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A lot of people who voted for the ban didn’t like seeing it repealed.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 He didn’t like seeing it repealed either.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 They didn’t want to see the ban repealed either.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.