Giving our representatives room

Transparency is crucial in a healthy democracy. But the relentless, 24/7 spotlight we now shine on elected representatives has compromised their ability to compromise.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Scaffolding surrounded the dome of the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., in October.

Democracy is a lovely word. It evokes images of civil rights marchers singing “We Shall Overcome” in Birmingham, Ala. It is 10,000 keys jingling the message of “It’s time” in Prague’s Wenceslas Square 25 years ago. It is the delighted faces of Afghans and Iraqis holding up ink-stained fingers and the brief springtime of hope in Cairo.

Any serious system of democracy, however, has another word attached to it that is crucial to its success but is much less evocative, a word that is at best workmanlike and more likely to be accompanied by a shrug or an ugh than the thrill of human aspiration. That word is representative.

Buzzkill, right? And yet whatever you think of the political class, it is necessary to make democracy function. Even if advances in digital technology could take out these middlemen, elected officials would still be needed to counter the very real problem of tyranny of the majority. More than that, representative democracies, as James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the nation.”

Representatives today are more often seen as bickering and inflexible than wise and discerning. Why the lack of love? Maybe because we know too much about them. A democracy requires public officials to live in the public eye, which was fine in the days before 24/7 media. The always-on spotlight, however, has burned away the privacy needed for representatives to consult one other, to blue-sky ideas, make deals, and compromise for the good of the nation and not just their own political survival or their party’s advantage. Add to that the political expedient – especially for members of the US House – to stay close to constituents, fundraisers, and party purists, and you have a system that is broken.

The Monitor recently asked five experts how to fix the Congress. If there is a common theme in what these five (former Senate majority leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution and The George Mason University, and Jason Grumet, author of “City of Rivals: Restoring the Glorious Mess of American Democracy”) recommend it is that representatives be given space – space away from the spotlight, space to do business, space free from relentless campaigning and opposition gotchas, space to make Capitol Hill their workplace and not just a base they tag once a week. (You can read what they say by clicking here.)

No one is calling for a return of the smoke-filled backroom or machine politics. Let’s just acknowledge that the humans we elect need the latitude to do their jobs with some degree of privacy, just as you and I need when we are noodling with ideas and weighing what can be done against what we wish could be done. Let’s acknowledge that a wise nation honors its human representatives as much as its democratic ideals.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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