States.

In the former to a great degree, and in the latter to a lesser, lawmaking is in fact not directly democratic. Given the amount of rulemaking that is done by people with jobs during good behavior (an unwanted return of the King’s civil list, one might say) the will of the people has no means of influencing what much of our government does.

To remedy that problem will not be easy. Even so, as the rise of Donald Trump demonstrates, the alternative to working with the people’s desires, however rational or irrational they may be, inside the regular political process is for populist movements to rise and threaten an end-run around the regular democratic (which is to say small “r” republican, or representative) process.

Near the start of his Defence of the Constitutions, Adams observes:

“It is become a kind of fashion among writers, to admit, as a maxim, that if you could be always sure of a wise, active, and virtuous prince, monarchy would be the best of governments. But this is so far from being admissible, that it will forever remain true, that a free government has a great advantage over a simple monarchy. The best and wisest prince, by means of a freer communication with his people, and the greater opportunities to collect the best advice from the best of his subjects, would have an immense advantage in a free state over a monarchy. A senate consisting of all that is most noble, wealthy, and able in the nation, with a right to counsel the crown at all times, is a check to ministers, and a security against abuses, such as a body of nobles who never meet, and have no such right, can never supply. Another assembly, composed of representatives chosen by the people in all parts, gives free access to the whole nation, and communicates all its wants, knowledge, projects, and wishes to government; it excites emulation among all classes, removes complaints, redresses grievances, affords opportunities of exertion to genius, though in obscurity, and gives full scope to all the faculties of man; it opens a passage for every speculation to the legislature, to administration, and to the public; it gives a universal energy to the human character, in every part of the state, such as never can be obtained in a monarchy.”

A well-balanced representation, if it does its job, keeps the people as a whole—the elite class and the demos–connected. It draws them together, amid some political chafing to be sure. Failing that, we are likely to see that ancient story of the people against the aristoi.

Today’s would-be elites sometimes seem to wish that they served other people than the ones who elected them. No one, after all, likes having a boss. And people with elite university degrees are very unlikely to accept that common citizens are, in fact, their masters. The kicker is, given the ideology prevailing among today’s elites, that they do so while claiming to represent “egalitarian values.”

Unless our representative institutions can be made more truly representative, and our lawmaking can be made to reflect the will of the people, the populist wave will crash harder than we are prepared to expect.

Richard Samuelson

Richard Samuelson is Associate Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino.

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  1. gabe says

    “And people with elite university degrees are very unlikely to accept that common citizens are, in fact, their masters. [or may actually be their intellectual equals] would perhaps better round out this statement.

  2. Scott Amorian says

    Once again professor Samuelson is spot on. The closing issues in the essay summarize the problem, but I would expand a little.

    Making the representative institutions more truly representative is important. In the senate that means representative of the values and collective conscience of the citizens, not with the majoritarian rage of the day, The primary task of the senate according to its original design is to prevent majorities from abusing minorities through law. In 1970 a law was passed, the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, that opened up the senate to direct popular scrutiny and influence. The hope was that greater transparency would somehow lead to better government through better majoritarian influence.

    What actually happened, though, is that the most powerful and influential, not the average citizen, acquired greater influence over the senators. The senators lost the ability to vote their conscience because their vote now leads to punishments or rewards. A certain amount of party discipline is necessary in representative government, but the amount of party discipline created by the 1970 law is excessive (at least in the senate). With an excess of openness the senate became more representative of the will of the majority, and less representative of the values and conscience of the citizens.

    To reform representation of the conscientious chamber the 1970 law must be amended. The senate needs greater freedom from outside influences if it is to do its job correctly.

    Reforms to the executive are needed also, since the candidates offered by either party this year are desired by a small minority, but hated by the majority. Their claims of qualification are dubious. The primary system needs reform. The primary system was developed around the end of the 1800s through the early 1900s by the Progressive Party. The primary system reformed the older system which was basically party bosses choosing the candidates. While the primary system was perhaps an improvement over the old system, it has evolved into the strange and ineffective system we have today.

    Really, what the elective system is supposed to do is to hire a person to be the chief executive. In hiring processes I am familiar with, candidates are evaluated according to their skill sets, how well they gel with their potential coworkers, and whether they have unacceptable black marks in their career history. The old party boss system and the progressive primary system both tried to implement a reasonable hiring process. Both failed because of an excessive inclusion of party politics in the selection process. There are better ways to hire a chief executive; ways that include a formal nonpartisan evaluation of candidates and a popular open elective system that chooses from those candidates. Those popular elective systems can include alternative electoral devices such as evaluative voting systems which include score voting (rate each candidate on a scale), approval voting (give a “yes” vote to all candidates who are acceptable), and reciprocal voting (give a single “for” vote for a candidate and a single “against” vote).

    The reality of the current two candidates emphasizes the need for reform of the how we hire our president.

    Where America’s legislative problem revolves around a weakened chamber of conscience, Great Britain’s problem is that it doesn’t have any effective chamber of conscience to impose a check its popular rages, so we can safely predict GB will continue to degrade as the majority leads the government down the path of supposed good intentions.

    • Mike B says

      Not sure I agree with your comment about the two candidates emphasize a need for reform. Trump has some terrible ideas on trade, and is about as self centered as one can be. But he has done something remarkable. The way he stands up to the media is something I’ve been wishing Republicans would do for years. Most Republicans are just far too polite. Ben Rhodes is President of CBS News, Stephanopoulos is a Clinton crony, John Dickerson is an editor for Slate. This is ridiculous. And Islam IS the problem, not guns. I’d wish he were more Presidential and focus more on issues and policy, but can he possibly be worse than the vacuous cipher we have now? Or be as crooked as Hillary? Her clearing of Ericsson to sell cell phone tracking equipment to Iran, essentially to capture and murder dissidents, coupled with a $10 million donation to the Clinton Foundation, coupled with a $750,000 speech gig by Bill, in Sweden, is gut wrenching, in that she might be President. Trump is not perfect, but he’s not crooked. And he won’t sell out US interests to line his own pockets. Americans sense this, feel this, and look forward to having someone represent them. I question his ability, but not his honesty, nor his desire to deliver on his promises. We could do worse.

      • gabe says

        I would add to that list of abuses by the clinton’s the following:

        During Billy Boy’s tenure he arranged for the sale of rather sensitive guidance systems to the Chicoms – amazing that shortly thereafter the PLA made a nice contribution to the clinton campaign – Oh, of course, it was legal – after all, some monks donated the money!

        Also agree about The Trumpster; He may be a bit of a sleaze, sort of like a fellow in a Disco Leisure Suit who you would avoid, but I doubt he would rob you.

      • Scott Amorian says

        In the case of both candidates we see that they are propped up by a small minority of party insiders, and that a large number of citizens, perhaps a clear majority, hate each candidate. That is not representative democracy. That is a democratic process gone haywire. That is why there is so much public dissatisfaction with our democratic processes. Reform is called for.

  3. libertarian jerry says

    In reality a majority of the American people get the government they want. Fact is that over 1/2 of the adult voting age Americans don’t even vote. Coupled with the fact that a majority of the American electorate are ensconced on the government gravy train either as a government employee on one level or another or the recipient of some kind of government largess on one level or another. The net tax consumer’s vote decides elections.
    In reality there is only one political party in America with basically 2 teams both vying for political power. However the real power in America is the power elites behind the scenes and the “Deep State” which controls most of the important organs of government. The CIA,FBI,IRS etc. plus all of the other important bureaucratic levers of power remain in place no matter which politician or group of politicians are in nominal power. This is why politicians such as George Bush and Barack Obama are hand picked to run for and achieve the Presidency. In essence the powers behind the scenes have selected their puppets ahead of time.
    The average freedom loving American must realize that the game is rigged and the deck is stacked against any kind of real reform. That our Constitution when it comes to the really important issues is a dead letter. That our Republic is gone and has been for over a century. We now live in a nation ruled by a leviathan,intrusive state controlled by powerful sometimes sociopath men behind the scenes.

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