By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Ned Schmidtke
Fareed Zakaria published “The Future of Freedom” in 2003; a lot has happened since then. However, this Indian born, Yale and Harvard educated government policy wonk has written an interesting treatise on a glaring weakness of democracy that continues to resonate in 2014.
Zakaria believes the ideal of democracy, rule by the people with one-person-one-vote, distorts the founding principles of the original framers of the American Constitution. His compelling argument is that an unexpected consequence of sunshine, sunset, initiative referendum, and election campaign laws have changed the way elected officials represent their constituency by allowing lobbyists, population poling, and campaign financing, rather than individual conscience, determine legislative decision.
Lobbyists do not represent the public at large. Population poling (surveys of constituent interests) primarily supports lobbyist’s agendas. Zakaria infers poling is designed to get answers supported by huge financial contributions. Lobbyists are searching for favorable poling information to legally influence and effectively buy legislative votes. Zakaria infers election results and government legislation are determined by lobbyist influence on elected officials.
Further, Zakaria suggests initiative referendum clogs election day ballots with legislative proposals that are poorly conceived and fraught with unintended consequence. Zakaria is saying America has too much democracy.
An argument that America has too much democracy is compelling because it reinforces a belief outlined by David Riesman in “The Lonely Crowd” in 1950.
Riesman, a Harvard educated sociologist, conducted a study that suggests Americans are becoming more “other directed” rather than “inner directed”. His point is that Americans are more concerned about what other people think than what individuals think. Societies’ “other-directedness” magnifies influence of lobbyists on legislation.
Think of “Mad Men”, the popular television series about 1960s and 1970s. An episode shows the advertising company selling products by poling a small group of women that are testing a new lip stick. The advertising agency converts their tiny “survey” into a campaign saying 80% of women that saw this product said it makes them look sexy. The appeal is “other directed”; i.e. it is not what the “I” thinks, it is what the “other” thinks that makes the consumer buy the product.
Zakaria suggests the same process invades 20th and 21st century American politics. Elected officials are not “inner directed” and representing what they think is right but what others think is right. Poling becomes a primary source for decisions. Elected officials are influenced by interest groups, not by any clear reflection of an American public.
In politics and advertising, it is not possible to accurately reflect American public opinion; i.e. all that is reflected is a minorities’ interest in influencing an elected official’s vote. Zakaria suggests that polls only offer a distorted view of the general public’s understanding of current issues.
Zakaria suggests that original framers of the Constitution relied on freedom of choice for elected officials to make policy decisions as representatives of a voting public. Zakaria is saying that too many elected officials do not vote what they believe but vote for what they think the public believes. However, the public is often improperly informed because polls are designed by lobbyists that have little care for public interest.
The truth, consequence, and viciousness of this cycle of legislative influence is self deceit: 1) there is no way of accurately knowing what others believe and 2) being re-elected becomes more important than voting for what one believes is right. If public pols say national health care and immigration policies are wrong, independent thinkers disappear because the “public” has spoken; i.e. the elected official votes according to what he or she thinks the public wants; an “other directed” vote by the incumbent legislator is thought to improve odds for re-election. Ignorant perceptions lead to ignorant legislative decisions.
This slippery slope is made more slippery by lobbyists that are only interested in perpetuation of their high paying jobs. They play a game of pushing elected officials to vote for legislation that supports their employers; e.g. an insurance industry that supports national health care but only on their terms; unions that are anti-immigration, oil companies that insist on government subsidies, AARP that fights any considered cost/benefit reductions in social security. Lobbyists push for 1 year laws (because of sunset limitations that say legislation dies after 1 year) so they can be “helpful lobbyists” in the next year to get the legislation renewed.
Zakaria argues that the consequence of this hyper-democratization of American government is increasingly dis-respected by many outside countries; more importantly, dis-respected by its own population. Zakaria is saying democracy is not practiced as originally outlined in the Constitution which designed the American government to be a Republic; not a one person, one vote democracy.
Opinion-poll-decision-making, and election financing are distorting the original framer’s intent for government to be a representative balance of powers with three distinct branches that deliberatively guide legislative action. Democracy is in danger of dissolving into a chaos of unpredictability and dysfunction because our Republic has become too democratic.
Zakaria touches the themes of many books that have been critiqued in previous book reviews; i.e. beginning with an essay on the fiction of Charlotte Bronte in “A Woman of Substance”, 7/16/2011 and non –fiction reviews titled “Capitalism” (10/1/2011), “Occupy Wall Street” (11/2/2011), and “Wake up America“.
We seem to know what we know but fail to do what we must do.