A while back I promised a more thorough exploration of the issue of how to restore popular control over our elected representatives – that is, how to banish the malevolent influence of special interests and restore vigor to American democracy. Today, I have a proposal along these lines.
So, what CAN we learn about the proper practice of democracy from the ancient Egyptians? As it turns out, not a hell of a lot. Ancient Egypt was as complete a tyranny as it is possible to imagine. The ancient Egyptians could, however, teach us a great deal about pyramid-building, and it is in this (slightly ironic) sense that they can provide some valuable insights into how we can repair our democratic system.
One of the main planks of Anthroconservatism – and indeed one of the psychological observations most often confirmed by common sense – is the idea that, the larger a group of people becomes, the less likely it is that the group (and its leaders) will take the interests of its individual members seriously. Psychological research confirms that, when a group grows in size, its members feel less connected with their peers, they feel less compulsion to obey the group’s rules, and they are less likely to experience altruistic feelings towards fellow group members. All of this makes perfect sense. We evolved in an environment that put us in regular contact with a few dozen people, at most. Our ENTIRE social universe – that is, our tribe – consisted of one or two thousand people (five thousand is the very highest estimate I have seen). Moreover, as we discussed yesterday, it is likely that the computational power of the brain, and more specifically its faculty of social intelligence, is constructed in such a way as to facilitate fruitful intercourse with a relatively small number of people. In short, therefore, when societies enlarge themselves, they strain human nature. Thus, these societies fray at the edges – and, without considerable amounts of propaganda, indoctrination, or straightforward coercion, they begin to fall apart.
Since the American democratic system presides over a massive population of over 300 million, including well over 100 million voters, is it remotely surprising that the unity and integrity of our governmental system is in question? I think not. There is, though, a potential answer, thanks to our Egyptian friends: pyramidal political organization.
What if, instead of practicing the direct election of all political officers – which, we now know, gives only the ILLUSION of popular government – we were to implement a system in which the citizenry elects only local government representatives. In turn, they could elect county representatives, who would then elect state legislators, who could in turn elect Congressmen and/or Senators. Yes, the people would be giving up the direct election of state and national legislators (but perhaps not the direct election of Governors and the President, which could remain as is). What would be gained, however, is a system in which each layer of political representatives was TRULY ACCOUNTABLE to the layer beneath it. Today, an ordinary citizen has about as much chance of being taken seriously by his Congressman or Senator as he does of winning the lottery. He has, though, at least in many cases, a direct and personal relationship with his local representatives – and, if he does not yet enjoy such a relationship, he can realistically create it. Why, then, should he not TRUST his local representative(s) to vote on his behalf in elections for the next highest office?
If this formula were followed, the SIZE of the constituency electing each layer of government would be kept small enough that healthy human relationships and simple human decency could predominate in the electoral process. And if, in the final analysis, the people were loath to give up their direct control over higher office holders, a recall system could be constructed to permit them to override the results of higher-level elections in which they were not, as a rule, consulted. In this way, the American democratic system could be renewed. Like a pyramid, it would rise to the heavens, secured on a granite foundation of vigorous public participation in local government.
It is worth pointing out at this stage that this proposal for a pyramidal construction of American democracy is by no means entirely original. For most of the history of the United States, Senators were not elected directly by the people. They were elected by state legislatures, which were themselves elected by the people (sometimes in some rather eccentric ways). In other words, before the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1911-1913, a pyramidal scheme of elections was BUILT INTO the American democratic system. This had the advantage of creating a strong and personal link between Senators and state representatives, but it also benefited Americans in another crucial way: it protected states’ rights!
Before the passage of the 17th Amendment, the states were, in a very real sense, THE constituency of the U.S. Senate. Thus, the Senate could be relied upon to be a voice in the federal government for the preservation of state and local governments’ powers and rights. Since the Senate has, by design, the sole ability to ratify treaties and approve Presidential appointments, this gave the states, in effect, veto power over U.S. foreign policy and many executive decisions! What a magnificent conception the ORIGINAL formulation of the Senate was, and how unfortunate it is that the decision was made to scrap the indirect election of Senators early in the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the “checks and balances” in our system have not been the same since.
So, I propose that we learn from the ancient Egyptians that a structure is strongest, and it rises highest in the sky, when its foundation is massive, and when each ascending layer of the edifice is only slightly smaller than the one beneath it. A more stable architectural scheme is, in truth, hard to imagine – and likewise a more stable and truly representative political system may not be possible.
Of course, what the Egyptians also knew is that a pyramid, like any other building, is, in the final analysis, utterly dependent on the integrity of its foundation. After all, a weak foundation leads in all cases to collapse. What this means for American democracy is simple: no matter how brilliantly designed the architectural details of our Constitution may be, if the system is rotten at its base, it will implode and turn to dust. This means that, although a pyramidal system of elections is desirable, unless the virtue and wisdom of the CITIZENRY is exemplary, no democracy will stand for very long.