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The Democratic Link

The object of the voter-incumbent battle is a simple one. The voter class possesses a thing the incumbent class covets greatly, and this thing quite simply is the legal power to decide the latter’s political fate.[1]People are not comfortable having their fate in the hands of others, so it is only natural they will seek to take that control away from these others and give it to themselves. It is therefore an iron law of representative democracy that over time incumbents as a class, if given by the voters the space to do so, will shape the political and electoral battlefields to favor their own reelections in ways and degrees that eventually amount to de facto usurpation of the voters’ power to bend government to their will. From there government bends to the will of the governors, and the very purpose of democracy is defeated.

As a class – and by design – incumbents cannot help but wage upon the voters this battle for control over their own reelections, so the battle is always ongoing and always relevant. Therefore, in analyzing the health of any representative democracy, step one is to determine the status of this battle so as to correctly answer the question, “Where does most of the power to decide the reelections of incumbents effectively lie: with the voters, or with the incumbents themselves?” If the correct answer is that it lies with the former, then they have succeeded in their first and most important duty as voters and much praise goes to them for a job well done. (May the rest of the world observe and learn.) Lesser issues may then come to the fore: policy matters, partisan matters, efforts to vote preferred candidates into office, and so on. But if the answer is that it lies with the latter, then job one for those voters whose highest priority is a well functioning and voter-friendly democracy must be to pour everything they have into correcting this problem until it is in fact corrected. No other course of action will enable the democracy to work how the voters want it to, because what they want most – and correctly so – is to be the ones who control it.

If the voters are to succeed in wresting back from the incumbents the control of the voters’ democracy, they must somehow or another establish a strong link between how well they feel the democracy is being run and how good a chance the incumbents running it have at being reelected. It is the very existence of this democratic link (as we may call it) that underpins the very idea of democratic government. After all, if widespread and chronic dissatisfaction with how the democracy is being run does not result in correspondingly widespread incumbent loss of power, how will such a system serve the voters any better than its non-democratic alternatives? What would be the mechanism that made it go? What would be the point of such a democracy, assuming we could even give it the name?

This concept of the democratic link is simply an alternative way of framing our previously stated, fundamental issue of “where does most of the power to decide the reelections of incumbents effectively lie?” In other words, it gives us a second way of conceptualizing the object over which voters and incumbents battle. In the first view, the battle is over the power to decide incumbents’ political fate. In this second view, it is over the condition of the democratic link, with the voters battling for its strength and the incumbents for its weakness.

The existence of a strong democratic link may loosely (but accurately) be defined as a situation in which incumbents either find a way to keep the voters happy with their collective performance or they lose their jobs in droves – even though not all may be deserving of the fate. This provides a strong incentive for nearly all incumbents to do the right thing and focus their energies on the bottom line of producing results that please the voters.4 As modern America’s longtime experience demonstrates all too well, when the democratic link is weak, the exact opposite occurs: incumbents fail to keep the voters happy with their collective performance yet are almost always reelected anyway. This wipes out their incentive to collectivelyserve the masses of voters well, yet it is this collective service that matters far and away most to the general well-being of the citizenry.

Whichever of the two views we employ, the results are exactly the same.

View 1: When incumbents as a class possess too much control over their own reelections, most incumbents are overly free to govern in service to a few and disservice to the many, and this is precisely what they do.

View 2: When voter displeasure with incumbents’ collective performance does not reliably result in large numbers of incumbents losing reelection, most incumbents are overly free to govern in service to a few and disservice to the many, and this is precisely what they do.

Either way, the incentive structure will be geared to allow the interests of the incumbents to overrun those of the voters. With such a structure in place, the only unknown of the disaster to follow are its details. That there will be such a disaster is a given.

4  Put another way, it turns the voters into customers.

[1]Voters and incumbents also battle over how the latter govern while in power, but this battle is so deeply entwined with the one for control over the incumbents’ political fate that treating it separately is simply not worth the added complication.

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