The Missing Element of Political Reform Debates
Political reform, whether it favors sweeping institutional overhauls or looks to fixes tailored towards more narrow problems, operates under the assumption that government dysfunction ultimately stems from some flaw within government.
This statement might seem blatantly tautological, but in fact it reflects a deeper problem with American politics: a fundamental misunderstanding of the complex role of the polity in structuring and directing the machinations of government institutions.
Though “democracy” is likely the first word that springs to the mind of the average citizen when the spectre of American government is raised, to describe citizen involvement purely in terms of interest-expression transmitted to federal elected representatives does a great disservice to the rich culture of local participation where, foundationally, the bulk of political activity is designed to occur.
The intricate division of powers between the coequal branches of the federal government should be a thing familiar to all citizens. However, this is not some madcap scheme pulled from the ether by members of Congress; it reflects the functional biology of mankind. It takes notes of the divisions sown into the natures of man. These divisions not only create vibrancy within culture but help check the ambitions of individuals: a wise man does not transgress his neighbor if he knows that one day he may rely upon him for his survival.
To quote the great American novelist James Fenimore Cooper:
“A community of hazard makes a community of interest, whether person or property composes the stake. Perhaps a meta-physical and a too literal, reasoner might add, that, as in such situations each one is conscious the condition and fortunes of his neighbour are the mere indexes of his own, they acquire value in his eyes from their affinity to himself.”
The checks and balances that occur both between and inside government bodies are merely a reflection of this fundamental law of nature. By subdividing power so that a multiplicity of interests, to borrow a term from James Madison, prevails, the likelihood that any one group can ever gain a stranglehold on power is decreased.
To consider politics through such a lens is to realize the profound role that citizens, not just as members of the polity, but more broadly as individuals, have in shaping government. What’s more, the vibrant pluralism of Congress is designed to reflect approximately interest groups that exist naturally in localities in response to the necessities that arise from living.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 13,
Civil power, properly organized and exerted, is capable of diffusing its force to a very great extent, and can in a manner reproduce itself in every part of a great empire by a judicious arrangement of subordinate institutions.”
In this instance, Hamilton is speaking to the perceived threat raised by standing armies, but the principle holds true, even if it must be reversed slightly: it is the arrangement of local institutions that, even though subordinate in matters where the federal government reigns supreme, influence the genetic makeup of government at the highest levels. This may be true demographically and attitudinally.
The energy of government finds its locus in the citizenry, the sole font of justly-exercised political power. This, though, necessitates that political engagement originate with the self: the individual must govern his or her affairs. This, in turn, necessitates interaction with one’s friends, family and community, leading to the creation of local politics. This is an engagement that, theoretically speaking, cannot be defaulted upon without doing irreparable harm to the quality of individual life.
By extension, this rationale implies that dysfunction within government at the top is reflective of some problem within the polity. At the very least, a representative system of government must acknowledge that citizens share some responsibility for low inefficacy: if the quality of legislators is poor, the judgment exercised by voters must be questioned, and to a greater degree as incumbency rates increase. This is not an argument that impugns the choices of voters, but merely encourages the growth and improvement of the system of values by which voters make determinations about the affairs that affect their livelihoods.
But more than that, the question of citizen engagement at local levels must be integrated into debates over political reform. To only consider elements like the responsiveness of elected officials to citizens’ desires when gauging the good of government is to assign a passive role to citizens, a role made all the more troubling given that federal politics is merely a transposition of local issues and opinions onto a broader stage. Flattening the multi-dimensional federalistic sphere of American politics to only consider reforms to federal institutions severely truncates self-sovereignty. It disempowers individuals by encouraging the view that the polity’s only avenue for the redress of grievances is through communication with elected representatives when, in fact, there are a broad range of political options open to individuals, many of which need go no further than their own community.