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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Guam Capsizing: Do Voters Want Educated Representatives? Or Are Districts Too Large for Democracy?

Democrat Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson said during an Armed Services Committee hearing in late March, 2010 that Guam would be in danger were more US troops sent there. “My fear that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize,” he said in all seriousness. “We don’t anticipate that,” responded Adm. Robert Willard.

Did Hank Johnson's constituents want their representative in the U.S. House of Representatives to be at least nominally educated?  Lest one replies with "of course," it could also be that people may want their represenatives to be like them, or at least to reflect what they value. It could be that Rep. Johnson's district was inhabited by people who didn't value education. My hometown is such a place. Going to graduate school is tantamount to evading the real world. The implication is that investing in one's education is to waste one's time on something of little value. Of course, you can't fight ignorance or change people's values where they are convinced that they are correct.  It is perhaps not a surprise that representatives could be found in government having that mentality where it is common among constituents.

It is also true that larger the electorate, the less it can make an informed decision regarding the candidates campaigning to represent it. This is why the delegates to the US Constitutional Convention said there is more democracy at the level of state legislatures (e.g., more retail, less wholesale, politics). The EU Parliament has almost 800 reps (newly expanded, though I understand not yet filled), yet is not twice the US population, so the electorates per rep are smaller. However, a governmental body so large is apt to be cumbersome. The state governments in the EU, like those in the US, have smaller districts for their legislative lower houses (and perhaps their senates as well). In smaller districts, the candidates and the elected representative are more apt to be known by a given voter (or by someone the voter knows). Two (or even three) degrees of separation are better than relying on tv commercials, which are geared to presenting a given candidate as he or she wants to be seen. A viable republic ought not rely on a candidate’s preferred self-presentation because judgments in governance involve the actual person–hence the voters ought to know it.

A major implication from my reasoning here is that both American and European state governments ought not allow the balance of power to shift too much to the US and EU level, respectively. On the last day of the U.S. Constitutional Convention, George Washington, who had kept quiet throughout in his role in presiding, asked the delegates if they would make one change. Rather than a U.S. House representative to represent at least 40,000 inhabitants, the minimum should be 30,000 because that would allow for greater democracy. Of course, the setting of a minimum is far different than a maximum; the average district population has never been 30,000.  At the turn of the twenty-first century, it was more than 600,000.  The constitutional delegates would have thought such an arrangement to evince an aristocrisy, there being so few representatives relative to the population. The average citizen's voice would surely be lost, the designers of the U.S. constitution would be wont to say.  I suspect their response would be not just to send more power back to the state governments, but also to urge many of the large and medium states into federal systems themselves. Particularly where a state is heterogeneous, it makes sense for it to have a federal system with states ranging from large metro areas to four or five counties (as in Germany, whose Lander span from Bremen to Bavaria).  Unsere grosse Staaten sollten von Deutschland lernen. It could be that in modernity, the West has grown too accustomed to larger and larger electorates.  Has the E.U., for example, set any limit to its expansion from the vantage point of its democracy deficit?  Furthermore, has the U.S. tackled the problem of how to reconcile the large districts in the U.S. House with the problem of that body itself having too many members?  If it continues to be assumed that Congress can and should legislate on virtually anything, the tradeoff between representation and the size of the House must be addressed.