What is Representative Democracy?

The DRC story about the petition filed to recall Kevin Roden got me wondering. What is representative democracy?

The petition listed only one grievance against Kevin (quoting from the story) “his disregard of the citizens’ initiative to ban hydraulic fracturing in the city limits in 2014 and his subsequent vote to repeal the ban in 2015.”

A lot of people who voted for the ban didn’t like seeing it repealed. Kevin (along with Dalton Gregory) cast the most public vote for the ban back on July 15th, 2014 at the public hearing. He didn’t like seeing it repealed either. Nor did I. But I understood why he made that decision – he and five other council members.

I was part of a group serving as interveners in the lawsuits against the city at that time. That position gave me privileged access to legal advice – kind of like the access that Councilmembers have. We had lawyers from great organizations that work hard to protect communities including by defending local fracking bans. They didn’t want to see the ban repealed either. But they told us in no uncertain terms that it was the wise choice – the best move left under the new circumstances created by HB 40.

I wrote about this some time ago. My point here isn’t to rehash the details of that decision. Rather, I want to use it to talk more broadly about democracy in a complex modern society.


The political theorist E.E. Schattschneider wrote that “Democracy is like nearly everything else we do; it is a form of collaboration between ignorant people and experts.” Our City Councilors make decisions about roads, electricity, development, drainage, tax incentives, property taxes, water, landfills, and much more. In every case, there are experts who devote their professional careers to running the complex legal and technical systems involved. They comprise our city staff as well as various outside consultants.

City Council is such a time-demanding job, because there is a constant need to get trained up on the ins and outs of all these issues. In the collaboration between ignorant people and experts, City Councilors become the middlemen and middlewomen. They acquire what some call “interactional expertise,” meaning they can talk shop with the experts and understand what they are saying, even if they cannot contribute new ideas to the field under study.

Now, of course, there are also some residents who have interactional expertise in various areas. A few residents even have full “contributory expertise” in this or that field – think of Vicki Oppenheim and Tom La Point who served on the gas well task force as just two examples. Yet the vast majority of Denton’s population has little ability to interact with and understand the issues at hand in the level of detail required for making wise decisions. They simply don’t have the time to get trained up.

Yet, we don’t want to live in a technocracy (rule by experts), because the values questions that are rightly the province of the people (demos) are always all mashed up with the technical questions. Just think about the Renewable Denton Plan as only one example — obviously lots of technical stuff, but also fundamental moral questions about how to prioritize values. We cannot let our increasingly powerful means dictate our ends.

The reality of our dependence on complex systems, however, means that we also cannot decide on the ends in complete ignorance of the means. If every decision that Council made was instead made by popular vote, it wouldn’t just be impractical. It would also be unwise, because making good decisions hinges on a grasp of the technicalities.

I think this is the balancing act that representative democracy is supposed to play. On one hand, there is a danger that our elected officials get too complacent in the face of the sometimes overwhelming authority of expertise. Claims to privileged knowledge can at times slip into dogma and the representative must do his or her best to suss this out. There may be legitimate alternative ways of seeing the issue.

On the other hand, there is a danger that our elected officials get too complacent in the face of the sometimes overwhelming force of citizen opinion. It may be that the people do not understand the issue and the ramifications of different choices. What they are asking for may in fact go against their own good. Or what a vocal minority demands may go against the greater good of Denton. Then you ask yourself, “Am I here to do right by my city or to get re-elected?” Because even in a democracy sometimes the right vote isn’t the popular one.

That’s my read of the fracking ban repeal. It was strongly opposed by a faction that, in my opinion, didn’t understand the odds and the stakes. Sure, I could be wrong…but that would mean that many highly experienced and deeply sympathetic lawyers were wrong.

When we elect someone we certainly do so because we believe he or she shares our values. But I also think we do so because he or she has the capacity of judgment to understand how those values are best realized in any given circumstance. That judgment will require listening to and questioning both the experts and your constituents.

I think some people expect their elected representatives to be more like mirrors than judges: “I don’t care what you have learned from the (so-called) experts, we don’t like this, so your vote is NO!”

But if that’s the attitude, then why should our representatives spend all that time in all those meetings getting trained up on all the complexities? The job only makes sense if you study and learn new things and consider how your general values best take particular shape in a variety of circumstances. That process might at times lead you to conclusions that are unpopular. I think at that point, the right thing to do is to explain your position as best you can, vote as your judgment dictates, and let the political chips fall where they may.


12 thoughts on “What is Representative Democracy?

  1. I always enjoy reading your commentary Adam as it is always both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

    I too have a hard time with those who would use the political implement of “recall” within our tool box of democracy outside of anything that isn’t connected to political corruption and/or violating the public trust for personal gain.

    I also understand that if it were 1985 when we still had a chance of keeping our carbon foot print closer to the 350ppm then the notion of recalling someone who is seen as or giving the appearance of promoting anything that likely adds to that carbon foot print would not have a fart’s chance in a hurricane to get any sizable portion of the general public interested in taking strong action that would remove a perceived adversary in public office. (That is just too damn long of a sentence. Sorry)

    Passionate people engaged in passionate issues can and do let their emotions supersede more rational thought and it is that variable along with the knowledge that many of those passionate people have that our planet is in crisis mode as a result of our continued use of fossil fuels, which have very likely created this crisis.

    Kevin Roden doesn’t need to be recalled because he made an unpopular yet thoughtful decision regarding the gas power plants that are part of an otherwise worthy energy policy. And I think if he had simply allowed this recall action to play itself out he would likely have found that he has the support within his district to overcome this challenge.

    But Kevin stepped into a big pile of manure when he went after some of those people engaged in this process in a manner that has him coming off as arrogant and neglectful of their right to petition their grievances, no matter how small some may see them as. His anger and disappointment towards those he feels are treating him unfairly is surely understandable but he diminishes himself, as Greg Johnson did earlier, when he mocks any citizen engaged in legal behavior that he may find offensive.

    That being said, I hope Kevin AND Joey Hawkins as well survive their recall attempts but in Kevin’s case I also hope he – and all of us who serve in a public capacity – takes something away from this experience that makes him a better public servant worthy of the respect their office offers and reacts only with dignity and grace when confronted with angry and disappointed voters.

  2. Were you, as well as the participants of Frack Free Denton, not very well warned and repeatedly told that a vote to ban fracking would absolutely be turned over in a court? Yes, we were! Yet yourself, and many of us, fought and pushed for a ban anyway- knowing the consequences.

    But then when it came time to stand up for our ban, the council tucked their tails between their legs and bowed down to an unjust system that took the power of the municipality away, and gave it to the greater power of the Oil and Gas industry. That day, the voters of Denton, Texas lost their voice.

    I don’t doubt that the council is more informed on many issues than the average citizen, but then again, many citizens in Denton are involved, we care and have been here caring about this town long before your arrival. The job of the council is to best represent their constituents, while making sound decisions on their behalf. We are by no means an “ignorant” group of citizens. We are a community of people from different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and we mostly share the same end goal: making Denton a safer, healthier place to live.

    Right now, as a collective body, the council isn’t doing thier job. Citizens had to demand more information on the RDP and it’s still a coin toss as to whether we’ll see a sound ethics code adopted.

    Being a public servant is hard, demanding, and sometimes thankless work. This council, more than any council in the past, has lots of citizen involvement. And we are thankful for the time they spend trying to understand the issues at hand, but at the end of the day, their job is to be transparent, fair, ethical, non-intimidating, level headed and approachable, all while making the best decision possible based on the input of both experts and constituents. The problem lately in Denton is, are they asking the experts? Who are the “experts”? Or are they becoming a group of moderately informed experts themselves. If a councilperson can’t be and do those things, they shouldn’t be on the council.

  3. I am shocked and saddened by the unselfconsciously neo-totalitarian vision of democracy that you articulate here, Adam. Do you really believe what you say here, or are you just trying it on for size? I am troubled by the degree of sympathy and flattery you extend here to the powerful few, and by the condescension and smugness you demonstrate here towards the powerless majority, whose intelligence you seem to be undermining, and whose right to determine their own futures and the futures of their communities you seem inclined to suppress. Shouldn’t you and I –both of us tenured academics who also happen to be activists– be using our rare privilege of job security to advocate for the powerless rather than condescending to them? Your characterization of the ignorant misguided masses whose put-upon leaders know better than they do feels straight out of Plato’s _Republic_.

    History has shown us where such elitist political philosophies lead, and I can’t imagine you would choose to live in such a world. There would be nothing democratic about it.

  4. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”― Winston S. Churchill
    What you are recommending, Adam, is oligarchy. That is not representative government. Denton is full of expertise far beyond what exists among the membership of City Council, on the Commissions, and on the Denton City staff, and where something may be missing here in Denton, it can be easily found in the WORLD at large. We must not sycophantically revere our government—that is demagoguery. It saddens me greatly that, for the sake of a few misguided alliances, you have been willing to sacrifice what a year and a half ago seemed to be a pretty good analytical mind to a sad stream of apologia on behalf of local government officials who have been behaving badly. If you are going to continue this kind of blog, why not shift gears and write for those whose efforts actually deserve it, like Councilors Keely Briggs and Kathleen Wazny?

  5. I’m baffled too. I thought field philosophy was supposed to be a bottom-up approach. What you are proposing above seems top-down.

  6. Sharon…you were part of this and advocated strongly for repeal…I recall you saying things about how folks just didn’t get it…and what I say above is all about balancing top and bottom approaches.

  7. Your post seems to be a general statement of how you see democracy based on the example of the repeal. Given your last post and this one, it looks like your view has become top down. This doesn’t fit with my understanding of field philosophy.

    Regarding recall: I have not been involved with that and don’t what to be. But Chris Watts has cast some unpopular votes with which many disagree. Yet, he remains popular and respected. Wonder what the difference is.

    Regarding repeal: I agreed with repeal. I strongly disagreed with the paralysis of leadership and not talking with and explaining the circumstances with people. If you remember.

  8. As an outsider looking in, it appeared to many of us that all the hard work on the Denton fracking ban was dismissed by the very “leaders” who pushed so hard to achieve it. That was devastating no matter what the reasons were. Civil rights leaders never said, “Never Mind,” when told by public officials and powerful people that fighting for civil rights in “the South” was a losing proposition…in fact if Martin Luther King, Jr. had ever uttered those words he might still be alive today. But he certainly wouldn’t be considered one of the greatest leaders in American history.

  9. Adam, me thinks that you are ignorant of ‘upper class bias,’ a concept quite adequately conveyed by Schattschneider, who also opined, “The outcome of every conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved in it (scope).” You also have fallen prey to the inane desire to trust what a well-paid lawyer must relay under a promissory arrangement. In the final analysis one must come to realize that experts are an extinct species. Although I once spied a fine lithograph of a genuine one whilst visiting the British Museum. Regrettably there are people who have an insatiable desire to be contextually influenced by self-serving experts, to the absolute detriment of democracy, health, safety, virtue, and you name it. And that, Mr. Briggle, is the cold, hard, sunlit truth that always lingers long after the experts have left the building.

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