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What is Democratic Efficiency?

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Easton modelAlex 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.

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The War on Terror and Democratic Efficiency

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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.

Written by David Kaib

February 12, 2013 at 7:25 am

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.

Written by David Kaib

August 10, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Taxes and the Myth of Democratic Efficiency

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Steve Kornacki notes that 19 House Democrats broke with their party on letting the Bush tax break for the richest to expire.  As always, the willingness of some Democrats to defect on votes that the White House and congressional leadership are trying to use to draw a contrast with the Republicans on muddies the message and makes mobilizing one’s own side more difficult.

To be fair, plenty of House Democrats from competitive districts did vote for their party’s tax plan. But almost every incumbent on the “no” list who is seeking reelection is in a competitive or potentially competitive race. This speaks to a phenomenon I wrote about a few weeks ago – that even though voters tell pollsters they like the idea of raising taxes on the rich, they won’t necessarily reward leaders who do it (and, in fact, they may actually punish them). A number of vulnerable House Democrats are sensitive to this possibility, and the result is less unity on the Democratic side than on the GOP side.

Follow the link and what do you find? A story about how Republicans Senators in Indiana and Utah have found themselves under assault in Republican Party nomination battles –assaults which are of course funded by the elite conservative machine.  This is hardly evidence about what voters in Democratic-held districts want.

Does that mean that voters are itching to reward Democrats for voting for raising taxes on the rich? No.  But voters don’t generally reward legislators for how they vote. If legislators and the party make an issue out of something, if they treat their actions are worthy of being rewarded, they might.  But it doesn’t happen automatically.  Kornacki slips here into the myth of democratic efficiency—the idea that electoral outcomes are a straightforward manifestation of aggregated individual opinions, rather than shaped by institutions and elite strategies.  Hacker and Pierson have detailed why this is not the case in particular with the modern Republican Party.  Progressives generally reject the ridiculous claim that this is how the economy works—that investor confidence and workers laziness is responsible for the recession rather than the reduction of aggregate demand, coming from the crash of the housing bubble, reductions in government spending, opportunities for profit that don’t create jobs, the feedback loop of unemployment, etc.

Yet we all too often accept it in politics.

Written by David Kaib

August 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Markets, Efficiency and Choice: Wall Street and the School House Part III

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This is the last of three posts on Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street and education reform. See also Part I and Part II.

Ho traces the rise of shareholder value beginning in the 1980s as the dominant ethos for business. It became “the central explanation and rationale for corporate restructuring, changing concepts of wealth and inequality, and the state of the America economy.” (122) She argues that the phrase was uttered constantly by her informants, and that “it shaped how they used their ‘smartness’ and explained the purpose of their hard work.” (123)

Shareholder value was premised on the notion that financial analysts knew more about what these firms needed than those with expertise and experience. And it also meant dismissing any concerns for stakeholders other than shareholders. Any money spent on others—whether that was employees or the communities that depended on these businesses—was seen as a waste. This stance justified and encouraged “hyperexploitive labor practices.” (146) The destruction such practices inflict are justified by the idea that it brings about “efficiency.” As one analyst said:

If I’m an employee, then there may be some temporary dislocations in the economy, but long-term, with a higher employment rate because at the end of the day, the most efficient, the most imperative industry should survive. The best operation should survive. (157)

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Written by David Kaib

June 9, 2014 at 5:34 pm

Politics, Claims and Scope Conditions

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I’ve been talking here about a twin set of concepts, democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability. In short, ‘democratic efficiency’ involves the assumption that public opinion automatically translates into policy (or at least does generally absent some distortion), while ‘oligarchic inevitability’ is the notion that elites necessarily win out regardless of what the public does. It occurred to me recently that I ought to connect these concepts with something else I’ve been discussing here–the idea of politics as a contest of claims making.

I’ve been less clear on how I think about these two concepts. Both are usefully understood as claims. Sometimes they are made directly–people insist that an outcome must be supported by the public because we are a democracy. Other times they are made indirectly–where people make statements that assume one or the other concepts.  Direct claims are always based on some set of assumptions that are themselves indirect claims. Another way of saying this is that we need to attend to both manifest and latent content.

One of the key things to remember about claims is that they are observable, intersubjective things, unlike beliefs (which are internal states and not observable, and generally understood as subjective). It may be that the actor who makes the claim believes it, but this isn’t necessarily true nor relevant. A claim can be made successfully without being believed, by either the speaker or the audience. This also means demonstrating that a claim isn’t true is irrelevant to whether it matters. Some statements can never be facts, but will always remain claims–for example, when they involve essentially contested concepts or when they depend on claims about motives or beliefs. In political science, there is a tendency to dismiss claims as “talk” as opposed to “action”, despite that fact that many of the “actions” studied are themselves talk, such as a veto or the filing of a lawsuit. Scientific claims can be substantiated or not, and to different degrees, but often can never be facts–something that can be considered simply true or false.

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Written by David Kaib

October 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm

What is Oligarchic Inevitability?

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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.

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Top Posts for 2013

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Here they are–the top posts, based on views, for 2013.

1. Blaming Consumers is a Cop Out

This is the no contest the most read piece this year, also the most comments for a post.  It included a shout out to John Kenneth Galbraith, and a link to Albert Hirschman. (Mental note, talk about more good economists.)

“our willingness” to buy products produced under these conditions is an odd way to talk about it. Businesses spend a lot of energy obscuring these working conditions, to tell those who are concerned about it that they have improved them, will work to improve them, or that they aren’t that bad or that they are inevitable.  Beyond that, it’s not clear what consumers are supposed to do. If all products were clearly labeled to give us a full sense of the conditions in which they were made, it’s not as if it would be possible to simply avoid such products. Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to do this knows while you can occasionally find something made in fair conditions, it’s next to impossible to do it consistently.  Despite the myth that markets always provide broad choice, this is simply not the case.

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Written by David Kaib

December 26, 2013 at 5:53 pm

How the Media Convinces Us ‘The People Support It’ – Mass Surveillance and Polls

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[Updated Below]

[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 »

Written by David Kaib

June 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

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