Are you trustful about representative democracy, or are you more cynical? Take this short test to find out.
NOTE: What follows are excerpts from The Case for Representative Democracy: What Americans Should Know About Their Legislatures produced by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Visit the NCSL site for an on-line version of the complete publication and to order the book.
About the Organizations
About the Authors
Representative Democracy: Public Perceptions vs.Reality
Exercises for Readers
What's being said about this book
In February 2000, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) marked its 25th anniversary by establishing the Trust for Representative Democracy. The Trust for Representative Democracy is a public outreach and education initiative designed to counter the cynicism and distrust that prevails among the public today by offering a more positive and accurate view of elected officials, the people who work with them, and the legislative institutions in which they serve.
The American Political Science Association (APSA), the Center for Civic Education (CCE) and the Center on Congress at Indiana University share NCSL's commitment to enhancing civic education on representative democracy and join in a project to offer a fresh perspective on Congress and our state legislatures. This perspective is grounded in the ideas of the framers of the U.S. Constitution and reflects the prevailing view of legislatures, the legislative process and legislators among political scientists. The Case for Representative Democracy: What Americans Should Know About Their Legislatures forms the foundation of the project.
This publication first appeared as A New Public Perspective on Representative Democracy: A Guide for Legislative Interns in January 2000. Four political scientists-Alan Rosenthal of Rutgers University, John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, Karl Kurtz of NCSL and Burdett Loomis of the University of Kansas-collaborated on that guide for students who are interns in state legislatures. The guide was field tested by the authors with legislative interns in 12 states during 2000 legislative sessions. Because interns are students who are intensely involved in the legislative process, they offered a unique vantage point for providing feedback on the content and exercises in the guide. The authors also discussed the interns' guide with legislators, legislative staff, political scientists and civics teachers. Most of these readers reported that they found the guide to be useful and compelling. Based on this response the authors have revised and adapted the original interns' guide for a more general audience.
We hope that The Case for Representative Democracy: What Americans Should Know About Their Legislatures will serve as a useful tool for all citizens who wish to engage in American democracy to gain a broader perspective on the legislative process, politics and representation. It describes the core features of representative democracy in Congress and the state legislatures and provides exercises that enable people to make their own judgments about our political system. On-line resource materials on NCSL's web site at www.ncsl.org augment this guide. Additional references for studying politics and government can be found on the APSA's web site at www.apsanet.org.
The authors of this monograph have a point of view: they make the case for representative democracy. Americans are so bombarded by negative and inaccurate portrayals of government that it is essential to offer an explicitly positive view of representative democracy to balance the prevailing cynical and distrustful views.
Many civic education initiatives are under way across the United States today. Considerable attention is being devoted to increasing civic knowledge, which is at low levels, especially among younger generations. Even more attention is being given to encouraging civic engagement, whereby people vote and participate in government between elections. Our effort complements these two thrusts. It focuses on civic perspective-how citizens view the political institutions, processes and people that are fundamental to representative democracy in America.
William Pound, Executive Director, National Conference of State Legislatures
Lee Hamilton, Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University
Charles Quigley, Executive Director, Center for Civic Education
Catherine Rudder, Executive Director, American Political Science Association
About the Organizations
The National Conference of State Legislatures is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the nation's 50 states, its commonwealths and territories. NCSL has established the Trust for Representative Democracy to improve public understanding of the concepts of American democracy. The Trust for Representative Democracy offers a comprehensive package of civic education programs about America's legislatures.
The American Political Science Association is the major professional society for people who study politics, government and public policies in the United States and around the world. Education for civic engagement and responsive governance were founding objectives of the political science profession at the beginning of the 20th century, and they remain essential for the 21st century. APSA maintains a national civic education network.
The Center for Civic Education promotes informed, responsible participation in civic life by citizens who are committed to American democracy's fundamental values and principles. Among the Center's range of curricular, teacher-training and community-based programs is Project Citizen, a middle-school civic education program designed to help prepare students to participate competently and responsibly in state and local government.
The goals of the Center on Congress at Indiana University are to improve public understanding of Congress-its role in our large and diverse country, its strengths and weaknesses, and its impact on the lives of ordinary people-and strengthen civic engagement, especially among young people. The Center advocates a balanced, realistic view of Congress, that leads to a desire to make things better rather than to cynicism and giving up. Center programs include syndicated op-ed and radio commentaries and on-line educational activities for students.
Alan Rosenthal teaches at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and has written numerous books and articles about state legislatures.
John Hibbing, professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has written about Congress and currently is exploring public attitudes toward the political system.
Karl T. Kurtz directs the National Conference of State Legislatures initiative, the Trust for Representative Democracy, and writes about state legislatures.
Burdett Loomis is professor of political science at the University of Kansasand writes about interest groups, state legislatures and Congress.
Americans like the idea of representative democracy, but they have little liking for the practices, institutions and politicians that make representative democracy work. Nor are they tolerant of the processes, which require debate (viewed as bickering), compromise (viewed as selling out), advocacy (viewed as posturing) and stalemate (viewed as obstructionism). They do not trust government to do the right thing, they are cynical about elected public officials who are supposed to represent their interests, and they feel that the legislative system as it operates is wide open to special interests but not to the public. The political system gets low marks from most Americans.
There are many reasons for these negative public perceptions. The virtues of representative democracy are not self-evident. The processes in Congress, state legislatures and city councils are messy and difficult to fathom, even to insiders. In their efforts to draw readers, the media focus on conflict and overemphasize negative events. All too often, politicians run against the political system and the people in it. At the same time, significant societal changes have taken place, and culture wars have broken out in American society. Although expectations of what government can do have risen, notions about why and how government should perform have become more heterogeneous and conflicting.
The accumulation of negatives fuels public discontent and disenchantment. No particular incident, specific charge, single newspaper story or television portrayal makes a huge difference, but years of battering have eroded support for the political system. This climate of cynicism is deadly to representative democracy. It hinders the recruitment to elective public office of talented and concerned people, many of whom no longer will risk having their characters assailed and their reputations damaged. It weakens the bonds between citizens and their representatives. It makes consensus more difficult to achieve, because trust is in such short supply. It hinders steady and pragmatic solutions, while encouraging posturing, scapegoating and quick fixes. It erodes the representative assemblies that have served us remarkably well for more than 300 years. It puts our system of representative democracy in peril, even though we have nothing else we would rather have in its place, and nothing that would serve nearly as well.
This publication offers engaged Americans an alternative view of representative democracy by providing a more accurate and positive perspective. It is based on six operating principles of representative democracy as it is practiced throughout the nation. The first two principles focus on representatives as individuals, and the latter four emphasize representation as a system. The treatment of each operating principle includes both a discussion of what the public perceives and a discussion of how politicians and institutions work.
The authors of this guide believe that the system and its participants work well-by no means perfectly, but well-and better than any realistic alternative. Of course, there are problems with legislatures and with legislators that need attention. Of special concern are the conduct of political campaigns, the business of campaign finance and conflicts of interest, partisanship and incivility in the legislature. These concerns should not be taken lightly. Yet, they should not detract from an appreciation of a system that, while currently the envy of the world, is misperceived and unappreciated here at home.
What People Think
How It Really Works
1. Legislators are simply out for themselves, lack integrity and act unethically.
The overwhelming number of legislators are out to promote the public welfare, as they and their constituencies see it. Moreover, they are generally ethical, although not everyone agrees on just what is and is not ethical in public life.
2. Legislators do not care what regular people think.
Legislators are very concerned about what people in their districts want and need. Everybody's opinions are invited and welcome before the legislature. But organized groups that have sizeable memberships or major employers in their districts may have more influence than individuals alone.
3. Americans agree on what is right and what is necessary, so the legislature should just pass the laws that the people want.
People in our diverse and pluralistic system do not agree on issues except at a general level. It is the job of the legislature to resolve the clash of values, interests and claims.
4. Legislators are the servants of special interests that look out for themselves, not the will of regular people. A few big interests run the government.
There is an organized group for almost every conceivable policy interest that anyone might have. The number and diversity of organized interests ensure that all sides of an issue are heard but not that any one group comes out ahead.
5. The lawmaking process doesn't work well because of politics, unprincipled deal making and needless conflict.
Making laws is a contentious process because it encompasses different and competing values, interests, and constituencies, all of which are making claims on government or one another. Some differences are fought out, but most are negotiated, compromised and settled-at least to a degree and for a while.
6. The political system and politicians are not accountable for their actions.
Legislators who run every two or four years, who may be subject to recall and whose every vote is on record are as accountable as anyone can be.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution devised a system of representative democracy that has endured for more than 200 years. In Washington, D.C., and in the capitals of the 50 states, the resilience of the legislative institutions and processes that are at the heart of our political system demonstrate the genius of James Madison and his colleagues. However durable and serviceable the system has proven to be, it currently is under assault.
Americans like the idea of representative democracy, but they have little liking for the practices, institutions and politicians that make representative democracy work. Nor are they tolerant of the processes, which require debate (viewed as bickering), compromise (viewed as selling out), conflict (viewed as posturing), and stalemate (viewed as obstructionism). They do not trust government to do the right thing, they are cynical about elected public officials who are supposed to represent their interests, and they feel that the legislative system as it operates is wide open to special interests but not to the public. The political system gets low marks from most Americans.
It is little wonder that the public is not positive. The virtues of representative democracy are not self-evident. The processes in Congress, state legislatures and city councils are messy and difficult to fathom, even to insiders. What goes on often is like a three-ring circus with action occurring continuously, simultaneously and in many arenas at once. The people who are engaged in politics-professional and citizen politicians alike-seem to be a breed apart, not even as familiar to ordinary people as are aliens from outer space.
Skepticism is a normal and healthy characteristic in a democracy. But in the quarter of a century since Watergate, the effects of attack and innuendo have transformed skepticism into outright distrust and cynicism. The media, as principal storyteller about politicians and political institutions, bear considerable responsibility for the trend. In their efforts to draw readers, the media focus on conflict and overemphasize events that cast the political system in a negative light. Increasing competition among the print and electronic media have put a premium on the sordid, sensational and scandalous, whether real or inferred. Even the entertainment media have contributed to the unflattering picture of politics and politicians. Since 1975, with the notable exception of West Wing, three of every four television episodes involving the American political system have portrayed it as corrupt.
Politicians themselves cannot escape blame. The widespread use of government as a target in political campaigns also damages public trust. All too often, politicians run against the political system and the people in it. "I'm all right," you will hear them say during the course of an election campaign, "but the system is broken. Elect me and I'll fix it." If both an incumbent and a challenger trash the system, why shouldn't voters conclude that something-indeed, more than something-must be wrong?
Add to all this the significant societal changes that have taken place and the culture wars that have broken out in American society. Although expectations of what government can do have risen, notions about why and how government should perform have become more heterogeneous and conflicting. Ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference and attitudes toward the family, abortion, drugs and immigration polarize opinions nowadays more than in the past. Political institutions are caught in the crossfire.
The accumulation of negatives fuels public discontent and disenchantment. No particular incident, specific charge, single newspaper story or television portrayal makes a huge difference, but years of battering have eroded support for the political system. Younger generations probably are most affected, in that their social trust, as well as their political trust, is diminished. They express overwhelmingly cynical views, and they cite their cynicism as a reason for indifference to and disengagement from politics. In the end, many of them simply do not see themselves as part of the American political community.
This climate of cynicism is deadly to representative democracy. It hinders the recruitment to elective public office of talented and concerned people, many of whom no longer will risk having their characters assailed and their reputations damaged. It weakens the relationship between voters and elected officials that is at the heart of our idea of representative democracy. It makes consensus more difficult to achieve, because trust is in such short supply. It hinders steady and pragmatic solutions, while encouraging posturing, scapegoating and quick fixes. It erodes the representative assemblies that have served us remarkably well for more than 300 years. It puts our system of representative democracy in peril, even though we have nothing else we would rather have in its place, and nothing that would serve nearly as well.
There is much to be said in defense of the political system, but few defenders have come forward. Congress and state legislatures are the engines of representative democracy, and they are under severe assault. Legislators themselves-or even legislative leaders-too rarely rise to the defense of institutions that ought to command their allegiance. Outside the legislative communities of the nation, few people challenge the contemporary criticisms. The few academic experts who study the subject reach very different conclusions than most people about representative democracy and legislative institutions.
As political scientists, the authors offer a more balanced and accurate view of the political system. As professionals and as citizens, the four of us believe that the perceptions Americans have of legislators and legislatures do not reflect the reality of actual practice and performance. The overly negative environment for politics represents not only a disservice to the nation's institutions, but a disservice to the nation's citizens as well. People have a right to an alternative to the perspective that prevails today.
This guide presents such a perspective. It is designed for people who are (or would like to be) interested and involved in the legislative process: from high school students and legislative interns to corporate and union managers to senior citizen organizations. We are concerned that if citizens come to their involvement in the political process with the perspective held by most people, what they see and experience will take on a very negative cast.
The purpose of this guide is to offer engaged citizens an alternative view of representative democracy-a more accurate and positive perspective.
We offer here six operating principles of representative democracy as it is practiced throughout the nation. Interested and involved citizens should think about each of these operating principles and decide for themselves if they match the reality of Congress or their state legislature. The first two principles focus on representatives as individuals, and the latter four emphasize representation as a system. Our treatment of each principle includes both a discussion of what the public perceives and a discussion of how politicians and institutions work. At the conclusion of this guide are exercises to help people make up their own minds about representative democracy in America.
Naturally, elected public officials vary in their characteristics, just as political systems vary in theirs. Representative democracy operates somewhat differently in the Congress and from state to state- better in some places than in others. We assume that the judgments citizens make about their own political systems will vary as well, but we are confident that, using this guide, they will gain a positive impression of how representative democracy actually works.
The authors of this guide believe that the system and its participants work well-by no means perfectly, but well-and better than any realistic alternative. Of course, there are problems with legislatures and with legislators. They have to strive constantly for improvement. Of special concern nowadays are the conduct of political campaigns, the business of campaign finance and conflicts of interest, partisanship and incivility in the legislature. These concerns should not be taken lightly. Yet, they should not detract from an appreciation of a system that, while currently the envy of the world, is misperceived and unappreciated here at home.
Please refer to the National Conference of State Legislatures Web site for the contents of the following chapters:
What Makes Legislators Run?
How Legislators Are Linked to Constituents
Where People Stand
How Special Are Interests?
Why the Process is Contentious
What Makes the System Accountable?
The perspective that has been suggested here is in sharp contrast to the perspective that dominates the public sphere today. The popular orientation toward politicians and political institutions should come as no surprise. Practically anyone who developed political views since Watergate and Vietnam would almost certainly have to be cynical and distrustful, given the media and communications that shape how we look at things.
The subjects of "special interests" and campaign finance and their influence on legislators' behavior have come up in every chapter of this work. Indeed, the subject pervades political life in America. The media harp on it. Candidates for elected office-from president to county assessor-accuse their opponents of being "tools of the special interests." Government reform organizations trumpet alleged correlations between campaign contributions and legislators' roll call votes. At the end of chapter one, we listed a series of factors that influence the behavior of legislators in an effort to place concerns about special interests and campaign contributions in proper perspective. Now that we have explored the relationships among these different influences in more detail, we are in a good position to revisit that list of factors and summarize their effects. These influences on legislators' decisions are complex, highly interrelated and almost impossible to isolate on any given issue:
Legislators' core principles and beliefs and their public
Many legislators come into public service with strong dispositions toward public policy issues. As they gain experience in the legislature these views and beliefs grow stronger, and legislators build a public record on issues. This record is subject to attack from their opponents in election campaigns, especially if the record shows frequent changes in positions or other inconsistencies. Beyond the natural tendency for people to behave in ways that match their personal beliefs, there is pressure to maintain consistent views. Periodic elections hold legislators accountable for their beliefs, positions and voting records.
The merits of the issue
There are few issues in American life on which everyone agrees. Usually there are merits on both sides, just as there are organized interests on both sides. The contentiousness of the legislative process ensures that each issue is thoroughly argued on its merits.
Legislators pay close attention to their constituents' views because they are products of their communities and think in similar ways, they want to do good for their districts and most want to be reelected to office. On matters that are important to their districts and on which most of their constituents agree, nothing is likely to sway legislators from voting their district's opinion.
Organized interest groups and campaign contributors
There is a great diversity of organized interests. Legislators hear from all sides on issues of importance. Individuals and groups that make campaign contributions usually give to legislators who are predisposed to support their positions. Large, well-organized interests that give to political campaigns guarantee that their message will be heard by legislators, but not to the exclusion of all of the other competing interests.
Legislative leaders and political parties
Even though political parties in the United States usually are characterized as weak compared to those of many other countries, they still have strong influences on legislators' behavior. People who run for public office choose one party or another, usually on the basis of their core principles and beliefs. All but a few legislators in the country are elected under the banner of one of the two major parties. In order to get ahead and achieve positions of influence that allow them to achieve their policy goals, legislators must respond to their party's leaders, who usually are trying to advance a party policy agenda.
The Executive Branch
Because of their ability to dominate media attention, their positions as party leaders and the powers of their office, chief executives have important influences on legislators' decisions. They are lightning rods that can cause legislators to go one way or another, depending on whether they are of the same party as the governor or president. Executive agency officials also can have a significant effect because of their specialized knowledge, larger resources and greater expertise.
Legislative committees or trusted colleagues
Legislators cannot be experts on all the hundreds of issues that come before them. On matters on which they don't know a lot or don't have strong positions, they rely on the recommendations of the legislative committees that have studied the issue in more detail or on colleagues they know are knowledgeable in the area.
Family and personal friends
Legislators' personal connections help to define their core values and beliefs in the first place. On some issues they may feel more accountable to friends and family than to almost anyone else. A former Colorado legislator says, "I found it more difficult to say `no' to my friends than to the people who contributed to my campaign."
We have argued that lawmakers and legislatures behave much better than the public perceives. But that does not mean that their performance leaves nothing to be desired. Legislators, like the rest of us, are imperfect human beings. No matter how many ethics laws and regulations the Congress or the states enact, some legislators --albeit a small proportion -- will cross the line.
Legislatures as institutions also need to improve-not necessarily their work products (legislation), about which people in a pluralistic society will naturally disagree, but the legislative process itself. Some legislative practices are flawed, more seriously in some places than in others.
Although we have tried to place it in proper perspective, the American system of campaign finance receives a large part of the criticism leveled at American political institutions. There is little doubt that the campaign finance system needs repair. But, it should be noted, in many of the smaller and even some medium-sized states fund raising and campaign spending present few real problems. The amounts are far from excessive. In the larger states, and particularly in the most competitive districts, the sky is becoming the limit for hard money, soft money, party expenditures and independent expenditures. This is a reflection of the high stakes and increasing competitiveness of state politics.
Congressional campaigns also vary in campaign expenditures. Candidates for senate races in small states go for less, whereas in large states candidates in a competitive race may spend $10 million to $20 million. In New Jersey's 2000 election for the Senate, one candidate spent $60 million-all of which was his own money. Most house races are relatively safe for the incumbent, no matter which party, but in any single election both sides target 40 to 50 seats. Control of the house depends on the outcomes in these races, so the candidates, the congressional parties and interest groups raise and spend as much money as possible to win these races.
The goals of campaign finance reform are to: limit expenditures; minimize the possibility that contributions will corrupt legislators; assure full disclosure, so citizens know who is giving to whom; reduce the amount of time legislators have to take away from lawmaking responsibilities in order to raise funds; enable candidates to get their message to the public; and even give challengers a better chance to compete with incumbents. These goals are not easy to achieve, and some of them actually may be in conflict with others. Nonetheless, improvements are necessary in this area.
Campaigns, themselves, need improvement. Too often they are nasty, accusatory and unfair, tending to promote cynicism among the citizenry. At the very least, incumbents ought to renounce running against the institution in which they serve. In Congress and the larger and more competitive states-California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example-the campaign has become too much a part of the legislative process itself. Legislative leaders and legislative parties raise and allocate funds or other resources, resulting in the further politicization of a process that is already (and should be) political. To an unhealthy extent, election campaigns are fought out in the legislative assemblies as well as in the legislative districts of the states. Partisanship increases beyond expected levels and settlements on policy are more difficult to achieve. In some chambers, moreover, civility suffers and members on opposite sides of the aisle stop communicating with one another.
In a few places-but certainly not many anymore-legislative leaders hold power too tightly. In many more places, leaders have a tougher time leading members who are disinclined to follow. It is no simple matter to determine what to do about such arrangements. Although a rules change might work, essentially it is up to members to select the kind of leadership that suits them and to follow them in their own manner. The legislature itself is a democratic system.
Ethical issues also have to be dealt with. Some members step over the bounds, even when it is reasonably clear where the line should be drawn. Others, however, have to navigate the gray areas of legislative life, which are like uncharted minefields with no agreement about where the line should be drawn. Legislators, as individuals, are still not as conscious of ethics as they ought to be and legislatures, as institutions, have not taken the responsibility for promoting ethical conduct that they should. It is no easy matter for members of Congress and state legislatures to judge their colleagues. Moreover, the ultimate responsibility for the membership of the legislature resides with the electorate in each legislative district. The voters who send legislators to the capitol also can stop sending them.
The institutional problems that legislatures ought to address are peculiar to each legislature. They are not the same everywhere. Campaign finance reform is not a pressing issue in Wyoming, and legislative ethics is not a priority concern in Vermont.
The flaws of Congress, which is an extraordinarily complex institution, differ from those of legislatures in the states. Currently, the U.S. House (which has different problems than the Senate) probably needs to strengthen a committee system that has been seriously weakened in recent years. It focuses too much on short-term solutions at the expense of future problem-solving. It could improve its oversight of executive performance of the policies and programs that Congress previously enacted. It also needs to devise ways to balance the power of the executive branch without overstepping the bounds of its own legitimate powers.
On balance, how well do America's legislatures perform? Compared to an absolute standard, legislative performance will never completely measure up. We wouldn't expect it to. Yet, the performance of some legislative bodies would come closer than that of others. Compared to an earlier time-say 35 years ago, immediately after the reapportionment revolution and at the beginning of the legislative modernization movement-legislatures have improved as political institutions in at least seven ways.
1. They are more representative, with substantially more women members and also more racial and ethnic minority members.
2. They have greater capacity, the wherewithal in staff and information, to do the job.
3. They are more independent, and truly check and balance the executive.
4. They exercise more responsibility, taking on problems and seeking solutions in areas that heretofore were left to the federal government or ignored entirely.
5. They are more open, so that the media and citizens can (if they wish) observe a large part of the process and legislators can be held more accountable for the actions they take.
6. They are more competitive-not district by district but chamber by chamber-with the two parties seriously vying for control in about two-thirds of the nation's senates and houses.
7. They are more responsive (and some would say they are too responsive) to the desires and needs of the citizens of the various constituencies of the state.
Ironically, the successes of legislatures may be related to the way the public sees them; the better they are, the worse they look. Even if legislatures are better than they used to be, critics maintain that representative democracy doesn't work well enough today. Another form of governance would be better. What are the main alternatives?
One alternative is executive dominance. Let the president or the governor and the departments and agencies of the executive branch make, as well as administer, law. After all, presidents and governors are democratically elected either by the entire nation or by the state. They have a broader perspective, greater visibility than legislators, and speak essentially with one voice. They are easier to hold accountable than are legislatures. According to executive dominance proponents, legislatures get in the way of the good policy that comes out of the chief executive's office.
No doubt, things would be simpler and more efficient if we left everything to the executive. But debate, negotiation, and compromise would be reduced. The minority, as in a parliamentary system, would have little role, except to try to win the next election. Everything would ride on a single roll of the dice. Legislators might continue to serve their constituents as ombudsmen, but representation for citizens would be sharply curtailed.
Another alternative is direct democracy, which would allow people to vote directly on issues without the need for representatives to decide for them. Several features of direct democracy already are with us and others do not seem far off. The initiative and referendum, reforms introduced in the Progressive Era, currently permit citizens in half the states to vote on an issue, bypassing the legislative process. Use of the initiative, the more popular mechanism of the two, has increased markedly in the past 20 years.
Those who favor the initiative argue that the people ought to have the right to decide important issues, including those with which the legislature refuses to deal and others where one side sees a benefit in going right to the ballot. When polled, large majorities of citizens-and especially those in states that make frequent use of it-favor the initiative. When pressed in focus groups, however, people have doubts about their own ability and that of their fellow citizens to decide complex issues.
The initiative stands in sharp contrast to the legislative process as a way to make policy. Little deliberation takes place, and information mainly comes from 30-second spots on television. Far more deliberation takes place in a legislative assembly and considerable information finds its way into the process. The initiative provides for a yes-or-no decision, whereas the legislative process allows for bargaining and compromise. With the former there are big winners and big losers; with the latter, although victory is diminished, so is defeat, and consensus is more likely to be built. When citizens are faced with ballot propositions, they vote on an issue without regard to other issues. Legislators make connections among issues-adopting one might preclude adopting another; spending for one might require raising revenues or cutting spending for others. Citizens cannot be held accountable for their votes on an initiative; legislators are held accountable for any votes they cast.
The Internet and other technological developments make direct democracy, in one form or another, a distinct possibility. A number of people advocate moving away from reliance on the collective judgment of elected representatives to letting the voters decide for themselves. The system may not reach that stage, but it is likely that, by means of the Internet, people will be able to express their views district by district on precisely the same issues that their legislators face. And legislators will be-hard pressed not to accept a majority view. As Dick Morris, in his book Vote.com, threatens, "We are going to take to the Internet and tell our representative what to do whenever we damn well feel like it." With direct democracy, or some variant, the legislative process for all intents and purposes will be superfluous. Deliberation, negotiation, bargaining and compromise will not be necessary when representatives simply mirror the majority views. Relieved of the pressures of lawmaking, legislators could devote all their energies to running errands for their constituents.
What system does the reader prefer-representative democracy, executive dominance, or direct democracy? The authors believe that the system we have now-and have had for more than 250 years-is the preferred one. It is complex, messy, human and imperfect-but better than the alternatives. Unfortunately, representative democracy as practiced by legislators and legislatures is not comprehensible to many people. Because people tend to distrust most that which they understand least, we hope that we have shed some light on and given readers a sense of a political system that we believe works remarkably well.
This guide to representative democracy offers two contrasting views of our political system. The following exercises are designed to help you make up your own mind between these differing points of view.
Many of the following exercises ask you to talk to legislators about what they do and how they do it. Conversations with legislators should give you an idea of how the members fit or don't fit the perception that the public has of legislators. Legislators are highly accessible, especially at the state level and in their own districts. They like to talk to students, community groups, service clubs and other organized groups. If you invite them, especially when they are out of session, they are likely to come. Show them the questions in these exercises in advance and ask them to speak to the issues that are raised here. Or just invite them for an informal discussion and ask the questions yourselves. The questions, along with a few other exercises that do not require interviewing legislators, are keyed to each chapter.
1. What Makes Legislators Tick?
A. Following are some questions for you to discuss with one or more legislators:Why did the legislators run for office (and for the legislature in the first place?
What kinds of careers have the legislators had in the past and what sorts of political careers do they have in mind for the future?
What keeps the legislators going? What do they like or dislike about the job? (Does your state have term limits, as shown in table 1; and, if so, what are the effects of term limits on the legislators?)
How much effort do the legislators expend on fund raising for the next election, and how much on organizing support? Does it interfere with their legislative duties? How much did the last campaign cost?
Do the legislators give campaign contributors, or supporters, special access or treatment?
What kinds of ethical issues have the legislators encountered in the course of their service? How did they handle them?
B. On the basis of what you have learned, list both the positive and the negative aspects associated with being a member of the legislature in your state. Think about them; balance them. Would you want to do the job?
2. How Legislators Are Linked to Constituents
A. Following are more questions to ask one or more legislators:What are their districts like? What types of people live there? What do they care about? How do the representatives know?
How much do constituents request service and casework? What kinds of things do they ask for? How do the legislators handle such requests? How important a part of the representatives' job do they think service and casework are? How many constituents contact the legislators in an average week?
Take an issue or two that the legislature dealt with recently and ask the legislators how their constituents felt, how they communicated their feelings, whether there was disagreement within the constituency and what factors weighed in the legislators' decisions on the issues. Did the constituency care?
What do they regard as a constituency "mandate"? Can the legislators remember any instances when they voted against such a constituency mandate? What were the issues and why did the legislators act contrary to the wishes of most of their constituents?
B. Do you think that the legislators care what constituents think and weigh these views and interests heavily? Would you say that legislators in your state try to represent their constituents? Do they manage to do so? If not, how do they fall short?
3. Where People Stand
Public opinion surveys are useful for learning about the diversity of views in both the country as a whole and in individual states. One source of such information is public opinion surveys. Several web sites maintain useful compilations of nationwide survey results.
A. On one of these web pages, find a national or state poll, preferably of fairly recent vintage, that posed policy questions to the American public. Read several of the questions without noting the response patterns. Then make predictions about the public's attitudes, with particular attention to the extent of agreement you expect to find. Now look at the responses and compare them to your predictions. Answer the following questions on the basis of your analysis, using actual numbers from the survey.What is the extent of agreement on these policy issues?
On what kinds of issues does there appear to be agreement and on what kinds of issues does there appear to be disagreement?
B. Conduct your own informal survey of people you know, trying to get people with different backgrounds and traits. Ask them individually about a current controversial issue in your state or about an issue that has been in the news recently. Make them give a clear answer, though, one that indicates whether they agree or disagree with a specific proposal. Take note of their responses, perhaps jotting them down after your conversation has ended.Is consensus greater in your personal poll than in national and state polls? If so, why do you think this occurred?
4. How Special Are Interests?
A. Invite one or more lobbyists to speak to your class or group and ask them some of the following questions:Whom does the lobbyist represent? What issues does the lobbyist's membership or clients currently have before the legislature? Choose one of the lobbyist's major interests and ask what groups are in opposition to this interest.
What techniques does the lobbyist use to influence legislators? What kind of information does the lobbyist provide to legislators?
What does the lobbyist have to say about the lobbying system? What are its virtues? What are its defects?
B. After the interviews, consider the following questions:Think of your own views and positions. Are you a member of any interest groups? Do any interest groups generally represent your views, whether you are a member or not? What about your friends and family and their representation by groups?
What groups do you think have the most influence in your legislature? What accounts for their influence-the merits of their case, size of their membership, economic position, strength of members' beliefs, campaign contributions?
Would the legislature work better without lobbyists? Why? How?
What interests in your state are not adequately represented before the legislature? Why aren't they? How well does the legislative system perform in allowing conflicting views and interests to compete? Who are the big winners? Big losers?
5. Why the Process Is Contentious
A. Many imaginative computer simulations are available these days. SimCity allows players to run a city and requires them to make political decisions. The Center on Congress at Indiana University has a simulation on "How a Member Decides to Vote" at http://congress.indiana.edu/. These simulations teach you about the complexities of the policymaking process, because you are constantly faced with differing points of view, limited resources, competing goals and the necessity of compromise.
6. What Makes the System Accountable?
A. Discuss the following with one or more legislators:What does accountability mean to them? Do they believe they are accountable? To whom and how?
B. Based on your conversation, consider the following questions:Do you think that constituents can hold legislators accountable? How is accountability enforced?
Is it possible in your state for the minority to win control of the senate or house? How does the electorate hold the majority party of the senate or house accountable? In what ways does the public hold the entire legislature accountable?
Compare the accountability of legislators with that of physicians, attorneys, college professors and public school teachers. Which groups do you think are more or less accountable? To whom?
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current climate of cynicism and distrust about American democracy!"
Thomas E. Mann, W. Averell Harriman Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
"This guide helps citizens understand how American legislatures
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