Democratic Institutions

Three institutional problems of representative democracies.

Max Weber in his classic essay of 1919, “Politics as a Vocation”, identified one of the problems that crop up in the cluster of institutions that make up representative democracy. He was concerned about the outlook of politicians who hold office in a democratic legislature, Germany having had a representative legislature ever since the establishment of the Second Reich in 1870, even if controlled only domestic policy and not foreign policy. Weber said that there were professional and amateur politicians. What he meant by that were that professional politicians wanted to remain in office and so were used to the give and take of legislative negotiations while amateur politicians were interested in their causes and so stood by their principles for however long they were in office. Weber clearly preferred the professionals and would see no reason to change his mind if he could see American politics today: the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus stalwarts more interested in their principles than what is actually accomplished, confident that their base will re-elect them for their principles alone. Senator McCain was invoking the Weber distinction yesterday when he said that there was a conflict between passion and reason, meaning by that that the passionate advocates of repeal and maybe not replace Obamacare were responding to their principles, their sentiments, rather than to doing something reasonable and workable. There are other difficulties in representative democracy that have become clear since Weber and that can also be illustrated with current political events.

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