Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘democratic efficiency

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

Top Five Posts that No One Read: 2012

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I may post the top posts from the past year based on views, but I first thought I might do a list of posts that didn’t get much traffic that I wish had. Here they are, in no particular order. [This post edited slightly]

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Written by David Kaib

December 27, 2012 at 7:25 pm

How the NRA Shifted the Debate: Or One Way Conservatives are Better at Politics

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I’ve harped here on the notion, both popular and academic, that ‘talk’ doesn’t matter – that decisions are the key unit of politics, they are action, driven by some set of fundamental forces, unaffected by interactions among people. This is connected to an idea I’ve called democratic efficiency: that public opinion translates automatically into public policy, like a political market (market here being the imagined one of economic theory rather than anything that exists in the real world). This position renders the vast bulk of political activity nonsensical, but it has the handy consequence of ensuring that any outcome is explainable–some set of actors or policies won out because they were favored (probably by the voters), the proof being that said actors or policies won out. It’s circular, of course, yet somehow deeply satisfying.

I was thinking about this while observing the response to the horrific shooting in Newtown.  Many liberals took the shooting as license to demand gun control, something that has been verboten for quite some time. (There has also been a good deal of discussion of mental health, which on its own is a good thing but somewhat troubling as an anti-violence strategy, but let’s leave that aside).  At the same time, numerous conservatives announced their own support for things like arming teachers.

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Written by David Kaib

December 21, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Additional Thoughts on Climate Change, Electoral Politics

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I have a couple of follow ups to recent posts.  First, today’s episode of Up With Chris confirms my fear that commentators would fall into the trap of believing that the mere fact of Sandy and its impact would have an enduring effect on the agenda by pushing climate change onto it.  In what may have been the most bizarre moment of TV I’ve witnesses in some time, Representative Ed Markey suggested it would be similar to the positive policy impact of the BP Gulf spill.  That did not for the same reason that Katrina did not – because many advocates thought the event did their job for them, and as a result they did not do their job. Their job is to pressure politicians to discuss and act when it prefers not to.

Second, I want to clarify what I meant by policy in my critique of the value of election forecasting.  I don’t mean the way policy is typically used, especially by Democrats, to appeal to small segments of voters and avoid turning off independents / centrists.  I also don’t mean making broad undefined claims, like the idea of the War on Women, which tend to oversell the differences between the parties while obscuring the real policy differences that do exist.

I mean connecting with people where they are, with authentic, two-way communication, using easily understandable policies, and seriously committing to those people and ideas with the same energy and excitement after elections as before.  I mean policies and arguments for them that clearly convey your values.  For me, this means the core idea that all people are fully human, deserving of respect and dignity, and therefore broad rights, and a government that both protects them and ensures opportunity for them.

Earlier, I linked to a story about Bernie Sanders to illustrate this. It noted that Sanders’ campaign has been knocking on doors throughout the state not simply asking for their vote but to mobilizing people to town halls where he could speak directly to voters.

 A week before the election, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had run no attack ads. In fact, he hadn’t run any TV commercials. He was still speaking in full sentences, not soundbites; still inviting voters to ask complicated questions on controversial issues—and still answering with big, bold proposals to address climate change, really reform healthcare with a single-payer “Medicare for All” program, steer money away from the Pentagon and toward domestic jobs initiatives, and counter the threat of plutocracy posed by Citizens United by amending the Constitution. Rejecting the empty partisanship of the pre-election frenzy, Sanders was ripping the austerity agenda of Romney and Paul Ryan, while warning that Obama and too many Democrats were inclining toward an austerity-lite “grand bargain” that would make debt reduction a greater priority than saving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about, and there is no reason others couldn’t do what Sanders does.  In fact, others have done it before.  There are reasons why politicians prefer big money, big media politics. That it’s the only way to win is not one of them.

*I actually think overly complicated policies also don’t tend to work as well as more straightforward ones.

Written by David Kaib

November 3, 2012 at 11:07 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

Why is Framing So Misunderstood?: The Distorting Lens of Democracy

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There has been a lot of attention in progressive circles about framing, but because of the way we tend to think and talk about politics, framing itself is poorly understood. Our standard frame of politics is steeped in a particular view of the US constitutional system – American democracy. This view places two party electoral politics at the center, sees formal decision making (without attending to the boundaries of what’s possible) as the only thing of significance in politics, and includes a sharp distinction between the economy and politics, or markets and government. This view is a hindrance to progressive politics, I believe, because it is confuses a way of justifying a state of affairs (legitimation) with a way of making senses of a state of affairs.

What does this have to do with framing? When you use this politics-as-democracy lens to make sense of politics, you overestimate the role of elections, of formal decisions, and the role of individuals.  (I’ve referred to this idea that individual choice manifests itself in an unmediated fashion in politics and policy as ‘democratic efficiency’.)  As a results, the central (only?) drivers in politics appear to be 1) voting and 2) public opinion.  Given that, framing must be (it is inconceivable to think of it any other way) about changing the minds of voters usually in an unmediated fashion (i.e. presidential speeches producing shifts in public opinion, campaign tactics producing electoral majorities). Framing is about communication, only.

The problem is that this does not fit with the arguments of those who talk about framing.  To take George Lakoff as a prime example–his field  is cognitive linguistics, he has helped found the interdisciplinary field of cognitive studies, his books all reference thinking or the mind (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain, Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision).

Framing, then, is first and foremost about being clearer with ourselves about what we stand for. It’s about being clearer about what unites us, and what divides us from our ideological opponents.  This is necessary to build stronger coalitions, form longer term plans, and decide what things we want to push for, and it requires not just talking differently but building a progressive infrastructure to develop better frames and embed them in our institutions.  It’s about recapturing the confidence those on the left had in the post-Great Depression period that our approach is better than then alternative and more appealing. (This sort of confidence is something conservatives have built in the wake of the Civil Rights and it remains a key strength for their movement).  It’s about finding things that unite our side and divide or weaken the other side. It’s about mobilizing your own supporters and demobilizing* resistance.

Even so, some might think these things will involve persuasion. Certainly, any discussion of rhetoric will implicate persuasion, but the important thing to remember here is that people are ambivalent.  We listen to, or participate in, elite discourse, we organize our own thinking around liberal-conservative ideology, talk about opinion polls revealing beliefs.  But most regular people are not engaged with this discourse, don’t organize their thinking on a lib-con spectrum, and have more complex views than can be captured by a single poll question. Lakoff suggests that most people have progressive and conservative frames available to them, that many of us can actively use both frames, but that conservatives have been far more successful at activating conservative frames.  This means that even self-professed liberals / progressives often argue within conservative frames rather than challenging them. The issue is less convincing people to abandon a strongly held consistent position than activating one way of thinking over another.

Most people who study and talk about American politics don’t think like this.  They think about the importance of getting 50% plus 1.  As a result, talk of framing (and for that matter, organizing) sounds like naive gibberish.  Or in some cases, it means people who want to use framing but don’t understand it speak naive gibberish, thinking that if we could only get the right sound bite it would turn the tide, something Lakoff has always rejected.  I suspect part of the reason is that those who focus on framing haven’t really challenged the politics-as-democracy frame or recognized the way it distorts these discussions.

*It doesn’t mean putting barriers in the way of participation. I object to that on principle regardless of the context.

Written by David Kaib

June 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Expanding the Boundaries of the Possible: The Mandate

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Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.  

Jack Balkin has a piece on The Atlantic that didn’t get the attention it deserved.  Called From Off the Wall to On the Wall: How the Mandate Challenge Went Mainstream, the piece focuses on how legal arguments move from the fringe to common sense.

The changing perception of the individual mandate is an example of one of the most important features of American constitutional law — the movement of constitutional claims from “off the wall” to “on the wall.” Off-the-wall arguments are those most well-trained lawyers think are clearly wrong; on-the-wall arguments, by contrast, are arguments that are at least plausible, and therefore may become law, especially if brought before judges likely to be sympathetic to them. The history of American constitutional development, in large part, has been the history of formerly crazy arguments moving from off the wall to on the wall, and then being adopted by courts. In the process, people who remember the days when these arguments were unthinkable gape in amazement; they can’t believe what hit them.

I’d go farther, and suggest that this is an example of the one of the most important features of American politics.  But the sad thing is that both political science and our general political discourse tends to ignore these questions. Instead, they ask: (given the boundaries of what’s possible) how is choice made?  But the question of what is possible is far more important than the choice itself.  As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider reminded us a long time ago, “The definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power,” yet we’ve rarely listened.

Balkin has been asking these more important questions for some time.  I’ll just sketch the argument here.

The basic idea is to understand the roles of several key actors.

1) Intellectuals.  The role of intellectuals is to develop ideas that are considered off the wall.  Conservatives have long understood this which is why they built an infrastructure that allows intellectuals to do this and that creates networks among them. These have to be willing to do so without worrying about their acceptability, or they will simply be reinforcing the status quo. (This is why tying think tanks and the like too closely to either politicians or funders is a bad idea.)

2) Social movements.  Movements are one of the most important drivers of change, but they work long-term, through cultural change, that is, “from the bottom up”.  Obviously, conservatives were mobilized against the mandate, but Balkin argues that social movements work on a much longer time line.  There was not enough time to move arguments that the mandate was unconstitutional from the fringes to an acceptable legal claim this quickly.

3) Political parties. When a party gets behind a claim, it moves it quickly to ‘on the wall.’ “[W]hen an entire political party gets behind a constitutional argument,” Balkin says, “almost by definition the position has become mainstream.” Needless to say the unity of the Republican Party makes this a lot easier.

4) Media. The media tends to reflect the political parties.  That is, if one party makes a claim, the media will treat it seriously. This is true for institutions like Fox News, but it’s also true for the media in general.  Journalistic conventions don’t allow the media to challenge these sorts of claims, when they are taken seriously by one (or both) of the parties. This has a tendency to reinforce the role of the parties.  (Balkin here parallels the arguments of media scholars – see for example Jay Rosen’s classic post detailing Daniel Hallin’s arguments, here.)

5) The Courts.  Once a position has become ‘reasonable,’ judges are willing to give them a hearing, and once lower courts, especially circuit courts, are willing to accept an argument, this lends respectability before the Supreme Court (not to mention beyond the judiciary).

Of course, if you were to look only at the choices of courts, or the Court, ideological splits would go a long way towards explaining those choices.  It’s true that the president, Congress, or the public have no formal ability to reverse decisions.  But judges care about what’s reasonable, they take things for granted, and they reconsider things they previously took for granted.

I do have one objection. Balkin’s argument largely avoids confusing democracy as a legitimation with democracy as an explanatory concept. But see here:

When establishment politicians — who, after all, have to stand for election and don’t want to be thought out-of-touch to their constituents — get behind a constitutional argument, they often help move it forward quickly.

The problem here is that there is plenty of reason to think that politicians aren’t driven by such concerns.  There are often large gaps between public opinion and policy, both foreign and domestic.  The Republican Party has demonstrated that marching away from the center doesn’t automatically lead to electoral defeat.  Reasonableness is an elite phenomenon.  The belief that one can infer popular beliefs from institutional outcomes (i.e. ‘democratic efficiency’) is generally false.

Written by David Kaib

June 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm

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