The place of political power in American democracy
BridgeND | Wednesday, September 19, 2018
BridgeND hosted a discussion on Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation several weeks ago. This topic prompted what has proved to be a recurring debate on the place of political power in American democracy. This is a transcript of the basic ideas we’ve exchanged over the last few weeks.
Sarah: Why do you trust institutions more than people?
Griffin: I think one of the great appeals of institutions is they have a staying power, a lasting effect that can go beyond any one generation of people. One of the things you see again and again in history is people are incredibly fallible, even as large groups. The appeal of an institution, of a certain structure of government is that maybe, just maybe, you can set it up in such a way to consistently get results that are better than what you’d get due to chance. Maybe there are ways of shaping people, choosing leaders, that can, by very virtue of the test used, the process implemented, select for better people to lead and better policies to enact.
Sarah: I want to preface my argument — I definitely think that institutions have a place in American life. However, the problem I have with strengthening their power is exactly your first point. Their decisions have a staying power that outlasts the context in which they were made. They’re designed to remove political autonomy from their citizenry and overrule public opinions that they deem to be contrary to society’s best interests. I simply don’t trust that a group of elites who have different interests, needs and lived experiences than their constituencies can adequately judge those interests.
Griffin: I would, of course, also grant that both institutions and democratic instruments have a place in government. The discussion of elites, though, I do take issue with. I think the basic idea I want to hold onto is that some issues require solutions that strictly democratic instruments are not able to handle. The other issue I have is the assumption that elites, driven by their position in society are unable to envision or achieve some sort of common interest. First of all, a lot of the things that we expect from government require highly technocratic solutions. The age in which one person could know everything needed to govern well is long past us. Instead we rely on various experts in various areas to inform policy making. Even absent a political elite, the incredible complexity of the modern world requires at the very least, subject matter experts to inform our choices in a multitude of areas. On the second point, I think there is certainly the factual point that the lived experience of people within society differ greatly. Yet to carry this observation to a rejection of authority of those who have not experienced any particular phenomenon is in some ways a rejection of democracy itself. If we cannot rule those other than ourselves, or at least those unlike ourselves, the idea of a government system that relies on consensus from a broad array of individuals makes little to no sense. Ultimately, voting in a referendum or other democratic instruments is ruling over others. Similarly abiding by the decisions of a democratic community is being ruled by others. If one must understand the experiences of others to rule them, only a society in which everyone was the same could be a democracy.
Sarah: First, if we assume that lived experience is not necessary for just government then there’s reason we need women or minorities in congress. Furthermore, if individuals can transcend the circumstances of their lives, then you negate the premise of representative democracy. Why should Georgians represent Georgians and not New Yorkers if they can rise above the circumstances of their lived experience? On your second point, I do not argue that rule over others is illegitimate. I argue the decentralization of this rule, moving power from from the hands of nine Ivy League graduates, 535 representatives and one executive to the hands of the people, is fundamentally a more just system of government. I agree that when each individual votes they, in some small way, rule over all others in their society. However, decreasing this power firstly removes individual political autonomy and political conscience, assuming that human beings have no place as their brother’s keeper. It assumes that individuals must trust an amorphous institution, created by and for elite interests, with both their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their metaphorical brother. Secondly, decentralization of this power, which creates a system where every voter rules slightly more over every other voter and elites rule substantially less over everyone, both emphasizes the interests of ordinary people and forms a fundamentally more accountable and just system of government.
Sarah Brown is a political science and neuroscience major from Grand County, Colorado. She is a senior and is serving as BridgeND’s president.
Griffin Cannon is a senior studying political science from Burlington, Vermont.
The viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the authors and not necessarily those of BridgeND as an organization.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.