What would the perfect democracy be like?
It seems to me that to understand more clearly what’s wrong with something, it is useful to consider what could be right. Imagine, for a few moments, a democracy in which every citizen took his or her civic obligations very seriously. I don’t mean just that they vote, of course.
It starts with staying well-informed. Everyone would read the newspaper enough to know about the issues that affect us all. We would know not just about the economy and the employment situation, but also about prison conditions, the military, domestic abuse, foreign aid, and all of the dozens of issues that affect us as a country. We certainly wouldn’t agree on all these topics, but we would know the important factors in understanding them. We wouldn’t neglect an issue just because it didn’t personally affect us.
We would vote based on this knowledge. We would, directly and through the media, demand thoughtful answers from the candidates on these questions, not just feel-good sound bites. We would know the candidates’ stands on issues not only important to us, but also important to the country. A candidate who evaded hard questions would not be seen as someone serious enough about his responsibilities to be elected. We would remember a candidate’s past promises, and vote out someone who had not made a good-faith effort to fulfill them. We would not vote for a candidate who attacked his opponent’s character, or made charges based on anything other than the opponent’s record or statements. Insinuations and misleading statements would be recognized as the equivalent of lies, and punished by the voters accordingly.
We would vote based not just on how the candidates’ proposed policies would affect us as individuals, but on how they would affect all of us. We might be ideological, but we would not be dogmatic. Liberals would respect the crucial role played by the free market in a free society, and introduce market principles in government where appropriate; conservatives would understand that sometimes governments must do what the free market isn’t equipped to do. We all would encourage our representatives to negotiate to make laws that represent the interests of all of society, not to stand firm on ideology and reject any agreement not perfectly to one side’s liking.
The media would consider themselves to have a sacred responsibility: to provide us with information designed to give us the best insight possible into the country and world around us. The more serious the issue, the more coverage there would be. Politicians and bureaucrats would be held to account, asked tough questions to which complete answers would be expected; a politician who evaded a question would be reminded that he hadn’t answered the question. If a politician said something factually incorrect, the media would note this as a matter of course. Reporters would avoid being on friendly terms with members of the government, knowing this could interfere with their objectivity as journalists.
It would be well understood that money can be a corrupting influence in politics, so steps would be taken to prevent this. Public money would be allocated to pay for every political campaign, from President to city council member. The money would be given on the condition that it not be used for television advertising; the Web is more than sufficient to spread the politician’s message to those who want to hear it. Private and corporate donations, while not being illegal, would be frowned on due to the potential for corruption, and those who took such donations would not be elected for that reason.
A politician would not be judged positively for acquiring federal money for local projects, as this would be recognized as thinly veiled support for a candidate’s re-election at the taxpayers’ expense. It would be understood that projects that benefit a particular city or region should be paid for by taxes collected as locally as possible, in the interest of not spending taxpayer money on projects that most taxpayers don’t want their taxes to pay for. Voters would recognize that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and politicians would be praised for their fiscal prudence. A constitutional amendment would be passed requiring a 3/4 supermajority to allow deficit spending. Voters would approve of surpluses to pay for future projects, or to finance extra spending in the event of a recession, so deficit spending wouldn’t be necessary.
Most importantly, we would recognize that our duty as voters was to reward politicians whose main efforts were directed at making a better country and a better world, as that would be of substantial benefit not only to us, but to our descendants. Statesmanship would be rewarded at the polls. It would be considered shameful for a politician to advocate putting off dealing with important problems for the next generation to deal with, even if that required an increase in taxes or a decrease in spending. Voters would support politicians who took a long-term view.
Will this ideal democracy ever come to pass? Almost certainly not. People are not like this. Politicians are people too, subject to the same weaknesses and frailties. We don’t pay attention to the newspapers. We want to spend less and get more, to have others pay for what we benefit from. We don’t vote, or do so based on superficial factors. We are swayed by inspiring speeches rather than records of good governance. We allow ourselves to be influenced by campaign commercials that we should know are misleading at best. We sometimes don’t punish our politicians for reprehensible behavior, for violating the public trust.
Above all, we don’t have a high regard for politicians; we regard them as hypocrites and power-grubbers at best, and crooks at worst. In most cases, this view is well justified. But who’s to blame? We are the ones who elected them, after all. They represent us, in more ways than one. They are we, writ large. There are dozens of problems with politics, but it starts here. Until a great majority of us recognize this, nothing will change.