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Are we too big for democracy?

Speaking of democracy, Kurt Andersen worries we're too large for it to work any longer.

The framers worried about democratic government working in a country as large as this one, and it’s possible that we’ve finally reached the unmanageable tipping point they feared: Maybe our republic’s constitutional operating system simply can’t scale up to deal satisfactorily with a heterogeneous population of 310 million. When the Constitution was written and the Senate created, there were around 4 million people in America, or about one senator for every 150,000 people. For Congress to be as representative as it was in 1789, we’d need to elect 2,000 senators and 5,000 House members. And so I wonder, as I watch Senate leaders irresponsibly playing to the noisiest, angriest parts of the peanut gallery, if the current, possibly suicidal spectacle of anti-government “populism” in Washington isn’t connected to our bloated people-to-Congresspeople ratios

This strikes me as wrong. On the most basic level, the House is quite a bit more representative than the Senate, and it's also quite a bit crazier. It works better, because it uses majority rule rather than rule-by-filibuster, but I don't think the fact that it's more than four times as representative has made it four times more temperamentally sober than the Senate.

Rather the opposite, actually. With each of the members representing a smaller constituency and having fewer opportunities to distinguish themselves, they're easier prey for primary challenges and interest groups that push them to the extremes.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 19, 2010; 8:03 AM ET
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Somehow when Obama vocalizes the draconian feeling of the federal government monopolistically declaring what medical procedures are "acceptable use of precious resources" you guys are fine....but what would you be saying if you heard this policy vocalized by Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, or Dick Cheney?

How are you Progressive types so easily duped!!!

I can see you guys now smiling dumbly as Mao gives the order to kill all the old farmers standing in the way of progress!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

The framers worried about the federal government having too much power, and worked painstakingly hard to limit the federal government's power over the lives of the citizens.

Lets not give the federal government power over whether we have access to healthcare or not.

The above piece is a honest contemplation of power by the federal government that it should never be given!!!!

"If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny."

- Thomas Jefferson

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

HCR reform is not about having the gvmt interfere with doctor/patient decisions. It's about getting private insurers to stop interfering and to stop their predatory practices and medical terrorism.

FastEddie (appropriate name BTW) either has and values gvmt-run medicare or will gleefully accept it when he gets old enough. Talk about hypocrisy.

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 19, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

LOL! Like theres any chance Medicare will still be solvent by then!

Too funny!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

This discussion reminds me of the movement to increase the size of the House ( A House with 6,000 members seems simply untenable. Which implies that there is an upper limit on the number of members a legislative body can have. Which leads to the conclusion that as democratic countries grow, they have to become less representative to work.

Posted by: someBrad | February 19, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

medicare may not exist if the GOP keeps obstructing and adding more debt (if they regain power).

GOP's Ryan wants to cut medicare by some $650 billion, a plan taken seriously by many GOPers.

And 82% of all the national debt was created by Reagan and the two Bushes. CBO data proves only 1/5th of the current deficit is due to policies Obama signed into law, and even then, most if that was to combat the malaise created by his predecessor(s). The other 4/5 was due to Bush policies.

So FastEddie, how old are you and do you have medicare, or will you accept it once you get old enough?

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 19, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

FastEddie, I stopped paying attention when you implied that liberals are murder-supporting Maoists. When you post something woth responding to, we might have a conversation.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Ezra. The inability to govern is that it takes 60 votes to get anything of consequence done in the Senate, and its very hard to get 60 senators to agree on anything of consequence.

It also seems a bit odd his argument is structured as:

P1: Congress isn't as representative at is was historically because of population growth. The people-to-Congresspeople ratio is bloated.

P2: The Senate pays too much attention to the concerns of crazy people. The influence of crazy people is too high. Congress can't function smoothly.

P3 (implied): The influence of crazy people on Congress is (somehow) directly proportional to the number of people each Congressperson represents.

C: If our government were more representative of the people, with fewer people per congressperson, the crazier people would no longer have as much influence and Congress would operate a bit more smoothly.

I think if we had 2,000 senators, we'd go from having 41 senators block major legislation to having 801 senators block major legislation.

Posted by: justin84 | February 19, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

GOP's Ryan wants to cut medicare by some $650 billion, a plan taken seriously by many GOPers.

Yes...he is trying to keep it solvent. Democrats refuse...they want to cut Medicare as the pre-text for creating another grand entitlement on a path to bankruptcy.

Cloward-Piven anyone? Who wins if the USA is permanently bankrupt as a result of reckless over-committment to unsustainable entitlement programs?

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I like your focus on procedural and institutional pressure points, like the filibuster, rather than trying to alter the nature of the system. Our basic constitutional balancing of democracy and republican representation likely can't be changed without major unintended consequences. And factionalism and populism have to be seen in the context of a relatively stable 2 party system. Commissions, such as the one proposed for long term budget matters, are another provider of political cover on tough decisions. It is concerning that we seem unable to tackle major issues like immigration reform and entitlement reform, but leadership and procedural change should be sufficient to get the job done.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 19, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Ezra - How significant are the profits of insurance companies as compared to the overall costs of healthcare nationwide?

It is my understanding that the profits were no bigger overall than the cash awards that ambulance-chasing lawyers like John Edwards walk away with when they trump up some scenario of a fetus' heart beating....except while some like John Edwards spends his money on more mansions, fast cars, and mistresses, these insurance companies wisely invest it back into healthcare knowing that their future profit potential is directly related to keeping healthcare costs down long term. Trial lawyers actually benefit financially by keeping the healthcare system as dysfunctional as possible

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Fast Eddie, despite the fact that you haven't apologized for calling all liberals Maoist murder-supporters, I'll respond to one of your points:

You assert that trial lawyers invest in personal property as opposed to insurance companies, who invest the money back into healthcare, but provide no evidence. Wasn't there a post somewhere recently about how much the execs at insurance companies make (many millions of dollars per year)? And aren't they sending some of that money to investors? I don't know what John Edwards spends his money on, but you use him as an example of trial lawyers without demostrating that he is a typical example.

You're not making arguments, you're making assertions.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, your last paragraph defines exactly why each state should eliminate their current gerrymandered districts so that candidates for office would be forced to appeal to both sides of the aisle rather than just political partisans. As it stands right now in these gerrymandered districts, any moderate candidate has a hard time appealing to the voters in that district as each candidate is being pushed to the extremes by even more hyper-partisan candidates. Instead of advocating solutions that really might work, the campaigns focus on who can outdo the other in partisan rhetoric. Thus, we have complete dysfunction and an inability to compromise to get anything done.

Posted by: valkayec | February 19, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I apologize for the crudeness of my metaphor, and specifically for the metaphor's implication that liberals/progressives in the USA might find themselves accepting of Mao's draconian actions to mass-murder.

I have no evidence to back that accusation up, and wasn't attempting to make such an accusation as much as merely trying to make a point that liberals/progressives might be too willing to readily accept a policy from Obama that they'd never accept from a conservative, and overlook the cold calculating draconian implications of the underlying policies in a way similiar (though certainly less severe) than some of the supporters of Mao did in China during the People's Great Leap Forward.

I apologize for the overstatement.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

*With each of the members representing a smaller constituency and having fewer opportunities to distinguish themselves, they're easier prey for primary challenges and interest groups that push them to the extremes.*

With members representing small constituencies, my assumption would be that the individuals have a greater vested interest in their personal relationship with their representatives and would be less tempted to knock off someone who is essentially an anonymous representative with someone willing to pander with extremist rhetoric.

Posted by: constans | February 19, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I admit that I am making the assertion that profits of insurance companies are as significant to the overall cost of healthcare as money sucked out of healthcare by ambulance-chasing trial lawyers who walk away with million dollar awards.

I am asking for Ezra or other participants to refute or support, which ever the case may be. Ezra has the journalistic research power of the Washington Post....if my claim is outlandish, he should be able to put it to rest without breaking a sweat.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Interesting, FastEddieO007. But what does this have to do with the size of our country and congressional representation? Have you considered getting your own weblog instead of spamming the comments section of every single thread in someone else's?

Posted by: constans | February 19, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

I am not sure over intellectualizing this issue is of any use here. It can be good for Academia, but not much for common people on street.

Our Senate does not represent American population equally / proportionately on top of already distorted way of it's working. Hence, we have a gridlock and inability to undertake any action in face of mounting challenges.

If Senate were as dynamic (not in terms of short term for each member) as House, we will at least get 'collective responses'. Holding these Senators accountable via election; that part is working fine. It is just that it needs to be able to pass bills.

Posted by: umesh409 | February 19, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

There are two questions here: the number of legislators per population; and the size of a democratic deliberative body.

First, we're not a direct democracy: it's not a situation where we have to get all 300M people to vote on every important decision. So one question is do we have enough reps per citizen? We have a total of 535 Members of Congress representing 300M people. The list below shows a list of countries, the number of legislators and the number of people each represents. The US is at near the top of the list of population per legislator, second only to India, which has 795 for 1.3B people.

On the bottom half of the list? Nearly all the EU states. On average, 500K americans are represented by one person. It's about 67,000 French in France; 47,000 Brits in the UK.

So that's one question: is it better to have more legislators per population or less. I would think more is better. A smaller number of constituents means is much easier to hear and meet their needs. Think teacher:student, doctor:patient, waitperson:diner ratio.

The second question is, how easy is it to get a legislative body to work together? 1000? 500? I'm guessing more is harder to control by powerful interest groups. They're beholden to their constituents, which sounds like a better thing than being beholden to insurance companies or unions.

I read somewhere once that it's really hard to have a truly functioning direct democracy north of 100 people or so.

Some thoughts.

Posted by: Lonepine | February 19, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

This is also clearly wrong because originally senators weren't elected directly by the people. So, in a very real sense, there was more distance between a senator and the person he is suppose to represent.

Posted by: thescuspeaks | February 19, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I like Arnold Kling's idea of virtual states as a partial solution to this. (in addition to his thoughts on partisanship)

Many of our most important decisions are no longer as geographic as they once were. This increases the insanity of the Senate's existence.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that Rep. Ryan is the only person to put forth a health care plan that saves Medicare. It doesn't cut it, as the deceptive commenter "Lomillialor" claims, it merely caps the growth in the cost of care at the inflation rate. We have to create an incentive for cheaper care to be provided. Just cutting reimbursement rates doesn't seem to work. We need to give the people more control of the money. (we also probably need more taxes to pay for it, because, we do want to take advantage of some of the new, very expensive innovations that significantly add to our QALY)

Posted by: staticvars | February 19, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse


We are NOT a democracy...We are a REPUBLIC...You need to know the difference.

Posted by: ryan321 | February 19, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Fast Eddie, before I even get to reading what came after your apology, I want to say "Good form, sir." While I can only hope this will mean that you avoid such statements in the future, it's always worth recognizing when someone admits to having gone too far. I wish more people were willing to do that in public sphere.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

"Lets not give the federal government power over whether we have access to healthcare or not."

No, let's give it to private corporations whose only concern is the size of the CEO's next yacht.

Posted by: tomfodw | February 19, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Of course Kurt Anderson is wrong. Kurt Anderson is a Village poser with no better than a high school level understanding of policy and politics.

Posted by: randrewm | February 19, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I think we should go for a Galactic Republic version of the Senate, with thousands of representatives on floating pedestals. On the other hand, it seems like they had a more parliamentary system, what with the Chancellor who can be voted out by a vote of no confidence.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

"Lets not give the federal government power over whether we have access to healthcare or not."

No, let's give it to private corporations whose only concern is the size of the CEO's next yacht.


Insurance companies only exist because of the consumer's desire to buy into risk-sharing pools so as to minimize the cost of healthcare crisis when the suddenly arrive.

They've evolved into a slightly dysfunctional model due to wierd back-and-forths between Republican & Democrat fits of power over the years, but ultimately they only add value to consumers---otherwise there'd be no reason for anyone to patronize them.

And that kind of my point. When a private insurance company's services are no longer providing the value-added I as a consumer seek, I can fire them, replace them, or whatever.....once the federal government takes something over, it will be shoved down my throat whether I like it or not....

Look at a few of my previous posts here to see how the current largest healthcare bureacracy in the world, UK's NHS is completely destroying the lives of the middle class in UK!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Erm, while I wouldn't link to the, um, documents that ryan123 does, I second the "republic, not democracy" bit that he mentions. I think an underlying problem that exacerbates the situation, in both houses, is that representatives think of themselves as representing their constituents' beliefs, not their interests or wellbeing. This is of course reciprocated by most citizens, which results in weird authority perception, which results in a lack of attention, which yadda yadda blah blah etc etc.

My main point is that there are structural issues effecting both houses both individually and in common- and many of these problems existed from the ratification on...the population increases simply exacerbate the problem. The one thing we have to combat the population component is improved methods of communication between govt. officials and between citizens and government. Unfortunately, the potential of those seems to be ignored or heavily misused.

Posted by: finale | February 19, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

This, from Lonepine, is the more interesting question to me:
"The second question is, how easy is it to get a legislative body to work together? 1000? 500? I'm guessing more is harder to control by powerful interest groups. They're beholden to their constituents, which sounds like a better thing than being beholden to insurance companies or unions.

I read somewhere once that it's really hard to have a truly functioning direct democracy north of 100 people or so."

But neither of these speaks to what I see as the biggest issue with a huge legislative body -- how to organize it. In the legislature we have now, we've already got significant organizational challenges that have led to both formal (rules, committees) and informal (voting blocs, tradition) approaches. I'm not saying it can't work, just that I can't envision how it would.

Posted by: someBrad | February 19, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

I can't see how vastly increasing the number of representatives would help. It's the process, not the numbers.

I agree with the teacher:student analogy but imagine someone who said you could get more individual attention if instead of one teacher per 600,000 students, there was one teacher per 67,000 students. The chance of individual attention increased from "almost certainly not going to happen" to "still really not likely to happen".

In any case, who would really want to establish a relationship with a representative in a Congress with 4,600 other representatives(roughly the number needed to match France on a per person basis)? Outside of several individuals, most people would probably end up as deadwood. I bet a lot of people would never even get to speak during a session. It seems the only benefit to forming a relationship with your congressperson is to get some pork put into a bill up for consideration. Who is going to bother getting tough on their congressperson if the vote they care about is losing 2,250 to 2,350? It's an extremely close vote but you'd need to convince 100 people to switch sides (sounds like a receipe for a lot of pork and buyoffs). In the Senate now, that close of a vote is 49/51, and you just have to convince one person (or two if the VP is from the opposing party) to switch.

If we're worried about insufficient representation, the solution is probably to devolve power to state or local governments, not to fill Congress up with thousands of highly paid suits (and pay for their associated benefits, offices, staff, etc).

I think it's possible that we have too many representatives. It's hard to imagine the problem with American government is that we have a deficit of politicians in the legislative branch.

Posted by: justin84 | February 19, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Meh, let's have direct democracy and vote on everything like American Idol. "Text 'CRBNTX' to vote yes on instituting a tax on carbon emissions!"

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

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