The American Legion Magazine | 7.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd

At first glance, there are arguably no two spots on the globe that have less in common than Egypt and Wisconsin. After all, one is a sprawling Arab nation of some 85 million in the middle of the Middle East, with a history dating back to 7000 B.C. The other was born almost 9,000 years later and is one of America’s smaller states—just 5.7 million people.

Yet what’s happening in Egypt today—and what happened in Wisconsin in 2011-12—are strangely similar. In both places, citizens short-circuited representative government—government they themselves had chosen in free and fair elections. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was inaugurated in January 2011; efforts to recall him began in March 2011.[i]Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was elected in June 2012; he was removed from power just 12 months later.

To be sure, those who toppled Morsi and those who launched the Walker recall employed very different methods, but their goals and their motivations—the fuel that propelled them—were very similar. That fuel is the byproduct of several ingredients; some are as old as popular government, some as new as the latest high-tech gadgetry.

Reflections and Accidents

Impatience with government is one of the old ingredients fueling this modern phenomenon. Americans know this well. It pays to recall the full name of the Articles of Confederation, which lasted barely a decade, was “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.”

That serves to underscore that some governments need to become part of history. But if they are legitimate representative governments, the “toppling” of them should be done through legitimate constitutional means and should be carried out only if the constitution has been violated.

The removal of Morsi wouldn’t seem to meet that test because he was ousted outside constitutional avenues, and the recall of Walker wouldn’t seem to meet that test because he had not broken any laws. Walker, after all, promised “frugality and moderation in government”[ii]and then proposed a budget that cut state spending and revamped the way state pensions were allocated. Since governors are not allowed to print money, Walker had to choose between cutting and taxing. He chose the former.

Not surprisingly, supporters of the so-called “democratic coup” in Egypt have ready justifications for the toppling of Morsi. “In a democracy, when you get 20 million people in the street, you resign,” explains Mohamed ElBaradei, former vice president of post-Morsi Egypt. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a process of recall or impeachment…The army had to intervene because short of that, we would have ended up in a civil war.”[iii]As it is, Egypt may end up in a civil war anyway—and now has a military government that is rolling back the reforms of a revolution that ousted a military government.

As for Wisconsin, the recall was legal under the state’s constitution, which allows for “the recall of any incumbent elective officer after the first year of the term for which the incumbent was elected by filing a petition…demanding the recall of the incumbent.”[iv] The question Wisconsin citizens need to examine is whether—after a $14-million post-election election—it makes sense to allow recalls for virtually any purpose.[v]To their credit, Wisconsin lawmakers are now moving legislation that would limit recalls to instances involving criminal activity and/or serious ethical failures.[vi]

The point is that elections matter in a representative system—and policy differences should not be impeachable or recall-able offenses. If voters are disappointed with or angry about a politician or his policies, they need to wait until the next election to take out their frustrations—and deal with the consequences of how they voted. As former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown observed after the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis, “When you run for election, you should be elected to a term. You should only be subject to losing your job in between the term and next opportunity to be elected for doing something equal to impeachment.”[vii] 

Put another way, elections have to have consequences. Just as those who win elections in a republic should not act like dictators, those who lose should not act like guerillas—and should not be granted a do-over.

In addition to Wisconsin’s quick-trigger recall and Egypt’s re-revolution, generally-stable democratic countries like Brazil, Bulgaria and Turkey are dealing with waves of protests paralyzing representative government. Back home, state senators in Colorado faced recall elections for their stance on firearms. There is even a hint of this tendency to short-circuit representative government in the Sisyphean efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

How can this be, you ask, given that the 40-some-odd repeal bills have been passed by the House of Representatives—the very embodiment of our representative system? Here’s how: The ACA may be unpopular today. But it was passed into law by a duly elected Congress, signed by a president who promised to implement such a policy and blessed by the Supreme Court. Moreover, when Congress drafted the law, 75 percent of the country supported universal healthcare coverage.[viii]

Much has changed in the intervening years—but not enough in the political realm to repeal this law. Although a strong case can be made that the ill-conceived and ineptly-executed ACA needs to be substantially revised or altogether repealed—the administration itself has, in effect, made this case by delaying, suspending and parceling out exemptions to the law—politics is the art of the possible. And repeal is simply not possible until there is a) a veto-proof majority in the House andSenate, or b) a president and a Congress opposed to the ACA. The elections of 2012 yielded neither; nor will the elections of 2014.

Again, this impatience with government is not a new problem. The challenge, as Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, is “establishing good government from reflection and choice.” The alternative, he warned, is for the American people “to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”


A second ingredient fueling this phenomenon is a widespread misunderstanding of the difference between a democracy and a republic. As Madison observed in Federalist No. 14, the “confounding of a republic with a democracy” was common even when the Founders were midwifing the United States into existence.“In a democracy,” he explained, “the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.” We Americans live in a republic—not a democracy—meaning that we elect representatives and entrust them to make and execute laws on our behalf.

Madison believed a representative body would help “avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude,” as he argued in Federalist No. 55.

Put another way, our system is not designed for government by protest march. In fact, it’s designed for the very opposite. Stability and predictability were important to the Founders. The rights of the political minority were as sacrosanct as those of the political majority, the checks on government power as crucial as the levers of government power.

The Founders did not want an omnipotent executive ruling by fiat, or a runaway parliament larding up America with layers of legislation, or what Tocqueville called “the despotism of the majority.” So they created a republic, dispersed power across three branches of the federal government and further diffused power by granting vast amounts of sovereignty to the states. (Of course, it could be argued that the states created the federal government—further underscoring the limits of centralized government power—but that’s a subject for another essay.)

That leads us to another misunderstanding that is fueling this trend toward short-circuiting representative government. A growing number of Americans simply misunderstand the role of government. This is a function of people relying too much on government—and perhaps having too much faith in it.

Consider the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Dependence on Government, which reports: “More people than ever before—67.3 million Americans, from college students to retirees to welfare beneficiaries—depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid or other assistance.” Today, some 22 percent of the country receives assistance through government programs. By way of comparison, before President Johnson’s Great Society programs, 11.7 percent of the U.S. population received assistance through government programs.[ix]

In other words, by trying to do more, government is responsible for more—and held responsible for more. If government doesn’t try to do too much, how well or poorly it functions is of little consequence. But when government is the center of things, the engine of society, the glue that holds everything together—as it is today—then when it doesn’t work, people get angry and rightly blame their government.

Narrowcast Nation

A third and final factor fueling the short-circuiting trend is our increasingly short attention span.

Pointing to “the Internet and the ability of people everywhere to communicate instantaneously,” Secretary of State John Kerry recently noted that it’s “much harder to govern…much harder to find the common interest” in this high-speed age.[x]

Indeed, today’s technologies—on-demand, narrowcast information streaming to us at light speed—condition us for instant answers, instant gratification, instant solutions.

The problem is representative government is not designed to deliver instant solutions. Adlai Stevenson was right when he observed that representative democracy “depends upon giving ideas and principles and policies a chance to fight it out.”[xi] Policies and politicians need time to succeed or fail.

According to a 2008 study, in just a decade, the average person’s attention span fell from 12 minutes to five minutes, with younger generations the most affected.[xii]This is evidence of what scientists call “neuroplasticity”—the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize neurons based on inputs and stimuli. In a sense, we are rewiring ourselves to have shorter attention spans, to think about more things but with less depth, to become less patient and more impulsive.

“Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and the rest have made impulsiveness a new social norm,” as author Lee Siegel laments.[xiii]Indeed, Twitter—its very name suggesting twitching, and its 140-character limit encouraging short-attention spans, while discouraging deeper discourse and thought—is aptly labeled.

This surely has an impact on politics and governance.  As cultural historian Neal Gabler argues, this technology-driven impatience “creates expectations that the political system cannot possibly meet.” To make his case, he contrasts America’s reaction to the Great Depression that began in 1929 and the Great Recession that began in 2008 by noting that during the former, “few Americans expected an immediate remedy…the country by and large demonstrated extraordinary maturity and patience.” But during the latter, Americans expected “instant results…we have become profoundly impatient with the pace of political change.”[xiv]

There are two solutions, it seems, to our desire to short-circuit the very government we choose for ourselves: We can become more patient with policymakers and the policies they enact on our behalf. That’s a tall order in the Age of Twitter and Instagram. Or we can become less dependent on government and the services it delivers, and instead find and create solutions in the free-enterprise system and the independent sector—another tall order in this era of government growth.

None of this is to suggest that people should settle for bad government. But electorates have to learn—or relearn—to live with the choices they make.

[i] See http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/112814919.html and http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/01/16/us/scottwalker_timeline.html


[iii] “An interview with Mohamed ElBaradei, who hopes for reconciliation in Egypt,” The Washington Post, August 5, 2013


[v] Jason Stein, “Recalls this year cost taxpayers more than $14 million,” Journal Sentinel, September 14, 2012.



[viii]Pew Research, Public Opinion about Health Care, June 2009

[ix]See Heritage Foundation, The 2012 Index of Dependence on Government, http://tinyurl.com/6m92osh.

[x] John Kerry, Remarks in Brasilla, Brazil, August 13, 2013.

[xi] Adlai Stevenson, Address in Brooklyn, October 27, 1954.

[xii] Matthew Moore, “Stress of modern life cuts attention spans to five minutes,” London Telegraph, November 26, 2008.


[xiv] Neal Gabler, “Impatient for Change,” Boston Globe, July 6, 2010.