What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
There exist within the prevailing political systems of our time certain lies which have so long been repeated as fact that they have become accepted as such. One is that the government operates with "the consent of the governed." Another is that there exists a "social contract" which justifies and/or requires certain government programs or policies.
A third one has received much attention of late, only due to superficial back and forth squabbling regarding how it is to be usurped and commandeered by whom. This myth is pervasive and profound, in that it lies at the very foundation of the structure upon which most governments currently rest. It is that one person, even if elected by a majority of them, can be a “representative” of a constituency of unique individuals. Representation is the open political secret of our day—the political version of adults going along with the Tooth Fairy ruse in order to fool the rising generation and continue the tradition.
Consider just one simple example that demonstrates the absurdity of claiming that representation works: a Democrat living in Provo, Utah—one of the locales with the highest Republican affiliation in the country. This individual is in the political minority, and almost all political leadership positions will be filled by Republicans. To say that he is “represented” by anybody in government, whether at the municipal, state, or even federal level, is laughable.
Even among members of the same party, substantial differences exist on important policy issues. Does one Republican legislator somehow represent people of drastically diverging opinion on any given issue? Or is the opposite clearly true, but we keep up the self-deceptive representation ruse in order to reassure ourselves that the government is us, and our collective actions through that government have moral sanction and the “consent of the governed?”
States around the country are going through the process of “redistricting” in light of updated census figures, in order to determine jurisdictional boundaries for legislative, school, and congressional districts. These are often very heated processes whereby leaders in competing political parties use whatever tools are at their disposal to increase their personal and party’s opportunity for retaining and gaining political strength by determining the best map.
In redistricting, lines are drawn and districts are created; from such is a “representative” elected. A person on one side of the road may have a certain legislator as his representative, and the neighbor across the street may have a different one altogether. People of common interest may have different districts through which to operate, and people of very diverging interest may be lumped together into one district with a single individual tasked with somehow representing the entire group.
Representation simply does not work; it is a logical impossibility. As such, the term “representation” in all its forms should, in the political realm, be discarded. As children growing up who learn that they have been lied to and the Tooth Fairy is in fact fictional, adults should come to realize that it is a myth to suppose that their diverse interests can, along with everybody else’s, somehow be represented by a single person.
What to call it instead? How about simply the winner of a popularity contest? For that is what politics is, and what elections boil down to. He who wins the most votes gets to wield political authority, voting according to his personal interests and beliefs, his alleged principles, or the majority opinion of his constituency. But he does not represent each person. If anything, he might represent the individuals who voted for him, but then what of those who voted for the other candidates? They effectively have no voice in government. Tell these people that they are being represented, and they will laugh in your face; the minority is keenly aware of the majority’s self-enabling myth.
In an 1807 letter to the Governor of Ohio, Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” True enough, but the form of government both then and now renders that impossible. A noble ideal, but hardly practical within the construct of geography-based government that so predominantly exists today.
Utah offers another interesting example that demonstrates how representative government is simply about power and popularity. Due to an increasing population, Utah is getting a new, fourth congressional district. The lines have not yet even been drawn—meaning that nobody knows who will be a part of this district—and yet there are several candidates who are seeking to become the “representative” of an as-yet non-existent group of people. More correctly stated, then, these candidates are simply ramping up their campaigns to win the political popularity contest, the voters of which will be announced at a later date.
One might reasonably argue that the form of government we currently have is efficient, or beneficial, or better than legitimate alternatives. What cannot be reasonably argued, however, is that the claim of being a “representative” government is legitimate. Rather, our government operates on majoritarian control alone. Decisions are made by those who show up, it’s true, but they are made at the expense of whatever minority group that disagrees but is forced to be governed by a larger group of neighbors who outnumber them.
Democracy, whether called “representative” or direct, is simply gang rule—a political popularity contest where winner takes all, and the losers are sidelined with simplistic reassurances that they are being represented. It’s time we stopped clinging to an obvious myth.