This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Globe, January 17, 1999.

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An Implosion of Democracy

by Jack M. Balkin


  There is a joke going around that the day the Senate convicts Bill Clinton, his approval ratings will hit 95 percent. The joke reflects something deeply troubling about our so-called representatives in Congress: They no longer seem to care what most Americans think. For the last year or so, political elites have been talking only to themselves and precipitating a major constitutional crisis in the process. The people have been shut out of the most important decision facing this country - and by the very party that claimed to represent the ordinary citizen.

  In 1994, the Republicans swept into power on a populist platform, promising to make government responsive to popular demands for a balanced budget, term limits, and lower taxes. The Democrats, they said, were out of touch with the American people.

  Look who's out of touch now.

  Republicans have bristled at the charge that Clinton's impeachment smelled like a coup d'etat. Wouldn't Clinton's removal leave the Democrats in the White House? But this misunderstands the complaint. Revolutions depend on popular support and mass mobilization. But a coup is a power grab of elites, by elites, and for elites. In coups elites topple other elites out of spite, vengeance, or the naked thirst for power. They assume that the quiescent masses will simply accept the substitution of one generalissimo for another. In a revolution the people are a central source of legitimacy for political change. In a coup the people are strictly optional.

  Some Republicans have been quite open about this. Congress must vote its conscience, they say; popular will matters not at all. This rhetoric is deeply cynical coming from a party that was supposed to be committed to the ordinary citizen. Indeed, the pseudo-populists in the Republican Party have played the conscience card whenever the American people have asked them to do something they really don't want to do: campaign finance reform, term limits, and now, an end to impeachment.

  Republican Representative Bob Inglis put it even more strongly in the impeachment debates: Thank goodness we don't have a pure democracy in this country, he said. Inglis can perhaps be excused for his disdain of the people. After all, he was thrown out of office in November after running on a pro-impeachment platform. Thank goodness we have regular elections.

  We are witnessing nothing less than an implosion of American democracy.

  Instead of listening to the American citizenry, political elites have closed in on themselves. The concept of "the People" has shrunk to include politicians, their operatives, and columnists and pundits they talk to. As a result, political elites are forging ahead with major constitutional change even though a majority of the American people have consistently told them not to.

  As our democracy implodes, the Senate actually becomes a more representative body than the House. Because of political gerrymanders, many House radicals are in safe seats, impervious to challenge now matter how much they misbehave. But senators run statewide and so have to pay more attention to popular will. If Americans are relieved that impeachment is in the Senate's hands, it is not because the Senate is a more deliberative body full of true statesmen who vote their consciences. It is because they know there aren't 67 votes to convict the president, no matter how much House managers rant and rave.

  In a world of democratic implosion, mass media becomes a method for communication between elites, rather than between elites and the people.

  Although television looks like a perfect medium for communicating to the public, politicians increasingly use it to talk to each other and to the pundits and commentators who shape opinion in the relatively small world they travel. These days politicians don't send messages to each other in the chambers of the House and Senate - Who listens there? - but on television talk shows, where postures get struck and positions get floated.

  No wonder political elites think it a major accomplishment to get a favorable column in a newspaper or a coveted spot on "Larry King Live." That is how they reach and influence the only people who really matter - themselves. And no wonder political elites become absorbed in pointless vendettas while the people's business is ignored. Bob Inglis was delighted that our government isn't very democratic. We should shudder at the thought that he might be right.


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