Representative Government and Strengthening the American Center

America's "representative democracy" is being tested. Political polarization has intensified, and trust by voters in the federal government, Congress, and the Supreme Court has reached the lowest levels since modern polling began. Part of the reason may be that we have confused the meaning of - and the expectations surrounding - these two words.

"Democracy" demands universal suffrage and gives the voter a clear voice: the majority rules. But "representation" demands that voice be filtered through those who are elected. It asks these representatives to consider what is best for America, not just the people who voted for them. This means that majority sentiment is but one input among others to be considered. In short, democracy is about elections; representation is about governing.

The recent election, as all others, illustrates this. Trump won the electoral college, He has a democratic mandate. Yet as president of all the people, he may not ignore the needs of those who didn't vote for him. In Alabama, for example, where he won an overwhelming 62 percent of the vote, over 700,000 citizens still voted for Clinton. He also now serves them. Nationally, 55 percent of those eligible voted. Since Trump won 46 percent of the popular vote, he was elected by 25 percent of the nation's eligible voters. Yet he must represent the other 75 percent - as well as the 73 million Americans under 18 who could not vote.

The same obligation exists for members of the House and Senate. All won democratically but none are relieved from representing everyone in their districts and states. Yet the tendency in our polarized polity has been to assume that the electoral winner can ignore those in the middle and other end of the ideological spectrum. This confuses democracy with representation. It weakens the American center and produces a failure to compromise. It fosters a seesaw pattern in our national government. What gets enacted in one cycle under one party gets reversed in the next under another, preventing the creation of respected and stable policy and programs.

This is not what the Constitution's framers envisioned. James Madison, in Federalist #10, warned of this situation, in which "our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." Representative government, he hoped, would be the cure because it could "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations." In short, he expected representatives would attend to core needs not just emotional wants - that they would not just mimic the voice of the voters.

The framers understood that finding those who Madison called "enlightened statesmen" would be difficult in the House, which was chosen by the people, so the Senate, then chosen by state legislatures, was designed as the countervailing force to the dangers of democracy. Federalist #63, arguing for the Senate, noted that "there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn." The Senate would "suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind." The Senate, however, has not always shown this level of moderation and balance. Party-line voting, and invective similar to that in the House, suggests that it struggles to do so now.

Constant references to polls that say "what the public wants," support for referenda and recall elections, the proliferation of political action and social media watchdogs that punish any politician's apostasies, and demands that those elected rigidly and uncompromisingly adhere to the wishes of those who voted for them suggest that democracy today is ascendant over representation. The sense that the representatives of the people have a responsibility to think long-term, to educate not just mirror the people, to temper the passions of the moment, to look after national not just local or factional interests, and to seek compromise has come to be seen as a weakness. The center, rather than a place to be sought, is viewed as "selling out."

Until democracy and representation come into better balance, stability and sensibility in our political lives will be at the risk of extremes. The success of what Washington, over two centuries ago, called "the American experiment" is still up for grabs.