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Garbage In, Garbage Out Democracy

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As a representative democracy, everything about our government stems from elections. If we have problems with our government, we can understand why by taking an objective look at elections. With the 2012 elections pending, this is a good time to do just that.

It is interesting to note that businesses, non-profits, and virtually all organizations share a common method of hiring leaders, while the elections we use in our democracy are dramatically different. Since businesses are ubiquitous to our society and their success has made America the great and powerful nation that it is, it is interesting to contrast how differently business leaders and political leaders are hired.

Business executives know that one of the most important keys to building a successful company is hiring the best possible people, and they have carefully-designed processes in place to ensure that this happens. First, job candidates are carefully sourced using the best means available, and anyone not meeting certain requirements is screened out. Each candidate then participates in multiple interviews with the person he will be accountable to and others he will be working with -- all of whom are intimately familiar with the job requirements. Candidates are often given tests, and multiple references are generally checked. This process could be described as logical and professional.

The elections we use to hire our government leaders are the polar opposite of this.

In our democracy, anyone who meets a few minimal criteria can run for any political office. Candidates are freebooting political entrepreneurs for whom political office is a prize that must be fought for. They raise money -- primarily from special interests who have an interest in government policy -- and use that money to mount a political marketing campaign to influence citizens to vote for them.

The first priority of any political campaign is building name recognition. Thus, incumbents, movie stars, sports stars, and astronauts have an enormous advantage. For others, yard signs, mass mailings, and television commercials play an important role. It is also important for candidates to choose a clever campaign slogan that draws attention to a certain theme that they want to be remembered by. Campaign slogans such as "Change we can believe in" and "Believe in America" are very much equivalent to product marketing slogans such as "Good to the last drop" and "Finger lickin' good!"

Most importantly, candidates must project a likeable persona that people feel comfortable with. It is impractical for the average voter to understand the vast array of issues the government deals with, the job description of each office they elect, and what each candidate for all of these offices actually represent, so people decide whom to vote for primarily based on the candidate's personality, image, authenticity, and vibe.

Since the ratio of citizens to candidates is one to many thousands or millions, only a tiny fraction of citizens are able to have direct contact with candidates and their elected officials. Nearly all citizens must therefore rely entirely on others in order to understand the candidates and the political world. In a very real sense, their entire political reality is created by others.

The news media is most people's primary source of political information, but the news media is not accountable to citizens or to candidates. Rather, the news media is accountable to shareholders and advertisers. Citizens, by and large, receive the news as a free service. Members of the news media are free to cover what they choose and present it how they wish. Their primary interest is in maintaining a large audience for advertisers, and in order to do this they must keep their content entertaining. Thus, the news media acts as a lens that gives people a view of candidates and of the government that leaves much to be desired.

Candidates must similarly rely on the news media to communicate with citizens -- they live and die by the coverage they receive. To the degree that they are able, the news is a screen upon which candidates attempt to project a desired image, and that image becomes more important than reality itself. News becomes a tool with which candidates attempt to shape public opinion, and controlling the images the public receives is central to their success. The news also serves as a mirror that reflects back the public's reaction and opinion of their actions. Thus, candidates tend to see the news as a reflection of reality, which in an important sense it is.

This environment allows candidates and any other interested parties to promote competing views of reality that serve their own interests using marketing and public relations. Many candidates have found it to be very effective for them to promote a reality that vilifies their opponents and instills fear over the prospect of their opponent winning. Well-financed special interests have become stunningly successful at framing the public debate on issues that concern them, and at compromising the image of candidates who oppose them.

Voting itself is a binary form of communication that conveys nothing more than a yes or a no. As such, it comes with an implicit assumption that there will be two-way communication between voters and the winner after the election to discuss what the person elected should do once in office. But since each elected official has many thousands or millions of constituents, real two-way communication is impossible for more than a tiny few. Most people never convey their wants and needs to their representatives, and thus effectively go unrepresented -- despite having voted.

Our process of elections could be described as totally illogical and highly manipulative. You might even call it garbage.

From this perspective, it should be of little surprise that our politics are often characterized by hysteria. Our government is a battleground on which two political parties are engaged in continuous warfare. Politicians are constantly blaming each other for problems and insisting that they themselves are righteous. Special interests have an enormous amount of control in government, while individual citizens have almost none. Multiple preemptive wars, $16+ trillion in public debt, a nearly catastrophic financial crisis, potentially calamitous environmental problems looming -- our government could quite rightly be considered garbage. As the old saying goes, "garbage in, garbage out."

Why do we have such a bizarre way of hiring the people who run our government?

The Framers of our Constitution never intended for citizens to elect government officials the way they do today. Robert Sherman, one of Connecticut's delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, expressed their concern well when he said, "The people immediately should have as little to do with electing the government as possible, because they lack information and are constantly liable to be misled." As a result, they put into place a system that consisted primarily of indirect elections -- citizens electing representatives who elected other representatives.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives were among the few representatives that were to be directly elected. The Constitution specifies that "The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one Representative." This, of course, was merely guesswork as there had never been a representative democracy before then that even resembled what they had created. They didn't know what would work, since they were operating on theory alone. What they found once elections actually occurred was that people were disconnected from government, easily misled, and made poor voting decisions. Over the following two hundred years, reformers gradually replaced indirect elections with the direct elections we are now familiar with, and the limits on the number of citizens per U.S. House Member was abolished -- further disconnecting citizens from their government.

It is due to this quirk of history that we now define democracy as citizens directly electing a wide variety of distant representatives -- not because it has proven to be effective. Representative democracy based on direct elections is an ideal -- a fantasy.

The process businesses use to hire leaders has evolved over a long period of time and has proven successful across millions of businesses. We should consider it the gold standard to which our democracy should aspire.

Is it possible to democratically hire political leaders the way businesses leaders are hired?

The primary difference between the two methods is one of numbers. People who hire business leaders are close to the positions they hire for and can get close to job candidates -- it is a fully connected environment. In a democracy, citizens are extremely distant from the various offices they hire for and are extremely distant from the candidates -- it is an utterly disconnected environment. In order to bring sanity to government, citizens must be much closer to the people they elect.

Since all of the offices citizens currently elect candidates to are very distant from them, it follows that citizens should not be involved in any of these elections. They should only be involved in elections where they can have real two-way communication with the candidates and truly get to know them so they can cast informed votes. Thus, it makes sense for citizens to be involved in one election -- for one office that is very close to them. All political responsibility would be delegated to the person holding that office, and he would be the personal government representative of his constituents. This would vastly simplify what is required of people and allow them to realistically participate in democracy.

Such a system would require small election districts and a single office for each of those districts across the country. We might call these small election districts communities, with community representatives being the elected officials.

In order to maintain the necessary degree of closeness, community representatives would also not participate in elections where there is a great distance. Rather, they would only elect candidates to low-level offices, as these offices are sufficiently close to allow intimate knowledge of the candidates. These lower-level representatives, once elected, would in turn elect candidates to higher-level offices, with this process continuing up to the highest level of government.

As an example, citizens would elect community representatives, who would in turn elect the state representative in their district, who would in turn elect the district's Member of Congress, who would in turn elect the President. A similar scenario would need to be in place for electing all other officials as well. The actual structure and number of layers would vary from place to place depending on the size of the population.

This structure is, of course, a hierarchy, and is similar to the organizational hierarchy used in businesses -- and most other successful organizations. It would in effect organize the population and make the people the government. It would be a true democracy -- government of, by, and for the people.

It just so happens that Thomas Jefferson proposed something very similar to this, which he called a "Ward Republic." In an 1814 letter to Joseph C. Cabell, Jefferson wrote, "There are two subjects, indeed, which I shall claim a right to further as long as I breathe: the public education, and the sub-division of counties into wards. I consider the continuance of republican government as absolutely hanging on these two hooks."

We have thought through such a system of democracy, and we call it Local Electors, which is also the name we've given the community representatives. You can learn more about it at www.localelectors.org.

Our first step toward bringing sanity to our government is acknowledging that our current system of elections is broken and something very different is needed. We can't continue to do things the way we do them now, making minor tweaks and expect improvement. Fundamental change is a good and necessary thing!