There was an interesting exchange on the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly this past week. during the unannounced special session where Republicans sought, and ultimately prevailed, in stripping Gov.-elect Roy Cooper of a significant number of regulatory and appointment powers. The Senate gallery was being cleared because it was deemed that observers were “being disruptive” and, as the Capitol Police were herding the public out, a protestor yelled at Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, “Is this what democracy looks like?” Forest responded, incredulously, “This is what a representative republic looks like!” Touché, Mr. Forest. The political science professor in me is proud, even if the citizen in me cringes.
As Forest pointed out, we do not live in a direct democracy, where we all get to vote individually on every bill or proposal. Instead, we elect representatives who make decisions on our behalf. This representative democracy, or representative republic, is the basis on which our government functions. But this system only works when there sufficient trust between the electors and the elected. Since democratic principles rest on the notion that it is the consent of the governed, not arbitrary state actions, that legitimizes government activities, it can be argued that once a baseline level of trust is breached, the government ceases to legitimately exist.
Under normal circumstances, that level of trust is maintained through free and fair elections. It’s the ultimate check on governmental power: If we don’t like what you’re doing, we can vote you out. But under exceptional circumstances, such as we see in North Carolina, where the very legislators who are governing created voting maps that have since been deemed unconstitutional, the balance shifts away from the electors and toward those in office. If the people cannot effectively check the power of the elected representatives by voting them out, then the system starts to break down.
In our raucous and combative political system, trust now seems an almost abstract theory, but democracy depends on it. Yes, we have a Constitution, which places limits on what is possible within the basic framework of government, but it really is only trust that governs how our elected officials carry out their duties. Each chamber, be it at the local, state or national level, writes its own rules about how the business of governing will be conducted, and each body enforces those rules. There are even unwritten rules that stem from tradition and party that are enforced by the body, even though not committed to paper. Unless one is a true insider, the rules of the game can be maddeningly opaque. This isn’t generally a problem until one group of representatives veers outside of generally accepted norms of governance, and we all sit up and take notice.
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Unfortunately, we have seen this problem time and time again here in North Carolina over the past four years. Whether we are talking about midnight votes on abortion restrictions, special legislative sessions called for the policing of rest rooms, or the latest power grab by Republicans to limit gubernatorial appointment and regulatory powers, the problem isn’t necessarily that what our representatives are doing is so infuriating (though that is also a problem), it’s how they are doing it. Process matters.
Which brings us back to Forest and his impromptu civics lesson on the floor of the Senate. While technically correct, he failed to comprehend the actual question being posed by the frustrated citizen. It was not whether or not the Lieutenant Governor could clear the gallery – he has that authority – but rather, given the nature of what was about to transpire, should he clear the gallery. Should he take yet another step in distancing the public from the work he and his party were doing in the public’s name? Should he further breach the trust of an already weary citizenry, increasingly frustrated with the way our elected representatives act in blatantly partisan and pedantic ways? Clearly, his answer was yes.
The public’s decline of trust in government has been persistent over the past three decades, as has the decline in partisan and political restraint exhibited by elected representatives. While we may argue which caused which, it is clear that the combination of the two are toxic for the future of our democratic institutions and for public participation in the process. I would argue to Forest that excluding the public from merely watching the work of government is not a great way to begin healing that rift.
But then again, it’s doubtful that he’d ever hear me from the other side of the Senate door.
Kevin J. Rogers is the Director of Policy & Public Affairs for Action NC, an organization that advocates on behalf of low-income North Carolinians. He also teaches government and public policy at William Peace University in Raleigh. He can be found on Twitter @kevinjohnrogers.