against fatalism: responding to Krugman and Sunstein

(Washington, DC) Harry Boyte, Albert Dzur, and I have a letter in the latest New York Review of Books that is pertinent to today’s column by Paul Krugman. Krugman’s piece, entitled “Economics and Elections,” is deeply depressing and depressed, exemplifying the very mode of thought that Harry, Albert, and I wanted to challenge in our letter about Cass Sunstein and Michael Walzer, which we wrote more than a month ago.

Krugman argues today that the British Tories did immense and unnecessary damage to the UK economy by enforcing austerity policies. However, the British economy has grown of late, and “a large body of political science research” finds that what determines the outcome of a national election is economic growth during “the last two quarters before the election.” That factor is much more important than any behavior or rhetoric by politicians or anything that the media can say or do. It explains why the Tories may win.

For politicians, the lesson is to ignore the good of the country if you want to be reelected. In fact, “the politically smart thing might well be to impose a pointless depression on your country for much of your time in office, solely to leave room for a roaring recovery just before voters go to the polls.” Scholars and public intellectuals can do little to change this reality, Krugman argues, but they should commit to the truth anyway, like geeky existentialists. Our duty as intellectuals:

Try to get it right, and explain our answers as clearly as we can. Realistically, the political impact will usually be marginal at best. Bad things will happen to good ideas, and vice-versa. So be it. Elections determine who has power, not who has the truth.

(By the way, this is an interesting reversal for Krugman, who early in the Obama years was quick to accuse the president of not using the Bully Pulpit effectively. As he now notes, political scientists basically don’t believe in the Bully Pulpit.)

Cass Sunstein, a distinguished and often insightful political scientist, has collected evidence along similar lines to the “large body” of research cited by Krugman today. Sunstein and his co-author Reid Hastie argue that individuals and groups reach irrational conclusions because of hard-wired cognitive limitations, such as a tendency to “groupthink.” The behavior of voters in a national election is just an example.

Such evidence should be taken seriously. But Michael Walzer offered an important critique in the New York Review of Books that could also apply to Krugman’s article today. Walzer argued that problems (like groupthink) that bedevil discussions inside Congress, the Supreme Court, or any committee room may not be as serious as “powerlessness and inequality.” He concluded:

Organizing, agitating, demonstrating—these are ways of bringing the powerless to the attention of the powerful. They can contribute importantly to democratic decisions, even if they seem nondeliberative. … Sometimes we will want the people outside the room actually to win—to organize and agitate so successfully that they take over the small groups who dominate decision-making, with the result that they change the political conversation. … So, yes, we need to be wiser in the ways described by Sunstein and Hastie; but we also need a radically different kind of decision-making than what they describe, involving a larger number of people inside and outside the rooms where small groups sit.

We concur but would push the argument further. Political institutions can be changed. This is not only a matter of adjusting the rules that govern, for instance, parliamentary districts in the UK or campaign finance in the US. It is also about achieving cultural change within major institutions, such as legislatures, newspapers, and schools and colleges. It is about changing us (the citizens), not just them (the rulers). We wrote:

Sunstein, like Habermas and many others, sees major institutions as largely fixed and unchangeable, not subject to democratizing change. This assumption generates fatalism, which has shrunk our imaginations about decision-making, politics, and democracy itself. The challenge is to recognize that institutions of all kinds are human creations that in turn can be recreated, reconnected to questions of civic and democratic purpose. For this task we need to bring in Max Weber as well as Machiavelli and Marx [whom Walzer had recommended in his review]. Weber described the “iron cage” that results from technical rationality. In his essay “The Profession and the Vocation of Politics,” Weber also evocatively termed the pattern “the polar night of icy darkness.” Thawing the polar night is a frontier of democracy in the twenty-first century.

The evidence that Krugman and Sunstein cite is empirical. By definition, it derives from the past. In the case of Krugman’s column today, it derives from quantitative studies of US presidential campaigns since World War II. We should pay attention to trends in the recent past so that we know what to change. But we cannot allow the past to become a dead hand so that we surrender our political agency.

I addressed the very same topic in We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For (pp. 26-7):

The outcome of presidential elections in the United States is strongly correlated with the performance of the economy in the previous year. That means that all the deliberate work of campaigns, parties, and independent advocacy groups matters less than the blind, impersonal force of the business cycle.

Nevertheless, working together in small groups is morally important—it is what we should do and should care most about. To be a good person is to do this work well. That is reason enough to make it a central question for reflection and research. In addition, deliberate human action has significant impact. Small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens do make a difference under appropriate circumstances, as shown by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the conservative legal movement, and numerous other examples. … Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for demonstrating that the organization and governance of voluntary groups affects whether they can solve social problems. These findings suggest that “small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens” matter, even if other factors matter too.

If the leaders of the South African freedom movement reviewed the scholarly literature on democratization during the apartheid years, they must have found it depressing. Prosperity, economic equality, and ethnic homogeneity were the factors that had been found to increase the odds of a successful transition to democracy. These structural factors were all evidently absent in South Africa. … Thus, if the African National Congress and other democratic reformers had been guided by hard-nosed, empirical research, they would have chosen a goal short of democracy, something like a negotiated arrangement among separate authoritarian communities. But they were right to ignore the scholarly literature because it was based on empirical data—in a word, on the past—and the past can never determine the future. So far, their peaceful revolution appears a monumental work of deliberate human agency.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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