Jonathan Bernstein

Democracy Is Hard. It’s Supposed to Be.

Legislation helping veterans exposed to toxic trash-incineration pits while serving overseas finally passed the Senate this week. Comedian and activist Jon Stewart, who had worked hard to elevate the problem and then to help get the bill across the finish line, expressed frustration that the process had been so arduous.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little,” Stewart said.

Similarly, journalist Wesley Lowery tweeted:

jon stewart is an excellent example of the power of celebrity when [it’s] wielded strategically and unrelentingly on a single issue - and also, it says a lot about our system that an issue like *this would require a celebrity’s unrelenting advocacy for years in order to be addressed

Lowery is right. It does say something about the US political system and about democracy in general. But it isn’t necessarily something bad.

First, democracy in general. There are no consensus issues in a country of 330 million people. Even if the basic idea is overwhelmingly popular — few seem to oppose benefits for veterans who were harmed in the line of duty — that still leaves questions including who should be eligible, what treatments should be covered and who should pay for them.

Beyond that, something only becomes overwhelmingly popular if people notice it in the first place, and in a very large nation there are hundreds — thousands? millions? — of problems that people are upset about. So beyond the challenge of getting people to agree on everything, there is the challenge of convincing people to focus on the problem in the first place. It’s not surprising that having a celebrity activist involved helps.

In other words, it isn’t easy because self-government for a very large polity is never easy.

But it’s probably more difficult in the United States thanks to the convoluted system of separated institutions sharing powers, which multiplies the veto points within the system and makes it difficult to get things done with simple majorities. But that, too, has its advantages. Or at least that’s how I read James Madison’s understanding of the system he helped create.

Here’s the history. The people involved in the American Revolution wanted to establish what they called republican government — some form of rule by all citizens, or what we usually call democracy. This wasn’t new to the 18th century US; there is a long line of political theorists and political participants who had similar republican views.

Collectively they had a very limited idea of who should be included as full citizens, or even as full humans. But even among those they considered to be part of “the people” whom they wanted to rule, the revolutionaries believed that self-government could only work with a virtuous citizenry. If the people became corrupt, self-government couldn’t work. And among their meanings of corrupt was the idea of narrow, material self-interest. Indeed, it wasn’t just that self-government would fail if those involved cared only about narrow self-interest. Even more than that, they correctly worried that if people were mainly concerned about themselves, they wouldn’t get involved in public affairs at all.

And as the revolution wound down, that was pretty much what seemed to be happening. George Washington’s decision to resign his military commission at the close of the revolution and leave public life (temporarily, as it turned out) was a strong example of republican heroism, since he rejected the idea of the hero of the revolution becoming a king.

But it also played into the idea that those who cared about public affairs need only get involved during crises. That worried some of the Founders, who thought they were seeing the demise of republican virtue and the onset of corruption. If “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” turned out to be about private happiness and not the civic-minded idea of public happiness — the satisfaction of acting with others in the political arena, with the reward of building the fame and reputation that Washington had won — then the revolution would have been for nothing.

But Madison came up with a bold solution. What if seeking narrowly self-interested objectives out of the government wasn’t corrupt after all, but a legitimate lure to convince people to get involved in public life in the first place? The ultimate republican goal of self-government and public happiness — the idea that participation in public affairs is valuable and rewarding for its own sake — would still be the same. But Madison saw that most citizens wouldn’t get involved without a private interest at stake.

If that’s the case, then we can think of the complex system of multiple points where policy ideas can be initiated or vetoed as a mechanism to force those who choose to advocate for something such as a veteran’s health bill into having to learn the system, bargain with others with equally legitimate private interests and work out compromises. That is, it’s a system that tries to teach the advantages of a life of public participation.

All of this can be extremely frustrating to those aware of injustices who can’t manage to get them addressed, especially when they believe the majority is on their side. But democracy isn’t the rule of majorities. It’s the rule of the people, all of them (yes, all, not just Madison’s narrow idea of “all”), right or wrong. That this often comes down to majority vote is fine. The Madisonian goal, however, isn’t to translate majority opinion into government policy; indeed, Madison expresses doubt (in “Federalist No. 10”) that majorities as such even exist in the large polities he was imagining, which are surely much smaller than what the US has become. The goal is self-government. And if that makes something that “should” be easy into something much harder? It might be a trade-off worth making.