American history reflects an unrelenting movement toward more and more democracy, apparently with the goal of producing a government that would become more and more representative of the aspirations of the people.
After the era of elitism of limited voting with the Founding Fathers, the Jacksonian era saw a significant increase in the number of eligible voters. It wasn’t long before the selection of the electors who choose the president was taken away from the legislatures and placed on the ballot for a vote of the people.
The Civil War resulted in the Fifteenth Amendment that gave African-Americans the right to vote. In 1912, the Seventeenth Amendment moved the selection of each state’s two senators from legislatures to the people.
Seven years later, the Nineteenth Amendment extended the right to vote to women. In 1960, the Twenty-Third Amendment gave citizens n the District of Columbia the right to vote for president and, in 1971, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to 18-year-olds.
Other than the Bill of Rights, the right to vote was the most common subject of amendments to the U. S. Constitution, indicating that Americans wanted the government to better represent the electorate on public issues.
When U. S. Senators were appointed by the legislatures, it was assumed that they would represent states in the federal system more than representing the voters. However, once they became elected, their attention switched to the wants of the public. They are now expected to be as representative as members of the House of Representatives.
North Dakota got so excited about all of this democracy that it adopted a constitutional amendment in 1898 authorizing the legislature to prescribe penalties for failing to vote in general elections.
But what has all of this democracy meant? Today, according to a Gallup poll, only nine percent of the people have “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in our more representative Congress. Seventy-one percent of the people are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed.
Somehow, all of this democracy has not made citizens feel that their government is more representative or more responsive. We may even suppose that the country was just as happy when voting was restricted to the propertied classes. (Oh horrible thought!)
Are North Dakota’s representatives in Washington voting the will of the people? The truth is that they don’t know the will of the people unless they have professional polls to tell them. Without scientific polling, they respond to ideology, party loyalty, hearsay, anecdotes and interest groups.
On a few major issues, the Congressional delegation can make a pretty good estimate of public opinion.
When Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp votes with conservatives against her party’s caucus on guns, coal and other hot button issues, she is making a pretty good estimate of where the majority of people in North Dakota stand on critical issues and she votes as a representative and not an ideologue.
Polarization in Washington is nurtured by militant ideologies that have no room for compromise and, in a diverse society, the choice is compromise or stalemate. Straight party voting has negated many of the gains expected from more and more democracy.
While true believers like the idea of electing representatives who will defy public opinion and “stand their ground no matter what,” these are the kind of Senators and Representatives in Washington who have given Congress an approval rating of nine percent.
It sort of proves that more and more democracy didn’t help without master compromisers like the Founding Fathers whose compromises produced the master plan for the greatest democracy on earth.
Lloyd Omdahl is the former Lt. Governor of the state of North Dakota. He has also been a professor at the University of North Dakota. His column can be found in newspapers all around the state.