Posts Tagged ‘democracy’
You may have noticed that I have referred to “popular governments” in Greece, Rome, and Italy. To designate their popular governments, the Greeks, as we saw, invented the term democracy. The Romans drew on their native Latin and called their government a “republic,” and later the Italians gave that name to the popular governments of some of their city-states. You might well wonder whether democracy and republic refer to fundamentally different types of constitutional systems. Or instead do the two words just reflect differences in the languages from which they originally came?
The correct answer was obfuscated by James Madison in 1787 in an influential paper he wrote to win support for the newly proposed American constitution. One of the principal architects of that constitution and a statesman exceptionally well informed in the political science of his time, Madison distinguished between “a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person,” and a “republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.”
This distinction had no basis in prior history: neither in Rome nor, for example, in Venice was there “a scheme of representation.” Indeed, the earlier republics all pretty much fit into Madison’s definition of a “democracy.” What is more, the two terms were used interchangeably in the United States during the eighteenth century. Nor is Madison’s distinction found in a work by the well-known French political philosopher Montesquieu, whom Madison greatly admired and frequently praised. Madison himself would have known that his proposed distinction had no firm historical basis, and so we must conclude that he made it to discredit critics who contended that the proposed constitution was not sufficiently “democratic.”
However that may be (the matter is unclear), the plain fact is that the words democracy and republic did not (despite Madison) designate differences in types of popular government. What they reflected, at the cost of later confusion, was a difference between Greek and Latin, the languages from which they came.
Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy
Not long ago, elite Democrats began to reflect the concerns of ordinary people by talking about rampant and increasing inequality. This is a particularly good frame for Democrats seeking public support, but they soon abandoned it in favor of more bland talk about ‘opportunity’. I suspect this is because ‘inequality’ is a very bad frame for anyone seeking support from financial elites–the donor class–which is necessary but often ignored in our talk about politics. As I’ve insisted repeatedly, our political talk often begins from the premise that the public drives politics and policy, while certain things (like money) can interfere in this process. But in reality, money drives much of the process, with the public having influence within the bounds set by money. That is, assuming they have any influence at all. Organized people can beat organized money, but people who aren’t organized don’t stand a chance. And that describes most of us, most of the time.
According to Drew Desilver at the Pew Research Center, most Americans (65%) agree that the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing, which is true. “But ask people why the gap has grown, and their answers are all over the place.”
Among people who said the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown, we asked an “open-ended question” — what, in their own words, the main reason was. About a fifth (20%) said tax loopholes (or, more generally, tax laws skewed to favor the rich) were the main reason. Ten percent pinned the blame on Congress or government policies more broadly; about as many (9%) cited the lackluster job market, while 6% named corporations or business executives.
But well over half of the people who saw a widening gap cited a host of other reasons, among them (in no particular order): Obama and Democrats, Bush and Republicans, the education system, the capitalist system, the stock market, banks, lobbyists, the strong/weak work ethic of the rich/poor, too much public assistance, not enough public assistance, over-regulation, under-regulation, the rich having more power and opportunity, the rich not spending enough, and simply “a lot of greedy people out there.”
This is presented as a combination of public confusion and disagreement. Read the rest of this entry »
Last year Elias Isquith asked me to contribute a piece to a forum he did on the State of the Union speech. There was some dispute between the contributors over how they read the speech which was my jumping off point. I’m posting it again before this year’s speech because most of what I had to say is still applicable, even if some of the details have changed.The fact that people have such different readings of this speech isn’t that surprising. It reads to me like it was designed to do just that – let each of us hear what we want to hear. Our normal way of understanding the SOTU is outward. We tend to think of the president seeking to persuade the opposition or independents. But there are two ways we might think of ‘us’ as the target. First, speeches can be used to mobilize one’s own supporters to action. Second, they can be used to demobilize one’s own team. But ultimately, the impact depends on how we react. We can use the good things that were mentioned as a resource, in making demands. Or we can assume that the White House has the issue in hand and therefore we can stand down – at least until we get marching orders. The latter is a losing proposition, regardless of your thoughts about the president’s own motives. I cringe at the barrage of emails about supporting the president’s agenda. We should have our own agenda, and pressure him to support us.
Of course, we all know that the president faces a hostile Republican majority in the House, and an obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate which, as a result of Harry Reid’s unwillingness to undo the filibuster, has a great deal of power. Because of the sequester, there will likely be fiscal legislation, and because of Republicans’ fear over losing the Latino vote in perpetuity, immigration legislation will at least get a hearing.
So I thought I’d focus more on some other things, including those the White House has more control over.
I’ve written about voting rights before, a topic that has become all the more urgent in the wake of recent efforts to restrict voting rights and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien have a piece examining recent GOP efforts at adopting various voting barriers: Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies. (Full disclosure, Erin is a good friend from my doctoral program, and I provided feedback on the paper.) Their empirical findings are going to get the most attention, and they are certainly important. I’ll review them below. But the larger implications are important too, and since I fear these may get lost I want to discuss them more fully.
Jodi Jacobson, at RH Reality Check, talks about the disconnect between the public and politicians on abortion, which touches on something I’ve been emphasizing here.
Consistent rejection by actual voters of attempts to give the state control over women’s bodies tells us three things. One, polls that attempt to divide people into neat boxes such as “pro-choice” and “pro-life” or to measure support for hypothetical restrictions on abortion in generic terms do not reflect how people really feel about safe abortion care. In fact, when asked specifically about who should make decisions on how and when to bear children and under what circumstances to terminate a pregnancy, voters make clear they do not want to interfere in the deeply personal decisions they believe belong between a woman, her partner and family, and her medical advisers, even in cases of later abortion. In short, voters do not want legislators playing god or doctor.
I’ve been complaining about the framing of the various “War(s) Against X.” So I thought it worth talking a bit about why.
Listening to political discussions, there seem to be wars everywhere. There’s a war on women, a war on voting, a war on the poor. (The right has their wars too, like the war on Christmas, but I assume ones actually related to policy are meant to be taken more seriously.)
To begin with “War on X” rhetoric seems purely defensive. That is, it is only useful for critiquing Republicans, not for advancing any sort of positive agenda. In addition, it implies status quo was acceptable . It suggests the goal is, for example, to stop SNAP cuts, not to ensure food security, or stop new abortion restrictions, not ensure access. The War Against Voting is about new voting restrictions, but does that mean that only old voting restrictions are acceptable? There’s some implication, maybe, that we are for autonomy, or freedom and equality, or democracy. Implication enough for those who want to find it to hear it, not enough for anyone else to. In reality, I saw innumerable commercials for Terry McAuliffe, and the only thing conveyed was that Ken Cuccinelli was extreme and McAuliffe was in favor of abortion rights in cases of rape and incest.