On January 31, with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos was officially confirmed by the Senate as the eleventh United States Secretary of Education. A figure of much controversy due to her her qualifications (or lack thereof) for the position, support for DeVos was a matter of strict partisanship. All but two of the 52 Republican senators voted for her approval, while the 46 Democrats and two independents combined with Republican senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski of Maine and Alaska, respectively, voted in opposition.
Of course, this seemingly inevitable partisan divide did nothing to stop the American people from trying to alter the expected vote of their elected officials. Over the past several weeks, internet articles and Facebook videos abounded urging everyday Americans to call their senators and voice their opinions, often employing some variation of the slogan “it makes a difference!” In the end, it didn’t. Frankly, there’s no real reason why it should in our political system.
Perhaps the single greatest misconception of American politics is that we have a democratic system. Despite learning our country’s basic governmental structure in high school civics classes, politicians, pundits and the general public all like to throw out the word “democracy” when praising the beauty of the equitable balance of power in this country.
Whether because of a confusion of definitions or a simple matter of convenience, everyone seems to forget that our country is run by elected officials, not the direct will of the people. You can call it a representative democracy, democratic republic or federal republic, but the United States by any correct definition of the word is not a true democracy.
You might be saying at this point, “so what? Everyone knows we’re not a direct democracy, what’s the big deal with just using the term?” Well, if everyone could be in agreement that the word was a sort of political slang, I wouldn’t take any issue with it. But when people use it to develop outsized expectations of their own influence on the government, their ideology undermines our system and disguises the actual methods by which the public can bring about change (namely, using the power of the vote).
Before DeVos was confirmed, protesters flocked to the offices of Oklahoma senators Jim Inhofe and James Lankford to voice their disapproval and urge the senators to reconsider their positions. That’s all very well and good. Every person has a right to their opinion and a right to peacefully assemble. But truthfully, there is very little they could have done to convince Inhofe and Lankford of anything.
Obviously the first reason for this is a simple matter of numbers: fewer than 100 people combined made up the protests, and seeing as Oklahoma is consistently one of the reddest states in the Union, it is common sense to infer that the majority of the state approves of DeVos for the position. However, even acknowledging that the protestors lacked popular support may actually undermine my argument: that senators are under no obligation to acquiesce to the every whim of their constituents. If this seems counterintuitive, let me be clear that it is absolutely in the best interest of a senator to represent the beliefs of his state’s population as best as possible, as this is his most effective means of ensuring reelection.
All I am saying is that they don’t have to do this. What’s more, I’m not describing some loophole in the system but rather the entire point of having elected officials in the first place. We elect government officials to make decisions on our behalf, not to simply tell Congress what we have decided for ourselves.
Democracies are tremendously impractical for an entity the size of the United States for a couple reasons: first, it would be a logistical impossibility to tally the votes of every single voting-eligible citizen for all the legislation that is required to run the country; and second, the Founding Fathers were rightly skeptical of the masses’ ability to make decisions that would be in the best interest of the whole.
Their trepidation towards the possibility of tyranny of the majority and mob rule was the impetus behind the creation of our bicameral congressional body, one of which — the Senate — wasn’t even designed to service individuals but rather the good of the state as a whole (hence the longer term limits compared to representatives and the ability to be appointed by the governor). Obviously there are some logical inconsistencies behind the good intentions of the founders; those selected to speak for the masses are not necessarily more informed than them and almost certainly not more so than the experts in fields relating to specific policies, and an unqualified stooge poised to make terrible judgments could still be elected to Congress by the people.
Still, the checks and balances of term limits and divided governmental power somewhat mitigate these concerns, at the very least more so than if we were to function as a simple democracy. If there were some legal obligation for the House and the Senate to govern precisely as the majority of their constituents wanted, we might as well do away with the bodies entirely.
There are probably a great many readers who remain unconvinced of my position because it sounds so undemocratic, but I don’t even believe that my stance is particularly controversial ethically. Hardliners on both sides of the aisle love when a politician has the integrity to stand up for something they believe in, even if it goes against the interests of their party.
Remember when Republicans lauded Kim Davis for taking a stand against gay marriage even though by doing so she failed to perform her duties as a government employee? Or how about when Democrats briefly thought they had gained an ally in Ted Cruz when he urged voters to “vote their conscience” in the upcoming election, despite previously having pledged to support the Republican candidate? Is either situation really that different from an elected official deciding to act against the opinions of his voters because he believe that he is right and they are wrong? The truth of the matter is that most people only want strict political accountability if their opinion happens to be the majority.
You won’t see too many right-wingers in Massachusetts telling their senator he must push for harsher gun laws or leftists in Wyoming agreeing that abortion is a moral abomination. In either case, each side would hope for their representative to make the subjective “correct” decision.
So what is there to do when we have strong feelings concerning hot-button topics of the day? By all means, contact your senators and congresspeople and let them know what you think; taking in differing opinions can all be a part of the decision-making process for those in power. But if your passionate plea doesn’t come to fruition, do not take the opportunity to argue that there was some great injustice done. Instead, remember what happened, take stock of how much it affects your perception of the politician as a whole, and then vote when you have the opportunity based on your informed opinion of the candidate’s readiness for the job! In this way you can actually make your voice heard without threatening the underlying system, but if you still don’t get your way, that’s just the way things are. This is a “democracy,” after all.