By Popular Demand: Revitalizing Representative Democracy through Deliberative Elections

By John Gastil | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Why Elections Fail
to Ensure Accountability

Everyone who grows up in our society is bound to become aware, at some level of consciousness, that an individual vote is more nearly a form of self-expression and of legitimation than of influence and that the link between elections and value allocations is tenuous.

Murray Edelman, Constructing the
Political Spectacle

In theory, elections in representative democracy ensure accountability through lively candidate competition and careful voting decisions. In the ideal election, voters begin with a relatively well-developed sense of self-interest and some conception of the public good. Though those views may shift slightly over the course of an election, voters remain steadfast in their values and never lose sight of their primary concerns. Meanwhile, a list of qualified but diverse candidates appears for every public office, and voters have a wide range of choices to consider. Voters examine the candidates by meeting them face-to-face, attending public forums, listening to speeches, watching debates, and sampling the offerings of a wide variety of relevant printed and electronic media. The candidate whom voters judge most suitable is then charged with pursuing the public's interest as its representative. When the next electoral cycle begins, if the official seeks reelection, his or her voting record becomes one of the electorate's primary considerations when comparing the incumbent with the new set of challengers.

Most Americans' experience of elections is far from that ideal. Voting is, as Murray Edelman observes, closer to “a form of self-expression” than an act of political influence. Benjamin Barber aptly describes the uninspiring experience of most voters: “Our primary electoral act, voting, is rather like using a public toilet: we wait in line with a crowd in order to close ourselves up in a small compartment where we can re

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