The recent budget impasse has seen two warring factions in government take the nation to the brink of default. Two warring factions – that are the essence of democracy. On the other hand, far-east, an emerging global hegemon, bereft of any democratic institutions, watched the drama unfold and thanked its stars that it did not have democratic institutions.
Democracy is one of the unique outcomes in our march towards civilization, but of late it seems that it may need a re-look. If representatives ignore numerous calls from their own electorate, then we cannot really consider ourselves to be following the tenets of democracy. The fundamental concept of democracy is that people rule through their representatives. And when the representatives think they are above the people, democracy itself has been ignored.
As we evaluate democracy itself, let us look at a few key elements that could have led to the current impasse. We in the US are a republic, as opposed to a parliamentary form of democracy where the leader of the majority party in the house is the Prime Minister. In our form of democracy, we can have the President from a party which is not in majority in the House of Representatives. In theory, this form of government ensures a balance such that it is possible no single political party is in absolute power at any given time.
In the current impasse a few interesting factors were coming into play:
Election time promises: The Republican band of brothers came to power during the 2010 elections with a promise to the electorate, to reduce excess spending and focus more on jobs. But we as the electorate know that no single candidate can change policy. Shaping up of a policy entails working with a team of individuals with divergent views and in the end, coming up with the most optimal solution. So the fastest way to build consensus would be to elect only moderates. But an optimal mix of extremists in the midst ensures that path-breaking ideas get their due. But an entire policy cannot be carved solely out of extremist ideas. Extremists should know that they are part of the team to influence moderates. However, in the current Congress, the extremists seems convinced that their way shall prevail. As indicated earlier, the public wants an agreement, but the extremists are convinced that they can hear the American people whisper to them how much they appreciate their disruption. But the question is, should the electorate have asked more questions upfront before electing the extremists to office? In that case, should it be mandatory for each candidate to present a detailed execution plan to their electorate when seeking election?
The role of the President: Administration is easy, but management is difficult. When you have a team at your beck and call, it is very easy to lead them as long as you have a vision or direction for them. But the challenge is to lead a team of diverse individuals and viewpoints into a productive unit. Most of us who’ve been managers know that we don’t get paid for complaining about a dysfunctional team. We get paid for getting dysfunctional teams functional. Presidents have to realize that once they become Presidents, they no longer belong to a Democratic or a Republican party. The Senate and the Congress is their team and dysfunctional or not, they need to make it functional. And this concept may not be very well understood if you’ve been a senator. In recent past, the effective Presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had a gubernatorial background. A gubernatorial stint is a good precursor to a Presidential stint. It exposes you to the same challenges and obstacles a President would face, albeit on a smaller scale. So the question is, should we eliminate senators from the Presidential race altogether? It maybe a good option – for one, it would give the voters an insight into the record of the candidate while in a similar office as the President and second, the debates would be more about what they did well in office instead of claims about changing the whole world once they get in office. So far, the record is almost even – 16 Presidents so far, were senators, whereas 17 were governors. President Obama should have engaged with the new Republican team in the Congress as soon as they came into office. By going public and complaining about the majority party, the President unfortunately has branded himself as a leader of the Democratic party instead of the whole country. A gubernatorial stint would have certainly instilled a more collaborative mindset in the President.
So, the question is – how do we prevent democracy from being held hostage in future? Should we ensure that only individuals who have held an executive office before, contest the office of the President? An existing executive record would certainly help the electorate in making the right decision.
What about the Congressmen? Should they be subject to an annual review by their electorate? Currently they are subject to a review every 4 years – enough time for the electorate to forget their acts, as long as they get serious in their last year in office. In the era of social media, the annual review may be a possibility and not cost prohibitive. How about electing more prominent industry figures to Congress – prominent figures like CEOs, Generals, etc., who’ve excelled in boosting corporate value or defending our borders, as opposed to a bunch of law graduates who excel at churning out volumes of legislation.