THE NEW PRINCE (Chapter 1)The Transition from Madisonian to Jeffersonian Democracy
THE FUNDAMENTAL PARADIGM that dominates our politics is the shift from representational (Madisonian) to direct (Jeffersonian) democracy. Voters want to run the show directly and are impatient with all forms of intermediaries between their opinions and public policy. This basic shift stems from a profusion of information on the one hand, and a determined distrust of institutions and politicians on the other.
While the media has noted decreasing voter turnout, the corollary is that those who do vote are becoming better and better informed. Americans are now an electorate of information junkies. Through the CNN, Fox News Channel, CNBC, CFN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN TV networks, talk radio, all-news radio, news magazines, the Internet, prime-time TV shows like 60 Minutes and 20/20, and the nightly news on the major TV networks, voters are fed an overwhelming diet of information about the political process. Even entertainment shows focus on public-sector issues, as the cops-and-robbers programs explore the subtleties of the exclusionary rule and attorney-client privilege. Taxi drivers who watch congressional hearings on C-SPAN are better informed about public policy than they have ever been.
With this level of information has come a certitude about political opinions. Where once voters were inclined to subordinate their own views to those of wiser heads, they now feel capable of analyzing public-policy issues themselves. In the 1960s, it was common to hear people say that their leaders had access to more information, that it was wrong to judge them without knowing all the facts. Now, we would laugh at anyone who said that on television.
Impatient with representative assemblies, voters take lawmaking into their own hands when the politicians let them. For example, ever since referenda became popular in California, the state legislature has increasingly become a ministerial body, executing the broad policy decisions made by voters themselves, through the ten or twelve ballot issues they decide each election day.
As the electorate has become more opinionated and self-confident, its distrust of politicians, parties, and all institutions has become more profound. Watergate was the original scandal of modern American political life. But since then, each institution has had its own scandal: doctors have had malpractice scandals; evangelicals have had the Bakker and Swaggert scandals; the intelligence community has had the Aldrich Ames scandal; journalists have had plagiarism scandals; labor unions have had corruption and mob scandals; lawyers have had malpractice scandals; churches have had child sex-abuse scandals; the military has had the Pentagon procurement scandals; police departments have had local corruption scandals and the Rodney King beating. No institution remains unscathed. Voters trust themselves…and nobody else.
This underlying shift in our electorate’s mood, away from blind faith and toward self-reliance, is combining with a new technology which empowers voters as never before. Political polling now rates politicians every day of their term and broadcasts the findings for all to see. Referenda, initiatives, and even recalls of elected officials increasingly dominate policy-making. The proliferation of TV channels and the growth of talk radio offer forums for political debate never before available in such length or depth. Soon, interactive TV-computers will allow national town meetings with direct balloting by tens of millions of people—the very core of the Jeffersonian vision of small-town democracy at work.
One by-product of this shift in power from politicians to voters is the decline of ideology. Voters want to think for themselves and will not buy the prefabricated, predictable opinions of either left- or right-wing ideologues. Men of affairs who respond to each new situation with practical, specific ideas unfettered by ideological constructs increasingly dominate our political process.
Felix Rohayten described the difference between French and American politics when he said, “The French respect ideas over facts. Americans respect facts over ideas.”
Once, American voters didn’t really have access to the facts. News information was sharply limited and controlled by the three networks. Without an impressive array of facts at their disposal, voters had no choice but to rely on ideologies or “ideas.” It was easier to learn one point of view which provided a formula for analysis of all issues than it was to gather data about each question and think it through on its own merits.
But now that the information is practically force-fed to the voters, ideology becomes an unnecessary guide. Rather than try to fit the facts into preconceived opinions, voters would rather change their preconceptions as they learn new facts. As Winston Churchill once told a woman who criticized him for changing his position on an issue: “When the facts change, I change my opinions. What is it, madam, that you do?” Ideas, the preconceived formulas of the ideologies, matter less to Americans than do the facts of each specific situation. Voters want what works, no matter whose ideological label it bears.
Americans are more and more independent politically. A plurality—40 percent of the electorate—now does not profess allegiance to either political party or vote a party line. Increasingly unwilling to trust Democrats or Republicans, they believe that the executive branch and the Congress should be controlled by different political parties. These independent voters do not care about party labels. They insist on examining each candidate on his or her own merits, irrespective of party. Even when the public opinion shifts support from one party to another, it is voters who were once loyal to one of the parties who switch to the other. Independents remain independent.
The trend from Madisonian to Jeffersonian governance is changing all the rules. Few realize how fundamentally the rules have changed. In most cases, a pessimism stops them from celebrating the transformation which is underway. In the next ten chapters, we will explore how this transition to direct democracy is changing everything.
The right wing liked to say, years ago, that America was a republic, not a democracy. Now it is a democracy.
THE NEW PRINCE Copyright © 1999 by Dick Morris.