Plato condemned democracy as the worst form of government, and Mark Twain added that it should be replaced as soon as a better form of government comes along. Twain’s satirical remark suggests the genius of the American form of government, representative democracy. We vote into office representatives on their promise to vote for laws and carry out the other duties of legislative governance that accord with the will of the majority. If they fail to do so, we have the right to vote them out and to vote in someone who will.
There are problems with the theory. First, the goals of the representative are not always in accord with those of the electorate. Politicians, for instance, are constantly tempted to do, not what the people want or deserve or need, but what will get them re-elected. In addition, those running for office, wanting the office for other reasons, might just say whatever it is the people want to hear in order for the politician to get elected, and then, once elected, do whatever they want to do regardless of the wants or needs of the people.
Let us, however, presume a modicum of good will. How does the candidate know what it is that the people want? How does a candidate get a sense of the policies that would best serve the interests and true needs of the people? One way is to ask, and that is the true value of primary elections. The candidate goes to each district or town or state and gives her or his message. She or he talks to the people. She or he listens to their opinions and to their reactions to her or his message. And the people, by their votes, tell the politician whether she or he is on the right track.
There is, however, a very important second way. Candidates have opponents in primary elections, and those opponents also attract people, and those people also have opinions and express needs and wants. One of those candidates is going to win, but the message left by the loser’s supporters is enormously important. It is the amalgam of the expressed needs and wants of all the candidates that most nearly expresses the true will of the people.
This fact has never been more true than it is today. Bernie Sanders has awakened in a (forgive me) huge part of the population a desire to return to a moral basis for governance as opposed to a financial basis. A very large segment of the population wants universal health care. It wants a more equitable distribution of wealth through progressive taxation. It wants more emphasis on education, and more access to that education for all. It wants to limit the power of the financial world, and it wants that world to pay from its enormous profits for a better world for all — better roads, better wages, better work conditions.
It is equally clear that the American people do not want a socialist government. They want the opportunities and creativity that capitalism allows. But they want that capitalism, that economic approach, moderated by service to the interests of all the people, that political approach.
So the real question in this election. Hillary Clinton says that she will govern in the interests of all the people. Her supporters say that she will not only propose but will also be able to succeed in implementing policies in accord with those interests. To do so, however, she needs to understand the concerns and desires of that great group of people whom Sanders has so inspired. If she wins the nomination, then the question for all of us is going to be: Is she listening?
We have, for several decades now, allowed our economy to become seriously unbalanced. We have decided governmental issues on financial grounds. Nothing illustrates that point better than the insistence that all problems get solved by cutting taxes. We have cut those taxes to the bone, and the result has been a serious degradation in health care, education, roads, parks and social services. For instance, in Wisconsin, because of the massive reduction in tax income, the Walker administration slashed five hundred million dollars ($500,000,000) from Wisconsin’s university system, and, in that one fell swoop, reduced one of the top ten universities in the country to a backwater institution. That, and the untold numbers of facts like it, definitely do not represent the will of the people. We have a chance to return to the will of the people, to a truly representative government, but only if Hillary Clinton, and all the politicians she will bring with her, understand what the Sanders outcry really means.
Hillary, are you listening?