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The disconnect between democracy and Republicanism

By Elvin Lim


It should now be clear to all that the highly polarized environment that is Washington is dysfunctional, and the disillusionment it is causing portends yet more headlocks and cynicism to come.

Here is the all-too-familiar cycle of American electoral politics in the last few decades. Campaign gurus draw sharp distinctions to get out the vote. The impassioned vote wins the day. Impatient voters watch their newly elected president or representative fail to pass in undiluted form the the reforms promised during the campaign. Disillusion ensues. The gurus step in with a new round of fiesty charges, and the cycle begins anew.

At some point, citizens are going to get tired of being stoked, poked, and roped, and all for nought. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are reactions against a system gone awry. The low approval ratings for the Congress and the president are another indicator. The Republicans’ perpetual search for an anti-establishment alternative is another.

And now we are facing a spectacular new failure. The “super committee” charged with reaching a budget reduction deal has proved itself anything but super. If twelve people can no longer agree to make hard decisions, it is reflective of the larger malaise of which we dare not speak. It is that democracy has run amok in a republic founded on the idea that our elected representatives should be able to make decisions on our behalf, and sometimes in spite of ourselves, because representation is a higher calling than mimicry. Maybe that is why Abraham Lincoln did not deliver a single campaign speech in 1860.

Each of the twelve men and women in the committee are thinking about their constituencies, their parties, and their base and so bluster and bravado must take precedence over compromise and conciliation. When the voice of the people, artificially stoked for shrillness, begins to infect the deliberative process even in between electoral cycles, there is no chance for serious inter-branch deliberation. We have reduced our representatives to sycophants whose mantra is do nothing but heap the blame on the other party.

The solution is not to exploit the disillusioned by way of new campaign slogans and negative ads to artificially jolt their temporary and baser passions, but for the noise and the trouble-makers fixated only on winning at the next ballot to be weeded out of the system. To do that, citizens must realize that the lion’s share of what counts as democracy today is making it nearly impossible for the representatives of our republic to make decisions on behalf of We the People. Remember: ours is a republic, if we can keep it.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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