I went to an interesting lecture the other day by Jane Mansbridge, arguing that the public should focus more on electing the right politicians (and "kicking the bastards out" when they go wrong), rather than trying to control them once elected.
The standard "accountability" model assumes that politicians are unprincipled actors with no intrinsic political motivations besides the desire to get re-elected. Hence voters need to control their representatives through re-election incentives. We always need to know what politicians are up to, so that we can scare them away from bad policies by threatening to change our votes. Good governance thus relies upon "monitoring and sanctions" to keep representatives in line. High incumbency rates are bad because politicians confident of re-election will have no incentive to behave themselves.
Mansbridge proposes an alternative, "selection" model. This view assumes, more plausibly, that people have diverse intrinsic political motivations. The key for voters, then, is to select representatives with "aligned objectives", i.e. who want the same things as they do. There will never be perfect alignment, of course, but we should hopefully be able to find politicians whose goals are close enough to our own. We can then sit back and let them do their job, trusting that they will achieve what we want, since - after all - they want the same thing. (On this view, a high incumbency rate need not be a problem after all: perhaps the politicians really are that good!)
Compare choices made regarding tenure for academics, lifelong appointment of judges, selecting a school or college for a student, and hiring a nanny. All of these cases follow the "selection" rather than "accountability" model. We take care to choose the right person from the start -- someone we trust to have objectives aligned with ours -- rather than trying to micromanage their behaviour through intrusive monitoring and sanctions. Mansbridge suggests that we might add politicians to the list. We should take advantage of their intrinsic motivations. And as psychologists have shown, such motivation may be undermined through the "crowding out effect" of manipulative external incentives.
Indeed, Mansbridge made the stronger claim that it's practically impossible to change the basic direction of a politician. (Incentives are only effective at the margin.) The only way to achieve real change is to "kick the bastards out", and select a new representative whose objectives are better aligned with ours.
The selection model has ambiguous implications regarding the need for "transparency" in government. Mansbridge claimed that we should demand less transparency in process, but more transparency in reasons. Representatives need to be allowed to negotiate and deliberate tentatively, free from the silencing, oppressive gaze of the public eye. But of course they remain ultimately accountable to the public, and hence they must seek to justify the decisions they finally settle on. Here Mansbridge suggested an analogy to Supreme Court opinions: they generally offer well-reasoned explanations of the Court's decision. But the process of deliberation, by which the judges reached their decision, takes place in confidence.
In assessing the competing models, I guess there are two key issues:
1) To what extent are representatives intrinsically motivated in ways aligned to the public interest?
2) Will politicians be more effective if allowed to exercise their discretion, or if instead answerable to the public for their every move?
On the first question: if we are able to select well-aligned politicians, this would seem more efficient, because it relieves the need for costly monitoring and sanctions. We can leave them to do as they wish, just as we do with nannies, teachers, judges, and so forth. (Of course, we can still assess them afterwards, and fire them if need be. The crucial point is that we don't try to micromanage them in the meantime. Absent evidence of gross incompetence or corruption, they should be trusted to do their job.)
As for the second issue, it seems plausible that an unhampered executive will be more effective. A related question here is what to do in case of an unforeseen crisis, e.g. 9/11. If a fast response is required, the executive will be able to react more flexibly. The risk here is that they might turn in a very different direction from what the public want or expect (cf. Tony Blair). Must we wait until the next election? Or should the public try - perhaps in vain - to control their renegade representatives in the meantime? I won't even attempt an answer.
One thing worth noting is that the selection model still recognizes the vital importance of communication. It doesn't reduce democracy to mere voting. Citizens should follow political events, to ensure that their representatives are still aligned with them. They should voice concerns, and assess the reasons offered in response. And if they don't like what they hear, they should vote for someone else at the next opportunity. But the focus here is on communication and selection, not micromanagement and control.
Also, it highlights the need to be better informed about candidates and their accomplishments (or lack thereof). Yet electoral campaigns are designed to mislead rather than inform the public. This undermines the public's ability to select well-aligned representatives. (Apparently 3/4 of those who voted to re-elect Bush believed that there were WMD in Iraq. A similar number believed that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks. Now look at them.) Something must be done to improve this aspect of democracy. But what?
I'll leave that as another unanswered question, and move on now to a local application: NZ Greens co-leader Russel Norman has criticized the "undemocratic secrecy" surrounding the NZ government's trade negotiations with China. But if Mansbridge is right, then it may be entirely appropriate for such negotiations to take place out of public view. What democracy requires is that the results be made public, and that our governing representatives subsequently explain and justify their decisions. Whether the justification is good enough, is something voters can judge for the next election. But in the meantime, the decision is our representatives' to make, and there's nothing necessarily "undemocratic" about that.