The Static States of America - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Static States of America

The Static States of America

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because someone has to be honest about how representative democracy works.

By Eugene S. Robinson

In the hubbub post these recent off-year elections, while we celebrate the winners — New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie and Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor of Virginia — we can see that the electorate sent not-so-coded messages; and the messages seemed to suggest that we were collectively less interested in government dysfunction than we were in more cooperative problem-solving. Yet the election results still played on an oppositional balance — one from the right and one from the left — that might trigger eye-rolling “here we go agains,” and an expectation that not much of anything will get done.

Color photo of a line of voting booths with people in them

A 2013 Immigration Reform March and Rally in Chicago. Thousands marched to Daley Plaza for a Rally protesting Immigration laws in the United States.

Source Getty

Have America’s built-in political speed bumps turned into speed chasms, and has the go-slow approach to governance yielded a no-go approach?

Well, Virgil said it best in The Aeneid: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” In that instance, a Trojan horse; in this instance, democracy, or as Virgil might have called it, demokratia. More precisely, rule of the people. Or, as the American founding fathers were used to thinking of them, “the mob.”

Which accounts for why we don’t have direct democracy and why every four years certain types of wags will complain about the 538-member Electoral College and the whole one-citizen-one-vote thing. That is: American democracy is designed specifically to protect us from us. As Thomas Jefferson once opined, “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49.”

So representative democracy, what we have now in the U.S. and what most Western-style democracies are (71 others, at last count), was a level-headed attempt at a more reasonable political system. We vote for they who vote in our stead. It’s an added layer of checks and balances and another speed bump between us and the road paved with sometimes unreasonable passions. But have we reached a point in the political life here in America — post-government shutdown, post-debt-ceiling brouhaha — where the built-in speed bumps have turned into speed chasms and the go-slow approach to governance has yielded a no-go approach?

Hunh, what, how?

Immigration reform is stalled. Education reform has stalled. And the debt ceiling/sequester lunacy continues with no progress expected in the short term. Which might be the way it was all planned. Plato in The Republic described democracy as ”a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.” And in his five types of government, he listed it next to the last and lowest, right before tyranny. 

But while the sometimes clumsy, other times slow, deliberative democratic process is frustating to the casual and not-so-casual onlookers and concerned citizens, the point is that the framers of the constitution wanted it this way. What better way to stymie the possible impingement on the rights and liberties of civilians than to have whatever changes that were made being made slowly?

Color photo of crowd of protestors marching down a street

Source Corbis

So grab a cup of tea, sit back, and in advance of the 2014 congressional elections, let’s get ready for a hot-headed flurry of nonactivity. Full of sound and fury and signifying, well, business as usual. And perfectly so.

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