Digital direct democracy is crushing representative democracy

Today, everyone has a voice in everything. That's not a good thing.

Harry Reid
(Image credit: (Alex Wong/Getty Images))

Ezra Klein's "13 reasons Washington is failing" deserves a read — and I say that as someone who most definitely does not agree with all his conclusions.

He rounds up the usual suspects: The end of earmarks, the Hastert rule not really being a rule, filibusters causing gridlock, etc. Klein also jumps on the conventional wisdom about the evils of gerrymandering (which largely ignores the fact that people are self-segregating along political lines.)

But that's not my primary beef. Instead, my main criticism is that Klein omitted a lot of other key factors.

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Let me propose just one: The rise of direct democracy.

Complaining about too much democracy sounds crazy — almost as crazy as complaining about too much transparency (which Klein, in fact, does). But the surplus of democracy actually is a real problem, even if it sounds absurd.

It used to be that we elected representatives who would essentially serve as our trustees for a set period of time. Sure, they received constituent mail and phone calls and lobbyists visited them. And sure, they might occasionally see some polling numbers or a tough letter to the editor. And yes, on big votes, party leaders and bosses (now mostly impotent) would twist arms. But rank-and-file members generally could vote their conscience, knowing they wouldn't be called on the carpet until Election Day, which — depending on the office one held — was two to six years down the road.

This is not to say they weren't accountable. It's just that they would be held accountable at the appointed time. But until that time, they could largely act without fear or consideration of snap public opinion or too much immediate retribution. They were free to take a relatively long view of politics — to sometimes take unpopular stands.

Voters would have time to judge the totality of their tenure, and also to cool down.

This was by design. The founders, of course, feared direct democracy, and instead created a republic. The idea was to avoid a form of government susceptible to being swept up in the emotions of the day and subverting checks and balances. They wanted to avoid mob rule and the tyranny of the majority. But one gets the sense that their concerns might be playing out as we speak.

We don't have a direct democracy. Citizens do not (yet) log onto the internet and directly cast votes on things. Some states have Progressive-era reforms like voter initiatives, referendums, and recalls (which are to blame for much dysfunction in places like California), but that's not what I'm talking about.

We still have elected officials, and they still must stand for re-election at the appointed time. But the amount of information and input they receive from constituents and interest groups and basically anyone anywhere in the world who has an opinion on something makes it almost impossible for them to ignore the stimuli. Today's politicians must feel more like American Idol contestants who survive by constantly seeking our approval than statesmen who are empowered to take tough stances.

With Twitter, email, constant polling, and 24-hour cable news, our leaders must forever be at the beck and call of their constituents and pundits, and that's not as salutary as it sounds. Everyone might not get to vote on everything, but they have a giant megaphone with which to weigh in. And that digital version of direct democracy is undermining our representative democracy.

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