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Post Partisan
Posted at 05:18 PM ET, 06/13/2012

Giffords and the oddities of democracy

Thinking about Gabrielle Giffords makes me want to write a little about American democracy and how well it works. Even when cynics and realists are absolutely right about some of it’s weaknesses.

Yesterday, Democrat Ron Barber prevailed over Republican Jesse Kelly in a special election to replace Giffords in the House. Immediately, everyone involved plunged into interpreting the results. The Post’s story by Aaron Blake was typical:

Barber’s win was seen as resulting in large part from Democratic efforts to define Kelly early on as being against Medicare and Social Security in the district with the 11th-oldest population in the country. In their ads, Democrats ran footage and quotes of Kelly talking about getting rid of the entitlement programs.

That’s good reporting, but it’s reporting on myth and superstition. No one knows why Barber won. No one knows what role the Democratic messaging played. Or the Republican messaging. We can measure some objective factors — partisan lean to the district, money, even some indicators of candidate qualify — but without extensive survey research and experimental studies, we’re not going to really know anything. That’s especially true in a contest like this one, where something so extraordinary was the backdrop for everything else. Blake reports that “Giffords played a bit part in the campaign,” but perhaps she didn’t need to; unlike in almost every other House election, voters presumably knew all about the candidate resigning from the seat, why she resigned and what she would want to happen. Or maybe it really was the Medicare ads. I don’t know. Neither do the party operatives (Josh Marshall had a nice post about that earlier today).

So here’s how democracy works: There’s a special election, and a candidate wins for who knows what reason, and then it’s interpreted by everyone, correctly or not, and then everyone acts on that interpretation, thus turning the myths and superstitions into something very real. We can even think a bit about why one particular interpretation may win out; it might be wishful thinking by the candidates or operatives or the press, for one (but not the only) example. But Ron Barber goes to the House fortified to oppose changes to Medicare, and Democrats in general are more confirmed in their belief that supporting Medicare both in campaigns and when they’re in office is a great idea for electoral reasons . . . and odds are it’s really all just about a bunch of people who were sad about their member of Congress getting shot. Or maybe they really didn’t like Jesse Kelly for some unrelated reason. Or didn’t like Mitt Romney, in that particular district. Or supported the Democrats for some entirely unrelated reason.

It all seems sort of random, doesn’t it?

At this point, you may be despairing of democracy. And if you’re realizing that elections can’t work exactly how middle-school civics class (and plenty of Progressive-era-influenced writers would have it) in which the voters study up on The Issues and choose a candidate based on The Issues and then the politicians do what they were told to do, and the government carries out the will of the people.

But here’s the twist: It actually works, despite all the randomness involved.

Why?

For one thing, because elections are only part of the U.S. Madisonian-style democracy. There’s plenty that goes on almost without regard to elections, as organized interests get involved in the constant and never-resolved competition between the various players in a government of separated institutions sharing powers. So that’s part of it; government infighting in which support of organized groups doesn’t perfectly align what government does with what people want, but it’s a system that really does work to push government to care about it.

But returning to elections . . . no, the signal that voters send doesn’t really do, when you get right down to it, very much at all. What does, however, work pretty well is all those politicians desperate to ingratiate themselves with voters and willing to do what it takes to win their votes. Because of that, politicians make promises and then feel obliged to keep them; because of that, they explain what they do in office in the context of the campaign promises they’ve made; because of that, they try hard to appeal to their various constituencies and to avoid upsetting anyone too much. And that turns out to do a really good job of building reasonably strong connections between constituents and politicians — even when the politicians totally invent out of whole cloth what the electorate is “saying.”

Put it all together, and Madisonian democracy actually does a shockingly good job of providing excellent representation. Even though people don’t pay much attention to politics, and don’t know much about most issues, and even though elections are, at least on any surface level, a massively overrated way of giving literal instructions to the government.

And so, with myths and superstitions, the Gabrielle Giffords seat in the House of Representatives is filled, the process of representation remains healthy and democracy once again proves stronger than guns and murderers. 

By  |  05:18 PM ET, 06/13/2012

 
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