There are at least two great things about modern representative democracies. The first is that they allow for the peaceful transfer of power without anyone getting carted off to prison or shot. The second is that–most of the time–our representatives are able to muddle through to compromise solutions that keep most people in support of the government, even if nobody got everything they were looking for. What other system can make those claims?
For those two reasons alone, representative democracy is certainly worth preserving for the next generation. However, there are times when representative democracies break down, and no compromise can be reached with majority support. Suddenly, the wheels of government grind to a halt. These are times when everyone agrees a problem must be faced immediately, but the government cannot react.
Great Britain just reached that point in its debate about how to withdraw from the European Union—the “Brexit” debate. As of April 2, Parliament has rejected the Prime Minister’s proposal three times and has voted down twelve alternative compromise proposals. Some last minute compromise might still emerge, but it seems that the complexity of the issues, factions and opinions has overwhelmed the capability of the British government and eliminated all feasible compromises. Meanwhile, the possibility of a “no-deal” Brexit on April 12thgrows stronger, threatening economic and political chaos.
In the long-run, the British will have to improve the capabilities of their government if they are to deal with issues as complex as Brexit. That may require a different electoral system, party reorganization, or greater institutional support from their civil service. That is in the long run. But what should those of us who care about the next generation do in the short-run to get through a failure of government decision-making like Brexit? Or—closer to home–a government shutdown in the U.S. over policy differences?
If we want to pass on a functioning representative democracy to the next generation, we will surely want to work on the capabilities of our government to reach compromises on difficult issues that are acceptable to the public. But we also need mechanisms to handle the short-term crises that threaten to destroy citizens’ confidence in representative democracy.
It only takes one time for citizens of a country to lose faith in representative democracy and install a strongman to completely destroy the system. That is the story of Napoleon, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, and countless lesser-known despots over the centuries. Once citizens give up on representative democracy—even temporarily–and turn to a strongman to fix things, that strongman never willingly gives power back to the people. The pattern hasn’t changed since the destruction of the Roman Republic by Julius and Augustus Caesar 2,000 years ago.
So, how can those of us who care about preserving our democracy for the next generation make sure that a temporary breakdown in decision-making does not result in long-term damage? How about a non-profit watchdog organization that can declare a Code Red for democracy? Code Red is an announcement many hospitals use to alert their staff that a fire has been detected. Once a Code Red alert is issued everyone’s attention switches from their normal job to preserving the hospital and keeping patients safe. Each employee has specific, simple tasks to perform, sometimes written out on the back of their name badge. Why not the same for our government?
What would the specific, simple tasks be for a corps of citizens determined to overcome a deadlock among elected officials that threatens the stability of a representative democracy? I believe their basic job would be to use all legal means to make the lives of elected officials on all sides of an issue so miserable that they would strain harder to find compromise. To be effective, pressure would have to be applied to all sides, ideally by the normal allies of each legislator or executive official. Anyone who cheers on a breakdown in government would have to be shamed for the risk they are taking.
The actions that could be undertaken by citizens include, phone calls, emails and letters, personal visits to offices, demonstrations, petitions, cutting off contributions, boycotts of politicians’ key supporters, sending letters and articles to the media, picketing in front of their houses, confronting them in public places, and any other legal means. Politicians who use the breakdown of government as a political weapon are playing with fire. Rather than turn to a strongman to put the fire out, why not issue a Code Red to a citizens corps who can make officials do the job we elected them for—to find majorities on tough issues?