Saturday, April 5, 2008

Operating democracies is one tough job

Organizing a democracy is hard. Modern democracies try to achieve three not necessarily compatible goals: representativeness, protecting minorities from wrongful (e.g. sexist or racist) oppression by majorities, and accomplishing good outcomes (electing good leaders, producing good policies, legislating well).

The United States Constitution is an amazing blueprint for an organization trying to juggle those three objectives. If you read it, especially the first three Articles and the 1st through the 15th Amendments, you will notice various measures designed to handle each one. But pay special attention to the voting provisions in the Constitution. It takes some time to fully piece them together.

Notice that the U.S. Constitution does not produce one massive governmental entity with a leader elected on a pure one person - one vote single shot election. That approach would not even ensure representativeness, because one winner take all mega-election does not allow for a diversity of official, elected voices in government. Indeed such a mega-election is tantamount to totalitarianism.

The Democratic Party, like the United States, has procedures in place for determining state and local nominees to elected office and for formulating the National Party Platform. These procedures try to do for the Democratic Party what the U.S. Constitution does for the country: to achieve representativeness, permit a place for minority viewpoints that might otherwise be wrongfully suppressed, and to produce good outcomes. And as with the country, it is with the party. It is tough to find mechanisms that juggle and balance all three objectives.

The United States has number of means of revising its mechanisms if they are not producing the right balance. There is the judicial check on lawmaking. There are many opportunities - in principle - to have new crops of elected officials in each house of the Congress. No person may be President in perpetuity. There is even the possibility of amendment of the basic operating manual - the Constitution itself.

Right now the Democratic National Party is juggling. For any number of reasons, it isn't clear that the Party's mechanisms are in good working order on any or all of the three objectives of modern democratic institutions. It is wrong to think this is some sort of crisis. The United States itself has revisited, and is always revising, the mechanisms it uses to keep a proper balance.

Neither is it a bad thing if Party rules and procedures are complicated, with many avenues and devices used to perform the balancing act. Again, take a look at the U.S. Constitution - along with the individual state constitutions, and the respective federal and state rules and regulations pertaining to basic operating procedures.

What would be bad would be if the DNC flubs representativeness or denies legitimate voice to certain groups of voters. Because regardless of the result produced, the Democratic National Party would have badly blown the tough job of operating democratically.


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