I wrote once about how the American presidential structure undermines the democratic spirit, and how it invites citizens to disengage from government. It’s a problem which Americans have tried to fix for a long time — Bernard Bailyn, writing about pre-Revolution thought, shows what Americans (at least in 1776) expect from representation:
“Where government was such an accurate mirror of the people, sensitively reflecting their desires and feelings, consent was a continuous, everyday process. In effect the people were present through their representatives, and were themselves, step by step and point by point, acting in the conduct of public affairs. No long merely an ultimate check on government, they were in some sense the government. Government had no separate existence apart from them; it was by the people as well as for the people; it gained its authority from their continuous consent.”
That’s right, “continuous consent”. Do modern Americans exercise that? Given that Bush exited the White House with such dismal approval ratings, I don’t think so — at least not with respect to the government’s executive branch. For Revolution thinkers, direct consent was essential to representation; it should not be restricted to “climactic moments, when government was overthrown… [or to] repeated, benign moments, when a government was peaceably dissolved and another chosen in its place…” Citizens are supposed to be their government, not just during revolutions and elections, but all the time. But, as I complained earlier, it seems like Americans only exercise their consent every four years, and then it’s back to passive citizenship.
Allan pointed out to me that I make unreasonable demands of the American citizen — do I expect them to pay the bills, drive the kids to school, fill out their tax forms, and still care about politics? Fair enough. It still seems a shame, though, that the representation which Americans fought a war to secure — the kind that is guaranteed through continuous consent — still hasn’t been achieved, because, well, their descendants have to get the groceries.
Work Cited: Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967).