This is one of those topics that would have bored my teenage mind in a political science course.
But now I’m worried about it. Representative democracy is what we have theoretically in the States and here in Britain. We elect representatives to whom we give a mandate to work out the best possible course of action for the people they represent. We don’t elect them as cyphers. We expect them to inform themselves, to think about the issues, to negotiate, whenever possible to integrate the best policies from all sides, and yes – to compromise.
In a direct democracy, the people vote directly in a referendum or issue presented on polling day, and the majority wins. But there is another way in which direct democracy is increasingly displacing representative democracy and that is through opinion polls which give almost instantaneous feedback to politicians about where the majority of people stand.
It would be ridiculous to argue that politicians should not know what voters think and want. But a wholesale displacement of an independent role of politicians by the immediate will of the people seems to me to be seriously dangerous.
Are we able to be sufficiently well-informed on every subject of political importance to by-pass the experience and knowledge of politician (and hopefully their professional advisers)? Do we not risk the loudest opinion winning more often than the carefully reasoned or thought through? Are we not going to increase the ideological splits which seem to tolerate so little compromise?
It’s not just issues like abortion, torture, the death penalty or foreign wars that separate us. There are questions about the best way to deal with the budget deficits, with unemployment, with banking rules, with the environment, with the cost of medicare and social security as the proportion of elderly increases in our societies.
Do we really want to choose solutions based on the results of mass opinion polls on all these critical issues? Personally, I don’t feel well enough informed about them all to feel confident that the entire country should do what I think is best.