Talking It Through: Puzzles of American Democracy.

Author:Cohen, Louis R.
Position:Book Review
 
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TALKING IT THROUGH: PUZZLES OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. By Robert W. Bennett. (1) Cornell University Press. Pp. 223. $29.95.

This elegant book seems more important at the moment than its author is willing to claim. Professor Bennett argues that the best account of America's democratic institutions is that they foster a complex "conversation" about public affairs between the citizenry and its leaders. He insists that the aim of his "conversational perspective" is simply to describe why many features of our government have survived and seem to work, and not to judge whether they are working well. But his own enthusiasm for both American democracy and "democratic conversation" shines through, and he surely believes that the democracy works well when the conversation is smooth and not bitter, and that our most effective leaders are those who can converse most effectively with the public.

Bennett has been arguing for a while that the traditional primary explanation of American government--that it allows the will of a majority of citizens to be reflected through the voting process in the nation's decisions--is incoherent, inconsistent with what happens, and fails to account for central features of that government. (3) His summary here of the shortcomings of "majoritarianism and the vote-centered model" as a description of the real world is clear and efficient (pp. 18-33), and the book would be fun to read even if there were only this delicious (good-natured) attack on a standard model.

On the traditional view, at least in its most naive form, the views of a majority of citizens dictate policy, not directly (as in the legendary New England town meeting) but through the election by majority vote of representatives, who in turn make decisions by majority votes within their representative bodies, and the election of a President, again by majority vote, to take care that the policies are faithfully executed.

This is, of course, not merely a false but a wholly impossible explanation. The nation has not resolved--and should not--even the fundamental question whether elected representatives "should" reflect the views of their constituents or should instead act in what they consider the best interests of the polity as a whole. That question, put pristinely by 18th Century theorists, is greatly complicated in American practice by the work of political parties, interest groups, and many organizations that mediate the views of constituents on their way to the legislature. But even if it were clear that representatives are expected simply to vote in accordance with their constituents' wishes, outcomes would hardly reflect simple majority sentiment: for example, outcomes depend on which questions are put to a vote, and how the questions are defined, and in what order they are taken up (all of which depend on distinctly non-majoritarian processes); and outcomes also depend on what legislative trades the representatives are allowed to make. Moreover, of course, since the beginning of the Republic, the composition of both national and state legislatures has been determined not only by votes but by the boundaries of legislative districts drawn with a keen eye to the desired election outcomes. And, as we have been repeatedly reminded, the President need not be elected by a majority or plurality of all voters.

Bennett does not, in my view, sufficiently criticize one important consequence of naive vote-centered majoritarianism that has a bearing on much of what he does say. In 1964, the Supreme Court established a high-water mark for the naive theory by imposing a strict "one-man [sic] one-vote" standard on the apportionment of both the U.S. House of Representatives (4) and state legislatures. (5) The Court seems to have thought that giving each...

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