For example, the US and other governments operated for decades in a regime dominated by secrecy. In America’s case, there was strong legislative (and executive) secrecy from the writing of the Constitution to the passage of the EPA and the Civil Rights Acts, in the latter half of the 20th century. Importantly, many critical democratic metrics (i.e. income equality, government approval ratings, partisanship, incarceration rates, etc) were far better in those periods than they are today. Further, those countries that did not subject their legislatures to transparency (i.e. France) had far better results with inequality than the US.
It seems possible then, that Madison and Jefferson’s notion that democracy requires an engaged and informed citizenry could a myth as well. A myth that Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson were likely aware of as they were pandering to the people. As Hamilton said emphatically in 1792, “Had the deliberations been open while going on, the clamors of faction (special interests) would have prevented any satisfactory result.”
Clearly, though, voter ignorance would be tragic in a direct democracy, as each voter would have to come to an informed decision on everything. But, this is a counterfactual argument, as there are no direct democracies on earth, and referendums have a dark and sordid history. Instead, like most countries, the US is a republican democracy, and voter ignorance on the vast majority of nuanced issues is not necessarily tragic in a republic.
This is because a republic works in much the same way as one might hire a plumber, roofer, surgeon or a mechanic. Indeed, when citizens choose to hire doctors or mechanics, the evidence is pretty clear that even when it comes to possible life threatening outcomes, few of us choose to become as informed as we likely should. Instead we decide in ways very similar to how we choose our candidates, judging hastily on personality, recommendations from friends and convenience.
Thus a republic, with closed committees and secret committee votes, fits precisely with what we know about the public’s limited attention span. By publishing just the final floor votes, the active citizens can still correlate votes to candidates, but by closing the doors of committees, the lobbyists and other extreme demanders are kept in check. And we get a situation where legislation likely benefits the people more than if the people were actively engagede, as suggested here by Madison:
The public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.– Madison 1787 – Federalist 10
This secret-committee process, envisioned by the founders, has, for the most part, worked for decades in the US. And during this time, there is little evidence to suggest that voters were feeling left out, even as important decisions were being made in secret. Indeed, both John F Kennedy and James Madison were members of this secretive era of Congress, and as a result, their committee votes and markup decisions were kept from the public. But, even in this era of secrecy, most voters were still overwhelmed by the masses of public information available from their candidates actions, speeches, floor votes and past life – thus leading to voting that is likely as informed as it is today.
The hubris that as we get more educated and we know more we can handle more government responsibility, and when we fail we make possible the kind of polarization, the kind of capture by special interest, the capture by the most partisan of our society. – Cain 2016 – Stanford talk: “Is our Government too Open?”