The Democratic debate and the breakdown of representative Democracy

The Democratic debate and the breakdown of representative Democracy

My ears perked up last Tuesday, during the Democratic debate, when Anderson Cooper asked Hillary Rodham Clinton if Bernie Sanders was tough enough on the issue of gun control. Like many voters, I care a whole lot about a few issues, and some about a whole lot of issues, and finding ways to stop the American epidemic of gun violence is one of my central concerns lately.

For most of the night, the Democratic contenders played nice, but Clinton took up Coopers invitation to fight on this topic. Sanders, Clinton said, was not tough enough on guns or the gun lobby. At issue was Sandersvoting record on guns while he was a member of the House of Representatives. He did not vote for the Brady Bill, and he did vote for a bill that provides legal immunity, in federal and state courts, for gun manufacturers and sellers. Sanders defended himself, noting that he is a senator from a rural New England state, that hunting is very popular with his constituents, and that civil actions against gun dealers could wreak havoc with gun shops in the state of Vermont.

The argument did not represent the extremes of opinion on gun control, to put it mildly; as Sanders reminded us in the debate, the NRA has given him a grade of D-on the votes that matter most to their pro-homicide agenda. But Clinton and Sanders do have a genuine difference of opinion on this issue, and Im glad it was addressed, as a voter and as a political scientist. It was a very telling moment in the election season, and served to remind us of the way the primary process has worked in American party politics for a generation.

The real issue raised by the gun question on Tuesday is representation. Our parties are not the organic, ideologically cohesive entities that we, and the party leaders, like to pretend they are. They are sprawling mega-coalitions, made up of many interest groups, donors, regions, and issue-obsessed voters. Successful party politicians win by appealing to enough of the smaller coalitions and groupings that make up majorities in their parties. At election time, we usually label this attempt to woo groups of donors and voters pandering,but what candidates are actually promising is representation. The US Chamber of Commerce, the SEIU, the AARP, and Black Lives Matter (to choose four groups more or less at random from the headlines sprawled across the screen of my laptop), arent promised the achievement of all their goals, but they are promised that elected officials will listen to what they want, make their preferences heard in the policy-making process, and grant them the basic recognition that is so crucial to democratic politics (and to basic human decency for that matter.)

Promising representation with any credibility is difficult, and its becoming even harder. General cynicism about the political process has something to do with that, as does the widening income gap and the consequences of the Citizens United case. But its hard under the best of circumstances. A lot an awful, awful, awful lot of interests make up the stuff of our politics. The Sanders/Clinton argument over gun control is an example of the choices elected officials make in who and how they represent.

Sanders is a U.S. Senator, and our Senate is divided by states every state gets two. And he was right; Vermont has a very particular political culture, and an effective representative of that state needs at least to acknowledge that culture. This isnt to say that representatives of states with lots of hunters cannot support effective gun control legislation; but of course Sanders has never said that it does. When it comes to gun policy, Sanders has listened to what his constituents say they want, and argued for enough gun control to earn that D-from the NRA without alienating the people he represents. Clinton used to be a senator too, and in the Senate she worked to represent lots of the many, many interests at play in New York state. The majority of her career, however, has been spent on national policy, and in defense of national constituencies.

Clinton and Sanders have different stances on gun control, in other words, because they have represented different constituencies with different views on gun control.

Unfortunately, when Sanders tried to explain those differences, he did so by taking about regional differences, contrasting his rural state with the urban communities in Maryland, and that rhetoric conjured up the rationales offered in defense of state violence against African Americans. That pointed to another attempt at representation the attempt by both Sanders and Clinton to appeal to the African American voters who have been increasingly active in Democratic party politics during the Obama years in which Sanders has been on the defensive.

The gun control moment in the Democratic debate was only sort of about guns, in other words. It was also a glimpse at the lengthy process by which Clinton and Sanders have tried to convince a broad variety of the many, many interests that make up the Democratic Party that they will be an effective representative, and to get those people excited enough to engage in the Herculean task of winning a national election.

White rural voters? People worried about mass shootings? Hunters? Urban voters? Bernie and Hillary want you to know, theyre listening.

And so that moment also had something to say about the Republican nomination fight thus far. The GOP candidates arent really struggling to convince a lot of interests within their party (or, for that matter, their nation). They are fighting for one particular subset of Republicans the sort of ideological radicals that the House Freedom Caucus, the various iterations of the Tea Party, conservative media, and many of the GOP super PACshave been fighting to represent.

I mean, sure, the presidential candidates dont necessarily want to alienate the diverse array of Republican voters, and they wont go out of their way, usually, to offend, say, the Chamber of Commerce, or the deficit hawks, or military-industrial complex enthusiasts. But they are all struggling to win over the fairly small faction of radical Republicans the ones that want to repeal parts of the U.S. Constitution in order to get rid of anchor babies,or the ones who want to get rid of womens health care to protect baby parts,or the ones who are opposed to compromise in Washington because theyre essentially opposed to governing.

Radicals get excited enough to participate in elections, and some of the radicals have a lot of money to spend, so I can see the strategic sense in the current GOP approach. But national politicians who are so uninterested in representing so many Americans or even many members of their own party suggests that the most important facet of our entire elections system is breaking down.

Photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders via Flickr/Michael Vadon

About author

Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.

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