How’s your Latin? Those words up there say that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Maybe William of Malmesbury first put it that way in the twelfth century, but it actually popped up much earlier, in a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne in 798, and of course that’s what Holmes says to Watson at the end of The Adventure of the Abbey Grange. No jury would ever convict Captain Croker, you see. But specific references don’t matter. People used to mutter those four words all the time, back when any reasonably educated person knew Latin and not just how to install an application on their iPhone to look up nearby Chinese restaurants. And it’s a fairly commonplace idea – there are experts, and there are wild-eyed cranks, and venial politicians, and clever lawyers and those with this agenda or that – all out to prove something or other – but there is the voice of the people, the common man. If you want the best answer to some vexing problem – something as close to the voice of God as possible – then what the sensible and well-informed public thinks is as close as you’re going to get. And even if the public is not all that sensible or well-informed, what they think matters more than anything else. It’s the wisdom of the people. It may be that God speaks through them.
Of course our jury system works that way, even in death penalty cases, or particularly in death penalty cases. Twelve quite ordinary people listen to all the evidence, and to all the things each side’s lawyers say about that evidence, and to the judge’s arcane jury instructions, and then sit around and decide if the accused is going to live or die. They do become the voice of God. And our nation was founded on the same idea. We held that divine right of kings was nonsense, and that the particular King George at the time – later known for stepping out of his carriage in Hyde Park and addressing a tree as the King of Prussia – was certainly not the voice of God. He was nuts. So we’d have a country where the people were the voice of God, or close enough. One of the immediate issues was taxation, on tea, but the principle was larger than that. Legitimate government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, from the people – they know best. Any other form of government is tyranny, or perhaps theological silliness.
And that is why, on this particular August night, as Libyan rebels raced into Tripoli and met little if any resistance from Moammar Gadhafi’s few remaining defenders, most Americans smiled. This was good. That man’s forty-two-year rule simply crumbled. Back in 1969 Gadhafi had staged a bloodless coup against King Idris while the king was in Turkey for medical treatment. That was a bad idea. The king, who like all kings had claimed divine right, was suddenly out of work and unable to go back to Libya, ever. But as much as Gaddafi kept saying, year after year, that he was the voice of the people – that’s why he staged the coup in the first place, for the people, his people – in the end no one was buying it. He had just grabbed power and then did his own voice-of-God thing. Yes, you can say you’re the voice of the people, and thus the voice of God, but if the people were never part of things in the first place they do get tired of you claiming that. They had had enough. Moammar Gadhafi finally heard the actual voice of God, in this case the voice of the people.
But how do you determine the voice of the people? There are always lots of parties claiming to be the real voice of the people, or the voice of the real people. Sarah Palin built her political career, such as it is, claiming she represents the voice of Real Americans, not the fake ones. Real Americans live in small towns or on farms, and not in the big cities, especially not in New York City or Washington, and certainly not on the coasts – and they don’t have fancy degrees or think much of those who do, and so on and so forth. This is pretty much quite ordinary common-man-populism, but as such it excludes a whole lot of folks. Demographically it excludes the majority of the population. And there is an implicit element of racism to it – blacks and Hispanics end up seemingly outside the definition, as do Arab-Americans of course. But this sort of thing happens when anyone talks about what most people really think. They don’t know. America has too wide a distribution of all sorts of people, in all sorts of places, to say anything sensible about what The People think. There are too damned many of them.
But you do hear all sorts of this oddly narrow populism on the right. Everyone hates Obama, as you know. Everyone knows that. Didn’t you? And even if it now seems Obama was born in America and thus was eligible for the presidency after all, on talk radio you hear a lot of talk about how we have to rid ourselves of this tyrant.
Yes he was elected by the people, by a whole lot of votes, but it seems that the wrong people voted. Ann Coulter even argued the problem is that we let women vote:
If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat president. It’s kind of a pipe dream, it’s a personal fantasy of mine, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. And it is a good way of making the point that women are voting so stupidly, at least single women. It also makes the point – it is kind of embarrassing – that the Democratic Party ought to be hanging its head in shame, that it has so much difficulty getting men to vote for it.
Real men voted for heroic and sensible John McCain, and besotted single women voted for sexy Barack Obama – thus the will of the people was thwarted. Single women should not be counted as part of the people, because they’re so… flighty? It’s an interesting argument. But as you recall, when Sharron Angle ran against Harry Reid in Nevada, Angel argued that if the right person didn’t win that senate seat – her – then the people might have to resort to exercising their second-amendment rights. That would be the right to bear arms. The voice of the people would have to be heard – and it seems, to Angle, that the voice of the people often isn’t actually revealed in how they vote. The people, presumably Real Americans, might have to speak with their guns. That sounded ominous. And then she refused to say any more.
Of course nothing came of it – there was no armed popular uprising, no bloody revolution, no Rebel Alliance heroically fighting Darth Vader and those clone armies – but you see the issue here. Who speaks for the people? If the votes cast this way and that, carefully counted, don’t really represent the will of the people, then what does? Everyone has an opinion, even Moammar Gadhafi.
Now there are a good number of folks who do not think the voice of the people – however you define who they really are – is the voice of God. There are those who hold that the voice of God is actually the voice of God. What the people, whoever you say they are, think… well that’s a matter of no consequence at all. People should be humble and walk in God’s way, continually ask His forgiveness for being the sinfully weak fools they inherently are, and shut up and do what He says. And if you didn’t hear what He said – if He didn’t speak to you – they’ll help out and tell you exactly what He said, because they heard Him loud and clear. But those folks didn’t get the memo. This is a government of, by and for the people. God has other concerns. What does He care about tax policy and highway construction funding?
Nope, we’re stuck. We have to work out what the people want.
But this is not easy. We set things up so that we can never decide what people want. In fact, it’s a structural issue, highlighted by this odd post from Joshua Tucker:
About four weeks ago – in the midst of the negotiations over extending the US debt ceiling – I was talking with a British friend of mine, and he asked me what President Obama meant when said he was going to take the argument to the people. I explained that this meant he was going to give a speech, and make his arguments directly to the people. My friend listened to my answer, and then told me how when he heard this he wondered if Obama was going to call on early election.
Yes, there are systems where, after all the unresolved arguments about what the people really want – mostly just pompous posturing – everyone agrees to just ask them what they want, right now. You call for an early election, to change leadership or not. All parliamentary systems work that way. You can be in office for two weeks and someone calls for a vote of no-confidence and then it simply goes to the people. It happens, but not here.
And Tucker notes that Standard and Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating because even if either party has a plan to fix our long term fiscal mess, no plan is going to get implemented because of conflict between the two parties that can never be resolved. When the executive – the Presidency – and the legislature – the Congress – are not controlled by the same party, and have fixed terms in office, then nothing can get done. But for Tucker that’s not all:
This in turn got me thinking about the possible relationship between regime types – as one of the primary characteristics of parliamentary regimes is that the same party(ies) controls the executive and the legislature by definition – and AAA ratings.
What’s the connection? It’s the regime type for the thirteen countries remaining in the world with AAA ratings from Moody’s (actually Aaa), Fitch, and Standard and Poor’s. They are all parliamentary systems:
Now a couple caveats are in order. First, 11 of these countries are also West European democracies, so there clearly may be other important similarities besides parliamentary systems of government. Second, Singapore is included in this list as a parliamentary system, so take that as you may. That being said, the data are what they are, and the fact remains that not a single country with a presidential system of government currently has a AAA rating from all three ratings agencies.
Of course there is one country with a semi-presidential system (France) left on the list, but, interestingly enough, France is also the country this week’s rumor mill suggested may be the next to lose its AAA rating. Coincidence?
And Fareed Zakaria carries this further:
In a parliamentary system… the legislature and the executive are fused so there is no contest for national legitimacy.
Think of David Cameron in England. He is head of the coalition that won the election, head of the bloc that has a majority in parliament and head of the executive branch as Prime Minister.
Remember, the political battle surrounding the debt ceiling is actually impossible in a parliamentary system because the executive controls the legislature.
There could not be a public spectacle of the two branches of government squabbling and holding the country hostage.
In the American presidential system, in contrast, you have the presidency and the legislature, both of which claim to speak for the people.
So we will always have a contest over basic legitimacy. We always argue over who is actually speaking for and representing the people and we cannot call an early election to resolve matters. And now things have really gotten out of hand:
We have one party in one house of the legislature claiming to speak for the people because theirs was the most recent electoral victory. And you have the president who claims a broader mandate as the only person elected by all the people. These irresolvable claims invite struggle.
And how can you ever resolve that struggle without calling for an early election? So we have a fine system, that doesn’t work all that well:
There are, of course, advantages to the American system – the checks and balances have been very useful on occasion. In 1945 Britain enacted a quasi-socialist economic plan that set the country on a bad path.
But look at the situation today. Western countries all have created welfare states and governmental systems that are cumbersome, sluggish and expensive – especially as the population ages.
These need to be reformed and many of the reforms are fairly obvious – in social security, energy policy, tax reform. But the American government has lost the ability to actually implement any policy solutions because of political gridlock.
That is what Standard and Poor’s said:
America’s governance and policymaking is becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed… Despite this year’s wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge.
And this is what Fareed Zakaria says:
This is not just about the presidential system alone. Recent developments have added to polarization and paralysis. The filibuster for example, is not in the constitution but it is now routinely used to allow a minority of one house to block all legislation.
In a fast-moving world, where other countries are acting quickly and with foresight, we are paralyzed.
And there is his final word:
It’s all very well to keep saying that we have the greatest system in the history of the world but against this background of dysfunction it sounds a lot like thoughtless cheerleading.
The voice of the people is the voice of God. Isn’t it pretty to think so? But the voice of the people is so ambiguous, or disputed, that it might as well be silent – just like the voice of God. He says nothing. We’re on our own.