Tag Archives: Democracy

Power, Voice and Bowling Alone

Americans are increasingly focused on economic inequality, and especially the growing and dangerous gulf between the 1% and everyone else. But of course, no element of our social ecosystem is separate and distinct from the other elements, and the financial gap between wealthy and working class citizens is closely connected to other kinds of inequality.

Children from poor families attend poorly performing schools. The streets and sidewalks and parks in poor neighborhoods are rarely as well maintained as those in wealthier precincts. The prevalence of “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods—the lack of markets selling healthy foods at reasonable prices—has been the subject of numerous articles. These and other tangible manifestations of unequal access to social goods (health care, for example) are relatively obvious.

But there is a less-often recognized kind of inequality: disproportionate access to the public square and the marketplace of ideas. This lack of access to contending perspectives, abetted by the steady erosion of what sociologists call voice, doesn’t just disadvantage the poor. It hurts us all, by depriving us of perspectives we need to hear and understand.

It is certainly true that many Americans, not just the poor, have historically opted out of democratic deliberations. But they had voice–and influence–through a multitude of civic organizations.

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote

 Political scientists after World War II hypothesized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations – clubs, associations, political parties, unions – to which politicians were responsive.

 “Interest-group pluralism,” as it was called, thereby channeled the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.

 What’s more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith approvingly dubbed it “countervailing power.” These alternative power centers ensured that America’s vast middle and working classes received a significant share of the gains from economic growth.

 Beginning in 1980, those organizations—a vibrant part of civil society—began to wither. Robert Putnum famously documented the decline in Bowling Alone.

The decline of unions has been especially consequential. As Reich notes, however, other former centers of countervailing power – retailers, farm cooperatives, and local and regional banks – also lost ground to national discount chains, big agribusiness, and Wall Street. Many of these changes were an intentional result of public policies—everything from Right to Work laws to slackened banking regulations. Others reflected economic and technological shifts.

Meanwhile, political parties stopped representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties morphed from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising machines.

Although Reich does not include it in his list, we might add the effects of so-called “privatization”—especially the practice of government contracting with nonprofit organizations to deliver public services. Nonprofit scholars have long expressed concern that the growing dependence of human services nonprofits on government dollars has operated to “hollow out” their essential character as mediating institutions.

Reich concludes that the only way to turn this situation around is through greatly increased political activism. I agree.

The open question is whether average Americans have the time, the energy, or the will to  reassert their right to be heard, and to insist on retaking their rightful place at the civic table.







Why Politicians Like Rokita are More Dangerous–and Anti-American–Than you Think

According to yesterday’s New York Times, pragmatism about climate change is beginning to trump politics at the local level. The article focused primarily on candidates in Florida, where rising sea levels and other consequences of global warming have become too obvious for local Republican candidates to ignore. But the article also quoted Carmel’s Mayor, Jim Brainard, who has defied his national party’s fealty to Big Oil (more than 58% of Congressional Republicans deny the reality of climate change) and who has worked actively to reduce Carmel’s carbon footprint.

“I don’t think we want to be the party that believes in dirty air and dirty water,” Mr. Brainard said, noting that the Environmental Protection Agency was founded under President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican.

Contrast Brainard’s eminently sensible approach with that of Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, who recently told the Purdue Exponent that claims about global warming are still “under debate,” and that the belief in anthropogenic climate change is “arrogant,” because after all, who are we to think our human activities could change God’s climate?

When asked by a constituent about government subsidies for renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Rokita said that he respects “God’s green earth,” but that the private market should decide which energy sources receive funding.

Evidently Rokita  hasn’t noticed the massive subsidies we taxpayers are providing to the (enormously profitable) fossil fuel industry.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Rokita and the other dogged defenders of the energy status quo as politicians pandering to a know-nothing base. As a 2012 article from Scientific American pointed out, however, these anti-science attitudes not only threaten America’s economic future, they represent a dramatic–and dangerous–departure from traditional American values.

The Founding Fathers were science enthusiasts. Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer and scientist, built the primary justification for the nation’s independence on the thinking of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon and John Locke—the creators of physics, inductive reasoning and empiricism. He called them his “trinity of three greatest men.” If anyone can discover the truth by using reason and science, Jefferson reasoned, then no one is naturally closer to the truth than anyone else. Consequently, those in positions of authority do not have the right to impose their beliefs on other people. The people themselves retain this inalienable right. Based on this foundation of science—of knowledge gained by systematic study and testing instead of by the assertions of ideology—the argument for a new, democratic form of government was self-evident.

The authors warned that the anti-science posture of contemporary politicians “reflect an anti-intellectual conformity that is gaining strength in the U.S. at precisely the moment that most of the important opportunities for economic growth, and serious threats to the well-being of the nation, require a better grasp of scientific issues.” Anti-science positions occur at both ends of the ideological spectrum, from anti-vaccine activists on the left to climate change deniers on the right.

By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. Policy is determined by the loudest voices, reducing us to a world in which might makes right—the classic definition of authoritarianism.

The entire article is well worth reading, but I found this paragraph particularly  compelling:

“Facts,” John Adams argued, “are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy begins to break down. Gone is the common denominator—knowledge—that can bring opposing sides together. Government becomes reactive, expensive and late at solving problems, and the national dialogue becomes mired in warring opinions.

When Congressmen like Rokita substitute convenient and uninformed opinion for science and fact, they threaten both our planet and our democracy.




How a Bill Shouldn’t Become a Law

Remember the old cartoon developed to teach students “how a bill becomes a law”?

A proposal is introduced. It is assigned to a committee that reviews it, hears testimony about it, and deliberates its merits. The committee then votes whether to advance the measure. If the vote is affirmative, the entire chamber votes on it.

In bicameral legislatures (those with both a House and Senate), a positive vote sends the bill to the other house, where the process is repeated.

Speaker of the House Brian Bosma is teaching young people–who are disproportionately interested in the fate of HJR 3–a different lesson.

What if a bill the Speaker really wants passed is assigned to a committee that actually does its job–a committee that deliberates based on the evidence before it and the testimony it has heard? What if that committee then concludes that the bill should be defeated?

Why, you just change the rules.

You don’t abide by the decision of the lawmakers you assigned to make that decision.  You cheat.

Speaker Brian Bosma insists that there is nothing unusual in his decision to take HJR 3 away from the committee to which it was originally assigned. And it’s true that some bills are reassigned, mostly in order to expedite the process, or because on closer examination the bill really belonged elsewhere.

In this case, the change was made for one reason only: to get the result Bosma wants. The decision he couldn’t get playing by the rules.

Even more incredibly, the Speaker has scheduled the new committee’s vote for tomorrow. The vote will be taken without the benefit of evidence or testimony–but then, as we’ve seen, the Speaker considers evidence and testimony irrelevant. The only thing committee members need to to know is what the Speaker wants them to do.

Usually, the power plays and the wheeling/dealing is done behind the scenes. This time, that wasn’t possible. This time, everyone got to see what is seldom on public display: the House leadership’s absolute contempt for democracy and the rules of fair play.




Sunday Sermon

I was reading a paper sent to me by a member of our Center’s National Advisory Board, and was struck by the following paragraph:

Democratic modes of association are not given by nature; on this the historical record could not be clearer. Rather, they are built, and much of the construction work is done by people who share an understanding of what kind of polity they are trying to create. These people are not born grasping the difficult political principles of limited government, civil rights and liberties, toleration and equality before the law. These are social, moral and cognitive achievements.

Those “social, moral and cognitive achievements” are missing from the zealots who are currently holding Congress–and the American government–hostage.

We ordinary Americans will bear the brunt of their absence.

The Root of the Problem

Paul Volcker is a longtime, widely respected public servant. Most of us know of him through his service as head of the Federal Reserve, but his interest in good government is wider than fiscal policy. That interest has led him to create a new organization–the Volcker Alliance. This new initiative has grown out of what is described as Volcker’s deep concern about public mistrust of government, partisan polarization, and the low level of status/prestige associated with career public service in the United States.

I share his concerns. And I hope that the Volcker Alliance will focus upon the roots of the problem.

Any reader of this blog can probably guess what my analysis of our current situation is.  I am absolutely convinced that public administration practice–the daily decisions of the elected and appointed people who run government at all levels– take place in a culture that has been shaped by  American constitutional, legal, and political values.  Public decisions and actions must be seen as consistent with those values in order for citizens to  trust them.

One of the reasons I am so concerned (okay, maybe obsessed) about civic literacy is that I firmly believe the electorate must be sufficiently knowledgable about our national principles/values to make accurate judgments about their elected officials’ compliance with them.

Our constitutional values create the framework for moral decision-making in the public sector. Public confidence that policymakers are guided by them is an essential element of perceived legitimacy–and the electorate’s belief in the legitimacy of governing institutions is a precondition to the ability of public managers to govern at all.

I teach at a school of public affairs, so I obviously believe in that it is important for our public administrators to have the requisite skills to implement chosen policies. But even the most able technocrat can’t function properly without legitimacy: public acceptance of his role and his right to exercise authority.

If I am correct about that (and there is a good deal of scholarship suggesting that I am) then the widespread belief that public officials are just beneficiaries of political gamesmanship–gerrymandering, vote suppression, etc.–is corrosive of the public’s confidence and undermines the public manager’s ability to do her job.

Let me suggest a somewhat weird analogy.

In Florence, Italy, in one of that city’s many museums, there is a famous marble statue of two men wrestling. One of them has his hands around the testicles of the other, and ever since we first saw  it, my husband has always referred to it as the  ”fight fair, dammit” statue.

A functioning democracy depends on the citizenry’s confidence that the “fight” was fair.  The idea is that we contend in the public arena for the support of the voters; we make our respective cases, our voices are heard and our arguments considered, and citizens choose whom they prefer in a fair election, after which, we come together and work with the people the voters freely chose.

If the election wasn’t fair–if boatloads of special-interest money drowned out the voices of certain candidates, if one party or the other abused the redistricting process, or gamed the system to dissuade some constituencies from voting–the winners cannot expect the losers to cheerfully abide by the results. People who use these tactics may win elections, but they lose legitimacy and the public trust.

If we want to restore public trust in our government, we need to fight fair, dammit.