Posts Tagged ‘democratic efficiency’
I’ve written here before about an idea I call ‘democratic efficiency‘: the belief that one can infer popular beliefs from institutional outcomes because aggregated individual choices are manifested in an unmediated fashion in politics and policy. That means that whatever the public believes will (absent some interference in the normal functioning of our political system) automatically be translated into policy, because of competitive electoral incentives between he two major parties. Recent research has provided even more evidence that this is not a useful way to talk about the world. The piece that has generated the most discussion has been Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (pdf) that tested different explanations for American politics. While the authors don’t actually come to this conclusion, the general take away has been that this piece demonstrates that the United States is an oligarchy.
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.
Last week, Jesse Myerson caused a major stir with a Rolling Stone piece, Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For. It’s a great piece, and we should all be fighting for them.
It’s a new year, but one thing hasn’t changed: The economy still blows. Five years after Wall Street crashed, America’s banker-gamblers have only gotten richer, while huge swaths of the country are still drowning in personal debt, tens of millions of Americans remain unemployed – and the new jobs being created are largely low-wage, sub-contracted, part-time grunt work.
Millennials have been especially hard-hit by the downturn, which is probably why so many people in this generation (like myself) regard capitalism with a level of suspicion that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But that egalitarian impulse isn’t often accompanied by concrete proposals about how to get out of this catastrophe. Here are a few things we might want to start fighting for, pronto, if we want to grow old in a just, fair society, rather than the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.
The piece did two things. First, it drove conservatives absolutely insane, and second, it led to a serious discussion of these policies that previously were largely at the margins of the agenda.
I’ve argued here before that blaming voters for bad policy or consumers for things like labor conditions is a cop out. (Here and here for voters, here and here for consumers). The general idea is that social outcomes are not a product of unalloyed aggregated individual choice. Institutions matter, power matters. Elites shape the ideas (or people) that can get a serious hearing, and the structure of the choices people get. They work to suppress information and to coopt efforts to challenge them. They make symbolic moves to demobilize those challenges. They act to influence the preferences people hold. Those who hold positions of power and authority are supposed to do things like follow the law, act morally, represent us, etc. When they fail to, it’s their fault – ‘why did you let me?’ is a ridiculous response to a charge of dereliction of duty.
There are often two response to this claim that raise an important point, and addressing them helps me clarify my argument. First is the idea that I’m saying that people have no responsibility to act at all–that I’m essentially leaving them out of the conversation entirely. Second is the idea that saying they aren’t to blame is saying they have no role. Read the rest of this entry »
[Update II: 6-13-13]
On Sunday, I noticed (and tweeted) that Steve Kornacki kept saying that Americans strongly supported all manner of spying on Americans in the name of terror, moving quickly from blanket statements to anecdotes about what he was hearing from people. Of course, to make such a claim requires more than anecdote. Absent polling you are just guessing (or projecting your own onto the public). That said, presuming there is public ‘support’ for policies that enjoy strong elite support is a standard element of democratic efficiency. Nor was Kornacki alone. Such claims had been ubiquitous.
It is true that a Democratic Administration, despite challenging many Bush-era practices when it came to these issues, had embraced much of the same. While jettisoning the term War of Terror, it has continued to engage in scare tactics which vastly over inflate the dangers of terrorism (pdf). Given what we know about the dynamics of public opinion, it should have been obvious that more Democratic voters were going to move towards the pro-surveillance position since the Bush-era. Elite discourse influences poll results. (I’ve discussed this before in the context of the so-called war on terror). Read the rest of this entry »
Alex Sparrow has been interested in the idea I’ve been discussing called ‘democratic efficiency.’ He encouraged me to talk a bit more about how to achieve it, and then since has written about this. His post is well worth checking out, and in many ways parallels my own thinking. But his use of the term democratic efficiency and mine are a different, so it seems worth taking the opportunity to explain my own position a bit more clearly. I also noticed as I looked through my posts that I had been defining democratic efficiency differently – by emphasizing different elements of the idea. This no doubt adds to the confusion.
Glenn Greenwald has a post calling out those Democrats who have embraced an all-powerful presidency as long as it’s in the hands of a Democrat. While it’s been clear for some time that this was true, in light of the recent release of the so-called ‘white paper’ (Greenwald calls it the DOJ kill list memo), a surprising number of commentators are now admitting it. At the same time, many others have suddenly been discussing and criticizing the kill list policy despite the fact that very little new information has come to light.
In response to criticisms of these policies, it is a common retort that the public demands it. That is, it is the public, not elites that are driving this. And since we are a democracy, its inevitable that policies the public supports will win out. Greenwald demolishes this claim.
Beyond the inherent dangers of fealty to political leaders for partisan gain, this behavior has a substantial effect on the ability to fight radical government policies. Progressives often excuse Obama’s embrace of these extremist Bush/Cheney terror policies on the ground that Americans support these policies and therefore he’s constrained. But that claim reverses causation: it is true that politicians sometimes follow public opinion, but it’s also true that public opinion often follows politicians.
In particular, whenever the two political parties agree on a policy, it is almost certain that public opinion will overwhelmingly support it. When Obama was first inaugurated in 2009, numerous polls showed pluralities or even majorities in support of investigations into Bush-era criminal policies of torture and warrantless eavesdropping. That was because many Democrats believed Obama would pursue such investigations (because he led them to believe he would), but once he made clear he opposed those investigations, huge numbers of loyal Democrats followed their leader and joined Republicans in opposing them, thus creating majorities against them.
Obama didn’t refrain from investigating Bush-era crimes because public opinion opposed that. The reverse was true: public opinion supported those investigations, and turned against them only once Obama announced he opposed them. We see this over and over: when Obama was in favor of closing Guantanamo and ending Bush-era terrorism policies, large percentages supported him (and even elected him as he advocated that), but then once he embraced those policies as his own, large majorities switched and began supporting them.
Progressive willingness to acquiesce to or even outright support Obama’s radical policies – in the name of partisan loyalty – are precisely what ensures the continuation of those policies.
This should come as no surprise. It’s long been obvious that elite activities often drive polling results (which is a measure of some phenomenon called public opinion, not the thing itself) and that there is often a broad disconnect between what the public says in polls and what elites do in both domestic and foreign policy. But using the normative idea of democracy as an unexamined lens for understanding the realities of politics obscures this. This episode is as good an illustration of the problem of the idea of democratic efficiency as one could hope for.
Democratic efficiency, used to justify elite actions by blaming the people, is a cop-out.
A couple of other notes:
Falguni A. Sheth has more on the white paper.
Crooked Timber has a post discussing post-democracy.