I am so sick of having to constantly contact my representatives. There are people who will tell you that this opinion reeks of privilege—and anyway, don’t you know that direct participation is the bread and butter of democracy? They’ll say that when you live in a democracy your rights come along with civic duties. If anything, they’ll smugly remind you direct contact with representatives shows the system is working.
I think it shows that something is rotten in the United States.
Call me lazy, but you shouldn’t have to call your representatives every week to remind them not to vote for a bill that the vast majority of their constituents disagree with.
In a functioning democracy, you shouldn’t have to check your inbox and Twitter feed daily in order to see whether or not some basic rights are about to be ripped away. And you certainly shouldn’t have to worry about your representative actually voting for such an abomination. In a democracy, you should conceivably be able to vote a representative into office and broadly trust that he or she would not require a barrage of emails and calls to vote in line with their constituents’ values.
Some may reply to this qualm by arguing how else should politicians know what their constituents are thinking? It’s hard to be in Washington DC and still have your ear to the ground in your district or state.
While that may have been the case one hundred years ago, when distance was heightened and information was slow to travel, that time has passed.
Today our politicians are in no way blind to our preferences. They are focus-grouped up to their eyeballs. And they have pollsters constantly working the field for them. They know what you think and why you think it.
The fact is our politicians largely don’t care. In 2010, John G Matsusaka published a paper that found “states choose policies that a majority of the public prefers only 59 percent of the time — ‘only 9 percent more than would have happened with random policymaking.’”
Another comprehensive study showed that during the 2012 election American politicians routinely believed their constituents were more conservative than they actually were.
When it came to same-sex marriage and universal health insurance, the research showed that, on average, legislators guessed their “constituents’ views were 15–20 percent more conservative…than the true public support” for both of these policies.
It’s not even like 2012 was a learning experience for these politicians, either. The same researchers went back to the same politicians to ask the same questions after the election, only to find that “even after conducting campaigns and seeing the results, politicians did not arrive at more accurate perceptions of constituent views — not even those who had spent more time talking to voters.”
For all of you out there crying that participation is the foundation of democracy, these findings should give you pause. Why doesn’t contact with your representative influence their beliefs?
Well, it could be that wealthy people possess a disproportionate amount of time (and money)—time to read about politics and then also the time to contact their legislators. That’s not speculation either, “researchers have found that politically active citizens tend to be wealthier and more conservative than others.”
Which brings me back to my initial point. A political system that depends upon direct participation in order to have a democracy succeed will always be inferior to one that does not necessitate that constant TLC. Our politics today is an exclusive form of an inclusive government.
As long as our democracy requires this sort of direct participation, sold to you through vaunted arguments of “duty” and “responsibility,” the system will continue to not reflect the general will in a dependable matter.
In the early 1900s, America found itself in a very similar scenario. A few property-rich men controlled the levers of power, and so, our democracy did not adequately represent the interests of all. To circumnavigate Washington DC’s corruption, Teddy Roosevelt advocated for the referendum—which at the time was deemed by many as a radical and undemocratic way for the people to express their political power. Thankfully, radicalism won in this instance.
To this day, referendums hold great value in correcting flawed democracies. In fact, right here in Washington State it has been the most useful strategy for enacting popular policies that have otherwise been neglected in Olympia. In the last five years alone, we’ve passed gay marriage, universal background checks, and a higher minimum wage. But the referendum is not a perfect method, as these ballot initiatives were also funded, in large part, by the wealthy.
To escape this political disease, where the wealthy contaminate an inclusionary society, Americans need to focus on 1) redistricting, 2) drastically (and I mean drastically) restructuring campaign finance, and 3) ridding ourselves of the Electoral College. These three policies all center around inclusion—the true founding principle of democracy—and they would allow for a much more representative nation.
But as long as our system retains its exclusive qualities our representatives will not reflect our values appropriately. If we want a special few to determine our futures for us, we’d might as well drop the pretense of citizen power and admit our oligarchic nature. At least then I wouldn’t have to contact anyone.
I am Sick of Having to Contact My Representatives was originally published in Civic Skunk Works on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.