Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Blaming the People: Democratic Efficiency as a Cop Out

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Mark Graber takes “constitutional populists” to task for failing to blame the real culprits when it comes to our broken system—the people.

        Constitutional populists always assign the blame for constitutional failings to evil institutions which are thwarting the good American people from fully realizing their constitutional commitment to the “Blessings of Liberty.”   If we can just get rid of the Electoral College, eliminate state equality in the Senate, abandon life tenure for federal justices, and change the rules for constitutional amendment, my friend Sandy Levinson and others imply, gridlock would disappear, the American people would cherish their governing officials, and most other ills of contemporary American politics would be significantly alleviated.

This populist optimism fails to acknowledge that the cause of most contemporary constitution ills lie in the character of the American people rather than in American constitutional institutions.  Consider that one major party in the United States routinely runs candidates for public office, most notably the presidency, who deny basic scientific and social science findings.  Give me a billion dollar backer, and I thought I could make hay in the Republican primaries on a platform that questioned the Pythagorean Theorem (the theorem is un-American and no one in the academy permits any dissent from liberal right-triangle orthodoxy).  One does not have to be too skillful at “connecting the dots,” to quote my friend again, to realize that no commonly proposed constitutional amendment is responsive to a society many of whose members reject evolution and think that Mary and Ben’s thirty year marriage will somehow be affected if John and Tony are also allowed to be married.

First off, it seems clear that there is a vast difference between arguing that some reform is needed and believing that achieving that reform will bring about a utopia.  As near as I can tell, this is a strawman.  From what I’ve seen of Levinson, he’s implied no such thing. People generally want to improve institutional structures to improve politics, which I think we all appreciate is a messy business.  Unless you’re trying to place control in the hands of some unaccountable body (Supreme Court, the Fed, etc.) you probably don’t think politics will disappear.

The second point is an example of a fairly common error in logic. Graber’s proof that it’s the people who are the cause of our ills rather than our institutions is statements of candidates running for office and their success. But you can’t prove an outcome is caused by some factor by pointing to the outcome alone.   The whole argument hinges on the assumption that causation runs from the mass of individuals to the functioning of institutions.  It makes more sense to assume that institutions produce such beliefs, to the extent they exist, in people.  But either way, stating the problem is the beginning of the argument, not the end.

A great deal of political science makes the same mistake, as does the bulk of political punditry.  If Congress is dysfunctional, it must be because the people are increasingly polarized. (They aren’t.)  If Republicans win elections, it must be because the people are increasingly conservative. (They aren’t).  If a majority of people say something in a poll, that causes political outcomes, not vice versa. (Wrong again).  (A great resource on all this is Class War?: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality by Page and Jacobs).

it strikes me that increasingly the power has been shifting towards those at the top.  Political explanations that rely on formal understandings of how politics work confuse justifications for explanations.

The myth of democratic efficiency is a cop out.  It reassures us that we bear no responsibility for changing things.  It means we don’t have to contest these issues, and seek to change the views of our fellow Americans.  It means we don’t have to build better institutions, mobilize our side, or articular what it is we believe.  It makes us quiescent.

Given the challenges we face, that’s the last thing we need.

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Written by David Kaib

August 10, 2012 at 9:40 pm

8 Responses

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  1. […] 3) Blaming the People: Democratic Efficiency as a Cop Out – Democratic efficiency is an analogy I’ve drawn between (bad) economics. Here I talk about how it is used to blame the people for the problems of the system and as a result, undermine the case for reform. Understanding how the claim of democracy is used to stop challenges to the status quo seems a worthwhile endeavor. […]

  2. […] Democratic efficiency, used to justify elite actions by blaming the people, is a cop-out. […]

  3. […] same thing happens in politics.  ’We’re a democracy,’ someone cries, as if this settles things. ‘If you don’t like it, stop complaining about the elites, […]

  4. […] consumers, like blaming voters, is a cop […]

  5. […] Blaming voters is often a cop out. Here, it seems to me the real issue is that Democrats are either incapable or unwilling to make strong economic fairness arguments that could mobilize their own supporters (or even better tying class and gender together), and are looking for less threatening ways to frame these policies.  Assuming politics is all about voters is generally going to lead you down the wrong path. […]

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. […] rugged individual, pulling ones self up by the bootstraps—and as a result, we persist in blaming the poor for being poor, women for being the victims of sexism and rape, African Americans for being subject to racism. Our […]

  8. […] rugged individual, pulling ones self up by the bootstraps—and as a result, we persist in blaming the poor for being poor, women for being the victims of sexism and rape, African Americans for being subject to racism. Our […]


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