David Brooks's argument for direct democracy
I disagree with quite a bit in David Brooks's column today. But I'm fascinated by its democratic radicalism. Based on a quick aggregation of polls and a special election in which the Democrat repeatedly insulted the local sports team, Brooks declares passing health-care reform "the act of a party so arrogant, elitist and contemptuous of popular wisdom that it would not deserve to govern." I don't remember Brooks reacting to the war in Iraq or the Bush tax cuts (which polls showed people would rather see devoted toward deficit reduction) with such fury, but people are obviously allowed their ideological commitments.
That said, polling on the health-care bill is, as Brooks surely knows, complicated. Voters don't know much about the plan. Most disapprove of it, but many disapprove because they want to see it go further (I count myself among them). Gallup's poll asking whether people would advise their representatives to vote for the bill shows a slight plurality supporting the legislation. In Massachusetts, a virtually identical bill was passed a few years back, and it’s now so popular that Brown, the Republican candidate, supports it.
At the same time, a majority of both chambers of Congress have voted to pass the bill. We send people to Congress and give them the time and the staff and the power to learn about issues and make decisions on our behalf. We stagger their elections to further insulate them from immediate popular retribution under the theory that some decisions will bear fruit in the long term, even as they're unpopular in the short term. Our system, in fact, is built for exactly this type of moment: A complicated issue that's hard for the public to understand and the subject of brutal political battles but that representatives think worth doing.
Brooks's column is about health-care reform. But his argument is with representative government. And the big question here is how far does Brooks's commitment to the polls extend? If Brooks thinks that they should be ignored in other cases, then he needs to argue against this policy on its own terms. But if he thinks they should be heeded in all cases, he should make that argument more directly and grapple with its implications. I think it would be very interesting to have an advocate for direct democracy writing on the New York Times op-ed page, but I'm not sure Brooks actually is that advocate, or if it's just a convenient argument to bring about his preferred short-term policy outcome.
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