Posts Tagged ‘democracy’
Like many others, I’ve been horrified by the stories coming out of Flint, where the population of a city, disproportionately poor, disproportionately black, has been poisoned by lead in the tap water. While there has been plenty of finger pointing, it seems the culpability runs from the municipal government in Flint, to the undemocratic emergency manager, to the governor, to a number of state and federal agencies that knew about what was going on and failed to sound the alarm. The people of Flint noticed the water looked, smelled and tasted bad, and they complained. But lacking much in the way of power their concerns were largely brushed off. They also lacked the money to do something like GM, which switched its water supply when it noticed that the city water was corroding its parts. Now those that can show proper identification (i.e. not undocumented people) and who speak English are able to access bottled water, but the damage done may be irreparable. And no doubt continued pressure will be required to keep that water coming.
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A recent Gallup poll (h/t Jonathan Cohn) provides another illustration of a point I’ve made before–view of Americans as presented in the media are a product of the weird sorts of questions asked by pollsters. Now, what on earth is this asking? Do people really have opinions on “how active” government should be, unmoored from the specific things government does? We know that many people would like government to address a range of problems – like poverty and lack of health care and improving public education. But “every area it can”? Why should anyone have an opinion about that?
The reason this makes sense to Gallup and their audience is because many things government does are naturalized. meaning it’s not seen as a choice. Property protection, contract enforcement, the military, prisons and policing–these things are likely covered under most people’s understandings of “basic functions.” But of course, government could be sprawling and expensive while only doing these things (especially the last two). Political scientists have been pleading for over a generation with people not to ask only about “government” in general but to pair that with more specific questions. I’d go further and say asking about “government” when we know full well it means different things to different people makes no sense unless you are trying to mislead. That’s not to say that’s what’s happening here. It’s exceedingly common to see people act like talk about “government” is not inherently contestable and ambiguous. Those who want government to act to serve the interests of those at the bottom often use this language. But it doesn’t make it useful for understanding people’s positions on what government should be doing (let alone for enlisting support for specific policies).
For what it’s worth, this is why ‘big government’ is a concept that causes such confusion. As near as I can tell, ‘big government’ means actions that punish the powerful or help out the disadvantaged, while not big government are actions that punish the disadvantaged or serve the interests of the powerful. So ‘anti-government’ conservatives railing against ‘big government’ can expand the carceral state, the national security state, the bloated military. And that’s why people can say ‘keep the government out of my Medicare’. It looks foolish because we don’t mean the same thing by these terms as those we criticize. It would make both polling and politics easier if we all meant the same thing by terms.
But sadly, that’s not how things work.
For a glaringly obvious reason, electoral victory cannot be regarded as necessarily a popular ratification of a candidate’s outlook. The voice of the people is but an echo. The output of an echo chamber bears an inevitable and invariable relation to the input. As candidates and parties clamor for attention and vie for popular support, the people’s verdict can be no more than a selective reflection from among the alternatives and outlooks presented to them. Even the most discriminating popular judgement can reflect only ambiguity, uncertainty, or even foolishness if those are the qualities of the input into the echo chamber. A candidate may win despite his tactics and appeals rather than because of them. If the people can choose only from among rascals, they are certain the choose a rascal.
V.O. Key, The Responsible Electorate
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.