Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny: Book Review: "Republic on Trial"

Is this where I put in key words such as sex, lesbians, vampires, Christopher Lloyd and others things to which this blog do not pertain, but by putting them here, I may get hits from all the Christoper Lloyd lesbian vampire fans (and you know who you are)? This is the primarily humorous and occasionally rambling writings of Leon Tchaikovsky, humor writer. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Book Review: "Republic on Trial"

Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny

The legislative institution, indeed the very concept of representative democracy, is under attack. The public complains about legislatures. The press rails against legislatures. Even we staff criticize the legislature (and how Republicans have ruined it). This book, though, presents a strong defense for representative democracy. It argues that not only is representative democracy the best option available, but that much of the criticism of legislatures is based on inaccurate perceptions.

There is an unwarranted public distaste of legislatures and politics. Watergate and dissent over the Viet Nam severely weakened public support of politicians. Press attention is drawn to publicize negative events such as cases of corruption that then fuels public disgust of politics.

The public has become less trustful of government. Polls show about 75% of the public during the 1960s trusted government. In 1973, 42% of those polled had a "great deal" or "quite a bit" of confidence in Congress. In mid-2001, 26% stated that had a "great deal" or "quite a bit" of confidence in Congress. Since then, though, there has been an increase in trust in government after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, this negative atmosphere is disheartening to legislators. A Frank Luntz survey of state legislators found public cynicism was listed as the greater burden facing them. Legislative life can strain personal income, family life, and personal time. Many are willing to make those sacrifices. Yet, they are not willing to allow their personal reputations to be sacrificed. The low respectability of politics and harshness of negative campaigning is keeping people out of politics.

The public distaste for politics along with the mean spiritedness of campaign discourages many capable people for even entering politics. Further, many who do select public service as a career choice are finding the burdens of service are causing them to leave service prematurely. The loss of dedicated public servants weakens the legislative process as well as reduces the public image of legislatures.

While the public may be disillusioned with representative democracy, and while politicians may similarly be leaving politics, the alternatives are no better. The authors argue that the options of Executive dominance can lead to concentrated and abused power. Another alternative of direct democracy may be cumbersomely unpractical and more readily manipulated by powerful interests.

While the authors find most public servants to be honest, public surveys show people believe politics is a corrupt profession. 88% of people polled believe public corruption exists as a problem in government. A New Jersey poll showed about half of those polled believe the majority of politicians are corrupt.

This book presents other interesting findings: many people are not very concerned about politics, nor do they believe politicians care about them. Only 18% of those surveyed stated they found politics as "interesting", only 7% believe politicians are responsive to their concerns, and 40% believe politicians are responsive "to the rich".

The media contributes to these perceptions. A study by the Center for Media and Pubic Affairs found the vast majority of television entertainment programs, when showing a politician as a character, portray the politician as corrupt. This is changing, as "The West Wing" is cited for presenting a positive image of politicians.

Politicians, though, contribute towards the negative attitude the public has for politics. Negative campaign advertising is cited as a major influence in the declining appreciation and respect for politics and government. Political scientist Richard Fenno has found that negative campaigning is further affecting government, as candidates are elected by claiming their opposition to the institutions they seek election and, upon election, their negativity hampers their ability to serve in office.

The authors argue the very nature of legislative politics is bound to create negative public perceptions. Most legislation that is passed reflects compromises and the mere act of compromising often leads proponents and opponents both feeling disappointed. Legislative work thus usually wins few friends.

This book further argues the legislative process is not designed for public understanding. The only time most people witness the legislative process is from the visitors’ galleries. Visitors are usually aghast at the disarray before them. Yet, visitors often do not realize that what appears as disarray, especially the myriad of conversations on legislative floors, indeed are part of the legislative processes that produces results.

Interesting statistics are presented. In 1998 and 1999, Pennsylvania passed 7% of bills introduced, a percentage of bills introduced that were enacted whose smallness was surpassed only by New York and the U.S. Congress who both passed 5% of their proposed bills. Nationally, 20% of bills introduced are enacted. North Dakota paves the way by passing 63% of all of its introduced bills.

Massachusetts allows any citizen to introduce legislation. Thus, the Massachusetts legislature faces about 15,000 pieces of legislation every year.

Despite its complexity and nuances, representative democracy does work. The legislative branch does a good job of bridging the gap between the public and policy makers. The alternatives of administrative control concentrates power too much and direct participation is too cumbersome. Representative democracy may not be perfect, as this book discusses, but it is the best system there is. Readers wishing to explore these discussions will appreciate this book.


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