The Low Information Voter And The Demise of America – Part Two

The Low Information Voter And The Demise of America – Part Two by Peter Burrows 8/25/14  elburropete@gmail.com  silvercityburro.com

Winston Churchill once famously quipped, “It has been said democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”  He also said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”

The Founding Fathers probably would have agreed with both of Churchill’s observations.  While they wanted nothing to do with monarchies or dictatorships, they also profoundly distrusted democracies, which they saw as fatally susceptible to demagoguery and mob rule.  However, the right kind of democracy, a representative democracy, or republic, if properly designed might provide sufficient protection from democracy’s tendency to self destruct.

To put the people in charge, yet check the power of the madding crowd, one of the protective things our Founding Fathers did was design a clever system that required laws be approved by two very different legislative bodies. One would be a House of Representatives whose members serve two years and are voted into office by the people.  The other would be a Senate composed of state representatives, two per state, whose members serve six years and would  protect the states’ rights against any trespasses by the central government.

The kicker, which very few people today are aware of, was that these state senators were not to be elected by the people, but as the Constitution directs, “chosen by the Legislature thereof”, i.e. the state legislators.  This changed in 1913 with the seventeenth amendment, which directed senators also be elected by the general populace.

While this was a step toward a more “pure” democracy, it also greatly increased our exposure to the self destructive abuses of democracy.  Instead of having one house of two-year elected politicians held in check by a second house of six-year citizen volunteers, we now have both houses composed of elected politicians, almost all of whom have as their number one priority getting reelected.

Today, contrary to constitutional design, there is no essential difference between the House and the Senate.  Of course, since senators only run for reelection every six years instead of two, they don‘t have to spend ALL their time campaigning and raising money. This means senators can study issues more thoroughly, be more statesman-like, even wise, in their decisions and pronouncements.  Senator Harry Reid of Nevada comes to mind.

Now, imagine the seventeenth amendment was never passed.  What kind of people do you think state legislatures  would consider for appointment to the U.S. Senate?

The first thing that comes to my mind when pondering that question is that there are many people who would make great senators who wouldn’t ever consider running for the office.  The campaign mechanics are too daunting.  It takes some sort of masochist to endure the travel, speeches, fund raising, butt-kissing, and loss of privacy, not to mention the ad hominem gauntlet candidates have to run.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a senate where many of the members were appointed because they had distinguished themselves in medicine, science, business or academia, i.e. some field other than politics?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a senate where most members didn’t care about running for reelection, or in fact wouldn‘t even be interested in another term?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a senate where the members had the political freedom to actually read the bills before they voted on them? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a senate where no member was beholden to special interests, or, most importantly, had to worry about the opinion of those average voters that Churchill jokingly (?) referred to?

No sense in daydreaming: We don’t have an Olympian Senate to protect us from ourselves. Churchill’s average voter elects both the House and the Senate, and the complexity of the issues today means that each of us is a low information voter on most issues, susceptible to demagoguery and prone to vote for politicians who say they can “fix” things if only we give them enough power, which always means a bigger and more intrusive government

The truth of what Jefferson said almost 200 years ago is becoming apparent: “If a nation expects to be ignorant – and free – in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

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