The End of Representative Government?
By Rob Natelson – March 20, 2023
In their 2010 book “The Blueprint,” authors Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer document how four “progressive” Colorado mega-donors funded political hit squads to defeat Republican state legislative candidates. (After the book was published, one of the four mega-donors bought himself the state’s governorship.)
The authors explain that the mega-donors’ project was made possible by new state and federal campaign finance laws. These laws largely blocked donations from traditional bases of conservative support. But they allowed liberal multi-millionaires to finance political machines employing labor unions, canvassers, media monitors and other non-profits, the latest campaign technology, and negative ad campaigns. The flood of money was so overwhelming that targeted candidates couldn’t respond effectively.
None of the four mega-donors had any personal connections to most of the legislative districts they targeted. They didn’t live there, didn’t own property there, and in most cases probably had never seen the district.
For example: One of the four mega-donors was a homosexual activist named Tim Gill. Gill lived in Colorado, but he targeted a district in Iowa. Gill wanted to remove a legislator named Danny Carroll because Carroll supported traditional marriage. Gill flooded the district with paid workers and negative campaign ads. Carroll didn’t have enough money to respond and lost his seat.
To Carroll and most of his constituents, the Iowa district was home. To Gill, it was just a tool for furthering his agenda.
Such tactics, as Schrager and Witwer note, reduce the actual candidates to “bit players in their own campaigns.” In some respects, you can think of the outside mega-donors as comparable to a shooter ensconced in a tower with a high-powered rifle, picking off helpless strangers he decides he doesn’t like.
But the Voters Make the Decisions, Don’t They?
You might comfort yourself with the thought, “Well, even if the money comes from outside the district, at least the voters in the district make the ultimate decision.” But that is a false comfort, since the flood of outside money supporting one candidate—coupled with campaign finance restrictions on his rival—ensure that voters never hear both sides of the story. Schrager and Witwer report that many of the attacks funded by the four Colorado mega-donors were false or misleading, but their victims had no way of correcting the record.
When the candidate under attack is conservative, this imbalance is aggravated by the dominant liberal mass media environment. Outside money aggravates the imbalance even further by funding leftist “media watchdog” organizations. These organizations badger newspeople into giving liberal candidates good coverage and conservative candidates unfavorable coverage.
Of course, the voters can correct a mistake in the next election. But as Schrager and Witwer document, outside money often flows into subsequent elections as well. Moreover, once “progressives” capture a legislature, they often enact legal changes to skew future elections in their favor. That’s exactly what they did in Colorado once they attained a legislative majority.
Representative Government: The Basics
Deployment of outside mega-bucks coupled with skewed campaign finance laws are only two reasons traditional representative government is breaking down. Some background is needed to understand the other reasons.
As instituted by the American Founders, representative government was based on two broad principles: (1) no laws should be passed without the people’s consent and (2) because it usually is impractical for the people to enact laws directly, they choose agents to perform that function.
To implement the two basic principles, early American constitutions and law codes—both state and federal—adopted the following rules:
- Lawmakers, especially but not exclusively in the lower chamber of the legislature (i.e., the assembly or house of representatives) should mirror the values and feelings of the electorate (pdf).
- The lower chamber should be elected for short terms and from small districts. (James Madison’s famous preference for large districts was not the majority view.) Small districts create a numerous legislative assembly, which furthers representation of all significant interests.
- The upper house (senate) can be a more selective deliberative body.
- Voters should not be dependent on others and they should live, own property, or pay taxes in their district. This encourages independent, long-term decision making.
- Elections should be free and fair.
- In general, whom the voters choose to represent them is their business, not the concern of outsiders.
Different levels of government should provide different services, so voters can connect particular decisions to particular officials. In economic jargon, voter decision-making should be as “unbundled” as possible.
Other Ways the System Is Breaking Down
These rules of representative government have been eroding since the mid-20th century.
One cause has been the growth of the federal government, which has far overflowed its constitutional boundaries. Federal intervention in policy traditionally fixed by state and local governments has blurred lines of responsibility. This renders it difficult for voters to know whom to hold accountable on any specific issue.
Additionally, the federal House of Representatives hasn’t been expanded since 1911, when the American population was less than a third of what it is today. Most states also have representative districts that are too large by traditional standards.
Government has become so big that the number of those employed or otherwise receiving benefits from government is approaching the number of those who pay the bills. Dependency impairs independent decision making.
The franchise has been expanded to include voters with little stake in their districts or who are otherwise unlikely to make informed decisions. The 24th Amendment—adopted in response to a real problem, but drafted too widely—now prevents states from limiting the franchise to taxpayers. Federal law, followed by the 26th Amendment, extended suffrage to 18-year-olds, although today most 18-year-olds are dependent on others and the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 25. The Supreme Court has effectively banned residency requirements longer than 30 days.
I lived in a college town for many years, and witnessed the damage caused by these changes. Students without permanent ties to the locality would vote for irresponsible candidates and for increases in taxes and debt. Then they would graduate, move out, and leave the permanent residents to foot the bill.
The breakdown in representative government can’t be cured easily. The only way to address it may be by amending the federal and state constitutions. Amendments could be directed at specific flaws. Or they could add rules (such as mandatory referenda on tax hikes and other measures) that offset flaws.
These changes will have to be accomplished outside the usual course of politics. At the federal level, state legislatures may use Article V of the Constitution to force Congress to call a “convention for proposing amendments” focused on these issues. At the state level, it will require creative use of the initiative and referendum process to adopt the necessary reforms.