Election Reform and Collective Representation

America was never meant or expected to be a democracy like ancient Athens, and it has, perhaps, occasionally fallen short of what founders like Jefferson, Paine, and Adams hoped for. But ours has been the most optimistic and successful experiment in liberty of man’s history. The experiment has been sustained by two great traditions and the institutions and practices that grew out of them. The first tradition is that of voluntary organizations, including those which are economic and those wholly non-political. The second tradition is representative government, this as district not only from participatory government or Jefferson’s wards, but also from parliamentary or party government. Both traditions are threatened today, but the second more seriously than the first.

In the wake of the Watergate scandals, hope ran high for a revival of public happiness. We had found we could make the system, the constitutional system, work. As was the case with the Vietnam War and President Johnson’s abuse of power, our representative institutions were found to be responsive. More importantly, our representatives, at least enough of them, demonstrated respect for the Constitution and the people. In the case of war, a few members of the Senate stood against the President. In the instance of Watergate, first members of the Senate challenged the executive and later, definitively, the House of Representatives. In both cases, partisanship was secondary. In both cases, direct and mass mobilization by the citizenry was proven unnecessary. It seemed for a while after the departure of Mr. Nixon that we might be headed for a genuine revival of representative institutions. The Senate would guard with new ferocity and vigor the great law and covenant of the land, and the House would again have the vibrancy of a people’s assembly.

But soon we turned our attention from a renewal of representation to notions of reforming representative politics. Common Cause and the League of Women Voters became the representatives of clean politics, good people, the Good. Politicians, if not politics, would wither away. Only procedure mattered.

Our Watergate reform law gave us politics by media, regulation, money, and consultant. It did not eliminate big spending or uneven and unequal influences and access. To win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives today may take half a million dollars. To run for the Senate speaking of the spirit of the laws, the integrity of institutions, and the direction of our civilization, is to appear frivolous, or worse, academic. More and more, politics is given over to sons of the rich, driven to action by lack of interest or skill at finance, or to the products of the new PAC infrastructure — one issue or special-interest men. Power has shifted once again to the Presidency, and it once again tends toward an imperial mode. Public business is conducted among corporate, government, and media elites; there are few channels or levers of accountability. Our two political parties are sentimental and nostalgic — clearly they represent a narrow range of persons: the Republicans — the Tory party; the Democrats — big Labor with some high-tech corporate interests thrown in. Our sense of the Public is withering away. Our hope for a revival of public happiness is gone.

When the Federal Election Act was passed by the Congress in 1975, some of the people who challenged it in the courts said that the state ought not to finance and regulate the process by which the government is chosen. Such an exercise was not only indicative of the bureaucratic mindset, but a kind of ultimate manifestation of it. The idea of the individual citizen — irreducible and able to communicate, argue, and commiserate with his representative — was lost. The Federal Election Act legitimized corporative politics.

We are now to the point of a new and sinister concept of representation. It might be called collective representation. We need not leave our homes or trouble our minds with common concerns. We need only join the appropriate PAC, send in our dues, hope our PAC leaders get us the biggest bang for our buck, and wait at home by the TV for news of the game. It is now a fact that the political action committees can and have absorbed the functions of political party. They recruit individual candidates, they provide funding and strategy, they define agenda and priorities (with a vengeance). The Democratic Party is now, in reality, a kind of clearing-house for such groups. Collective representation is the next step after interest-group liberalism. It is a further step away from the personalism of a representative process. It means another form of “creeping barbarism” (William F. Buckley).

In 1960, the candidates of the Democratic Party were John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington, Lyndon Johnson, and Adlai Stevenson. All had standing within their party or the Congress. One knew where they stood and who their supporters were. They each had a record. In 1984, the Orwellian year, the candidates will be the ghosts of Kennedy and Humphrey (Gary Hart and Fritz Mondale), along with such glittering prizes as Rubin Askew and John Glenn, nowhere men who are anywhere near any real issues.

The United States Senate, supposedly the world’s greatest deliberative body, and its most exclusive club, has recently distinguished itself with two astronauts, one basketball player, a Ketchup heir, and the fifth or sixth husband of the film actress Elizabeth Taylor.

We have recently learned that Senator Howard Baker — competent, compromising and civilized, the finest legislative leader we now have and the best in many years — will leave the Senate to begin a Presidential run for 1988. “A base,” he said, “is a hindrance.” To be a working representative is a negative in the perennial campaign. And so, too, is the existential hype a distraction from the task of representation. Baker believes he did poorly in 1980 precisely because he was a working politician with a record and constituency.

The House of Representatives is today not the people’s house but the P.A.C.’s.  House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Daniel Rostenkowski, does not represent a district in Chicago, but a coalition of brokers and bankers. A Texas democrat recently told Speaker Tip O’Neil that he owed the party no allegiance and had only to answer to the core constituency of himself since his campaign had been by media and the financing principally from his own hip pocket. The tragedy of the degeneration of The House into an interests and commodities market is that in our time the republic’s most desperate need is to break politics down into manageable spaces and groups. Revival of the town meeting, although a positive sign, will not suffice. The critical and salient issues today are national. Members of The House are a direct line to the federal government. Citizens can meet with leaders in our and their districts, in small groups, and engage in the conversation that is representation.

Most of us today instead use our Congressmen only for secretarial and ombudsman functions. Collective representation means we register our opinions through P.A.C.’s, and politicians go to interest groups, not constituents, for help.

The Federal Election Act ought to be repealed because it has seriously undermined the representative idea in America, and done so at a time when America might have rediscovered it.

When the most noble and aristocratic of democratic bodies has been trivialized and the great populist one debased, it is time to begin thinking about return and renewal.

American political history, like all history, is open. We are not inexorably pushed or pulled along any predestined course. The decline of leadership, while demonstrable and frightening, is not irrevocable. But to turn things around we need to retrieve a vision of our own Power, and to regain a sense of purpose and dignity of republican institutions. Our representative process is not, as so many have said and assumed in recent years, one antithetical to increased participation, but rather a practical way to realize public happiness and to refine mass opinion. In so large a democracy, we must necessarily depend upon the experience, professionalism, and probity of our leaders, but no less upon their sense of accountability and engagement with informed persons.

A grass roots politics which is truly political, and neither moralistic nor cultural, will come not from mass movements, but from a renewed and effective use of America’s representative dialogue. This is the modest garden of liberty patriots must tend.


  • Keith Burris

    In 1983, Keith Burris was with Washington and Jefferson, Washington, PA

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