Thoughts on the sanctity of debate in a representational democracy

I have read a handful of Tweets, Facebook statuses and articles that have suggested that Americans have had two years of exposure to the goings on in Syria to have formed an opinion about involvement by now. Even if I allow myself to humor this being the case, it is worth considering that we have also been distracted by the slow revitalization of our economy (or re-inflation of another series of bubbles, depending on your perspective), a number of mass shootings, the perpetual gun violence massacre in the streets of Chicago, the constant teetering of the Euro-zone, our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the wilting of the Arab Spring and the disintegration of Egypt’s newborn democracy, all while we occupied ourselves with searches for work or double-booked our schedule at our various part-time jobs thanks to the astronomical rise of underemployment.

The Obama Administration, if it saw any military action as potential avenue for involvement in Syria, has had two years to bring this case to the American people. I have also read a good deal of commentary that suggests, “Americans, I know you were put off by our involvement in Iraq, but this time it is different.” Okay, but if our leaders saw in the distance the possibility of this sort of involvement, it is their responsibility to help their constituents become literate in the issue at hand, not mention it abstractly time and again and then suggest, “Okay, we’ve decided that there will be a strike, but debate about it for a week and a half first.”

As someone who is generally literate about what is going on in the world, Syria has been on my radar and I have not seen any great effort to engage the American public in this conversation by those drumming for intervention. The conversation about action in Syria is a complicated one—what the regime there has done to its people is unspeakably horrifying—though as such there needs to be some guidance from the appointed leadership, not, “Oh, I was walking around the garden and decided on this, you have a couple of weeks to hear us make a decision.” Instead, we got another heap of pointless attempts to repeal Obamacare, and the Obama Administration finding itself distracted by justifying the zany things it does to its own citizens in the name of so-called national security.

This is the point of the letter I addressed to Sen. King. If this debate is an important one, and I believe that it is, then those staging the debate must do a better job of being worthy and considerate facilitators. They need to show us why it is important, and they need to rebuild some shreds of integrity, and they need to be honorable enough for us to think, “Oh yeah, those are people I trust with imperative, weighty, moral and strategic decisions.”

It is an oversimplification on the part of commentators in the media to suggest that it is the bad taste of our involvement Iraq that is making the American people wary and suspect of the options on the table. This is not true. What is accurate is that our plans to go into Iraq were formed not only by people we have come to believe to be untrustworthy, but by people in a legislative body that itself seems to corrupt the character and decisions of even those with the best intentions. Because this decision is about military involvement and the Middle East, sure, it looks like that time the aforementioned decision-makers and institution got us embroiled in our first quagmire of the 21st Century. But the reason we are suspect of this debate in particular is because it long ago started to feel like these decision-makers and this institution are Hell-bent on entangling us in insane, interest-influenced shenanigans all the time. The occasion of our involvement in Iraq just so happens to feel relevant, but what we find-off-putting is that the institutions have proven themselves to be monumentally bad at making monumental decisions in good faith.

In this way, these figures are even more despicable than I normally find them to be, as their reputation for gross and sometimes violent ineptitude has gotten in the way of an opportunity to host this imperative conversation.

We live in a representational democracy, and we expect our leaders to involve us in the process of making these decisions. While I sometimes long for the tidy convenience of technocratic governance, in a democracy, particularly in one where the voice of the individual citizen is increasingly louder and connected to decision-makers and fellow constituents alike, expectations are high and the process of decision-making is messier than it has ever been in the past. Part of involving us in these conversations is not only about bringing us into them, but also by maintaining the integrity of the institutions so that people feel they are worthy of our trust, even when we find ourselves in disagreement. In the case of Syria, and very much in general, both Congress and Obama have failed on both counts.
Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.