The Somewhat Representative Democracy

Federal Hall, New York City. The seat of the federal government in 1790.

William Findley, a man of Irish descent who came to play a powerful role in Pennsylvanian politics, had an idea about what a politician should be. He said that politicians should be able to advocate for their own cause when they take the floor, that politicians should openly support their interests. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 221. As Gordon Wood explained in Empire of Liberty, this idea challenged “the entire classical tradition of disinterested public leadership and set[] forth a rationale for a competitive interest-laden politics . . . .” id.

James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, feared such a thing: that politicians may be deciding issues that directly affect their interests.

Nonetheless, the American system has undoubtedly embraced such a principle. Politicians, perhaps now more than ever, are influenced by their own interests, which are shaped by various donations, gifts, and promises of future favors.

There is a significant question underlying all of this: Did the Founding Fathers contemplate that a representative democracy could transform itself into a system where the politicians are only representative of their constituencies to the extent those constituencies benefit from the donations, gifts, and promises of future favors?

Some may argue that the representative nature of the republic was and still is affected by this system. Politicians are elected based on their promises of what they will do for others, but when in office, perhaps their self-interests are the only ones that matter. Then, to the extent those self-interests align with their constituency, their record serves as a platform for re-elections.

Perhaps it is simply too idealistic to expect politicians to put their self-interests aside and govern with an even hand, representing the best interests of their constituents, not themselves. Regardless, there appears to be no question that Findley’s ideal politician has become the norm for politicians.

Had Madison known what would happen to politicians, he may not have been surprised, but he would have been disappointed.

One Comment

  1. jeffsapunk

    This is an interesting article. How did Findlay put his beliefs into practice? Did he or his constituents directly benefit from his strong position like modern politicians seem to?

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