Tag Archives: Democracy

Democracy, Inequality and Voice

Most of us have heard the old adage “politics is war without the guns.” It’s shorthand for a basic premise of democratic theory: when people have an opportunity to express their preferences and argue for their point of view in a fair fight, they are less likely to shoot each other and far more likely to abide by the results, albeit grudgingly, if they lose the fight.

There’s a substantial amount of history supporting that thesis. What we sometimes forget, however, is that the fight must be fair. Not only that, participants must view it as fair. At the end of a public debate, if the combatants have been able to express their positions, articulate their concerns–if they’ve had what sociologists sometimes refer to as voice–they generally can live with adverse results.

Lawyers often see this same psychology; clients who would be well-advised to settle a case often insist on having their “day in court,” even when that decision entails considerable risk, because they want the opportunity to make their case in a public forum.

Humans want to be heard. We want our points of view acknowledged. When we feel our arguments have been dismissed without proper consideration–when we feel “dissed”– we get belligerent.

One of the reasons that inequality is so corrosive to democratic systems is that people without money are almost always people without voice. A healthy democratic system doesn’t require a population where everyone has comparable resources, but it does require a population where everyone who wants to participate–who wants to be heard–has sufficient resources to do so.

Anyone who has been part of a legislative body–as an elected official, a paid lobbyist or a citizen activist–will confirm that the voices of poor people are rarely if ever heard in the corridors of power. When policymakers move to cut food stamps or drug test welfare recipients, they rarely hear testimony from people who will actually be affected by those actions. They hear disproportionately from business and taxpayer groups. With the exception of social welfare nonprofits (most of which have their own resource issues), no one is there to lobby for the poorest American citizens.

And the poor sure aren’t contributing to political campaigns.

When poor people have virtually no voice, even in the decisions that most directly affect them, that hurts democracies in two ways.

When legislators make decisions based on partial information, even the best-intentioned among them will opt for policies that have by definition been inadequately vetted. They will pass laws with unintended (and often unfortunate) consequences.

Worse, the people who had no voice–the people who are affected by rules they had no part in creating and no opportunity to debate–tend to be the people with the most legitimate grievances and the fewest outlets for expressing those grievances. When a society includes a large number of people who have effectively been disenfranchised–people who, thanks to their poverty, have little to lose– history tells us they will eventually take to the streets.

That’s not only bad for democracy and rational policymaking–it’s bad for business. Civil unrest is certainly not in the best interests of the privileged and well-to-do, who would be better served by sharing some reasonable measure of their power and wealth.

There’s another old adage that comes to mind: pigs get fed. Hogs get slaughtered.

Is It November Yet?

Every so often, our Accidental Mayor does something to remind us why it’s not a good idea to elect people who don’t understand how government is supposed to work.

As reported on the IndyDemocrat blog, Council President Maggie Lewis recently issued the following statement:

“Very recently I was informed that Mayor Ballard unilaterally authorized a withdraw of $6.8 million dollars out of the IMPD general fund without consultation or approval from the Council. This is not how good municipal government works. The Council recently overrode the Mayor’s veto to add appropriations to fund critically needed pursuit rated vehicles and necessary upgrades to IMPD facilities. His decision means many IMPD officers will continue to operate substandard vehicles and train at outdated facilities. We have too few officers on the street to begin with and this action by the administration may put at risk the city’s ability to fund this Fall’s final recruit class of 2015. I call on the Mayor to immediately reverse course and follow both the letter and spirit of Indiana law by returning the money to IMPD now.”

The most important sentence in that statement is “This is not how good municipal government works.”

Perhaps the Mayor had a perfectly good reason for withdrawing those funds. Or perhaps he didn’t. The purpose is irrelevant; the “rules of the game” require the Mayor and Council to communicate, to work together, and to jointly authorize fiscal decisions. The fact that the Council is controlled by a different political party than the Administration does not eliminate that requirement. (I should note that, back in the days of the Hudnut Administration, factional disputes among the Republicans on the Council made relations every bit as testy as the partisan divisions today–but despite a lot of grousing,  the Administration didn’t try to “sneak” things past the Council.)

Process matters.

Government in a democratic system is not run like the military, or like business, where the person at the top of the pyramid makes decisions that others must follow. That’s one reason why calls to run government “like a business” are so misplaced–government isn’t a business. It should be run in a “business-like” fashion (meaning efficiently and cost-effectively), but we should never lose sight of the fact that government’s mission is not focused on the bottom line, and the rules by which it operates must meet democratic accountability standards.

Mayor Ballard isn’t in the Marines anymore. He doesn’t get to unilaterally call the shots.

Aside from the inappropriateness of the Mayor’s action, I can’t help wondering: what was the money used for? In a city with an unacceptably high crime rate, what was more important than (our already grossly  underfunded) public safety?

 

Speaking of Inequality…

There is enormous focus these days on economic inequality, and for good reason. The gap between the top 1% and other Americans is growing, the middle class that built the country and ensured social stability is shrinking, and the likely consequences of those phenomena aren’t pretty.

In the United States, our Constitution guarantees us only equality before the law. Critics may quote Anatole France for the proposition that “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread,” but there is much to be said for a system that protects individual liberties against encroachments by the state. In such system, however, efforts to ameliorate material deprivations are statutory, not constitutional, and as we continue to be reminded, statutory entitlements are vulnerable to efforts to punish poor people for their misfortune.

Most public discourse around “equality” tends to focus on these issues of legal and economic equality and the relationship—or conflict—between the two. We rarely focus on  a third kind of equality—democratic equality—despite the fact that it has a major influence on whether the country achieves the others.

Democratic equality simply means the equal right of each citizen to participate in the democratic process. It probably won’t come as a surprise to find that we aren’t doing terribly well on that front, either.

The influence of money in politics has grown exponentially since the Supreme Court’s ill-considered decision in Citizens United. (Actually, the problem started earlier, with the case of Buckley v. Valeo, when the Court first conflated money with speech) The result has been that those with money are able to “speak” much more loudly and effectively than the rest of us. When democracy becomes “pay to play,” there is no equality of participation.

It isn’t just money. In Indiana—which is unfortunately not an outlier— the legislature has used its power to make it more difficult to vote.

We have one of the strictest Voter ID laws in the nation—in order to cast a ballot, you must not only have a government-issued picture ID, that ID must have an expiration date. (This conveniently excludes the picture IDs issued by state universities.) Middle-class folks assume that it’s simple enough to obtain such identification, but for poorer people—particularly older black citizens who were born at home and lack a birth certificate—getting the necessary documentation can be both onerous and costly. (Despite pious rhetoric about deterring “voter fraud,” fraudulent in-person voting is virtually nonexistent.)

The Indiana legislature has also declined to enact other measures that encourage or facilitate voting by working-class Americans: keeping the polls open past six, establishing convenient voting centers, expanding early and absentee voting.

It’s bad enough that lawmakers see fit to erect barriers to voting rather than making it easier. But as I have previously posted, the most serious denial of democratic equality comes through partisan gerrymandering that produces an abundance of “safe” seats and eliminates voter choice.

Increasingly, especially at the state level, our legislators choose their voters—the voters don’t choose their representatives. So even when disadvantaged folks make it past the obstacles and manage to cast their ballots, they often find they are given no meaningful choice. A growing number of elections are uncontested.

As a result of democratic inequality, the people who would benefit most from the election of candidates willing to work for legal and/or economic equality have less access, less influence and less voice than their more privileged neighbors.

The system is broken.

 

 

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Ah, democracy!

Like so many words echoing through today’s content-free political tantrums, “democracy” gets thrown around by folks who don’t seem to understand how it is supposed to work. (“Liberty” is similarly misused; in the recent RFRA debate, defenders of the law used it to mean retailers’ right to discriminate against customers whose identities or behaviors offended their religious beliefs.)

My observation about the misuse of “democracy” is prompted by a recent blog–diatribe, actually–posted by an Indianapolis school board member named Gail Cosby. (Full disclosure here: I wouldn’t have seen the post, nor would I be following the school board’s “inside baseball” disagreements if our daughter and a former graduate student of mine weren’t both members of that body. So while I am a constituent of Cosby’s, I come with a somewhat amplified point of view.)

In the wake of the most recent school board elections, Cosby has found herself in the minority (alone, actually) on several issues, and has taken to accusing those with whom she disagrees of bad faith, hostility and “undemocratic” behavior. She is absolutely entitled to her opinions, whatever one may think of the propriety or accuracy of these accusatory posts, but like too many other Americans, she quite clearly does not understand the democratic process.

And that leads me to my larger point.

When voters elect a legislative body–the General Assembly, the City-County Council, the School Board–the majority rules. Losing a vote, failing to have your opinion carry the day, or failing to have all your demands met is not evidence of anti-democratic behavior, or “failure to collaborate.” It is the way the system works. The obligation of those of us who find ourselves in a minority position–and believe me, I’ve been in minority positions a lot— is to persuade enough other people of the wisdom/prudence/soundness of your position that you become a majority.

Of course, that takes effort, and persistence, and a willingness to listen and to compromise.

One of the reasons American politics is so debased these days is that too many people share Cosby’s evident disinclination to participate in the hard work required by the democratic process. Too many legislators want to blame their inability to get their own way on other people’s bad faith, or ulterior motives, or “undemocratic” behavior.

To say that the majority isn’t always right is an understatement. But that doesn’t make majority rule undemocratic.

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.