Stealth Democracy

A new book is causing quite a stir among people who work for in civic and democratic reform. John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that the public doesn’t want a bigger role in government and politics. In fact, people would like to have a smaller role, but they suspect that elites are corrupt, so they believe that citizens must periodically intervene just to prevent sleaze. These are some of the themes of Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

According to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, people do not rate their fellow citizens as informed or intelligent. They do not want to participate in government or politics themselves, nor do they want a political system in which there is much public involvement. They do not dislike the policies adopted by our government. In fact, they have few policy preferences and are generally satisfied with the policies that are in place.

Yet people strongly dislike government. This is because they suspect very selfish and greedy behavior on the part of political elites. For instance, they think that elected officials get rich from government service. People dislike disagreement and debate and view these things as evidence that elites are self-interested. They believe that there is public consensus on issues, yet agreement is mysteriously absent in Congress.

A majority of people (about 70%) agree with two or three of the following propositions, which is enough to make them believers in “Stealth Democracy”:

• “elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action on important problems” (86% agree)

• “what people call compromise in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles” (60%); and

• “our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people” (31%) or “our government would run better if decisions were left up to successful business people” (32%)

Although people do not want much public involvement in government, they think that both Democrats and Republicans want even less. They consider the parties to be more elitist than they are. Therefore, they support reform ideas such as devolving power to the states (63% support); using more initiatives and referenda (86%); and limiting campaign spending (91%). Fifty percent would like the government to be run more like a business. There is also considerable support for billionaire politicians and technocratic experts, since neither can profit from their own decisions.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse append two whole chapters in which they argue that deliberative democracy (in its various forms) will not solve the problems that they identify from their survey results, and may make matters worse. These chapters are useful as a compendium of hopeful hypotheses advanced by proponents of deliberation and negative empirical results. However, the evidence here is selective and the argument is separate from the meat of the book, which is a set of claims about mass public opinion in the US.

One can quibble with these findings. For example, I thought that several of the key survey questions were somewhat ambiguous. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse stress that the results are tentative. However, let’s assume that the results are roughly right. How can proponents of deliberative democracy, civic engagement, participatory democracy, strong democracy, or public work respond?

First, we can speculate that some of the phenomena described in the book are features of our very specific political circumstances, rather than traits of Americans’ character. For example, people say that private money has an enormous influence on politics. It does. Money has always been the mother’s milk of politics. But what we have today is a system of massive private contributions plus quite complete disclosure. In my view, this is a recipe for public dissatisfaction with the process of government. It is natural to tune out all the details of policy debates if one is presented with a list of special-interest groups that fund each side. No one seems credible.

Likewise, there is a dearth of political debate at the local level, because congressional (and often state legislative) districts have been jerrymandered to be dominated by one party. No wonder people think that there is a consensus at home and discord only in Congress. Districts have been engineered to have no discord at the local level.

The upshot is that we might be able to get quite different attitudes from a reformed political system, one with competitive election districts and public financing for campaigns. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse favor campaign-finance reform, but they don’t think it will make much difference. We can afford to be more hopeful.

A second reply is more radical. It says: Of course people opt out of “politics,” considering what they’ve been served under that name. We can’t poll people about whether they would like to participate more, because they have no way of knowing what active citizenship would look like in a better regime. Reform political institutions, improve civic education, change the way the news and entertainment media cover public life, and experiment widely with new forms of participation (often outside of the state sector)—and then ask people what they think of “politics.”

This is not a foolish answer, but clearly it requires very ambitious, systemic reforms. And those reforms will be harder to achieve given what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse say about public attitudes.

A third reply would emphasize equity (something that’s largely overlooked in Stealth Democracy). It’s all very well to have a system with low public participation and little public interest in politics—if the policies that result serve your interests. But laws and institutions tend not to serve low-income people. Moreover, knowledge is not evenly distributed. As Scott Keeter and Michael Delli Carpini showed in What Americans Know about Politics and Why it Matters (1997), wealthy people have a good grasp of politics, ideology, and issues; poor people don’t. But if people generally don’t want to get more involved, then we can’t expect a great upsurge of support for participatory or deliberative democracy. What we may need, instead, is a small set of powerful organizations that have political power and answer to less advantaged citizens.

I doubt that people were much more favorable toward “politics” 50 years ago. However, in 1953, a third of all non-agricultural American workers belonged to unions, and 47 percent of voting-age Americans identified themselves as Democrats. The top brass of the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party knew how to play politics, even if the rank-and-file did not. Union membership has been halved since then and both parties are much weaker. Reviving these institutions or creating substitutes would be an answer to the problem outlined in Stealth Democracy.

In fairness, I should say that the authors’ own answer is sensible enough, in its way. That is to reform civic education so that students are taught to expect and even value controversy. Then they would be less offended by the sight of debate in Washington.

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  • Peter Levine

    Peter Muhlberger writes:

    I’ve just written a paper challenging a key part of the Stealth Democracy thesis. You may find the following excerpts interesting.

    An important aspect of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s position is normative. Their overarching concern is with insuring the stability and legitimacy of the political system. Consequently, in their chapter of prescriptions, they do not seek to address political disinterest or conflict aversion, which they do not see as injurious to system legitimacy. The book depicts

    political ignorance and disinterest as “perfectly understandable” (p. 134) and discomfort with conflict in political discussion as “avoiding a

    distasteful activity,” a dislike that makes “perfect sense” (p. 10). People are described as naturally more interested in their everyday lives than in politics.

    Thus, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse do not consider stealth democracy anti-democratic but simply realistic in light of the public’s reasonable

    preference to be politically uninvolved. The authors are disturbed by one matter only fear false perceptions of consensus may delegitimize the political system. False consensus beliefs create unrealistic expectations that leaders can

    readily act with little debate or compromise. The authors suggest such beliefs could be addressed with an intensive educational effort.

    To the stealth democracy thesis, this paper opposes the “middle-American mentality thesis.” This thesis suggests that many Americans possess a

    syndrome of unreasonable and socially harmful orientations and that this syndrome can be addressed by involving people in political deliberation.

    The middle-American mentality involves an inability to conceptualize complex systems of governance and an inability to take alternative political perspectives. People with this mentality therefore falsely believe in political consensus and embrace undemocratic forms of governance, specifically the authority-driven stealth democracy. The best way to reverse this middle-American mentality may be direct exposure to the views of other citizens in the course of political deliberation. Such an exercise both helps clarify that reasonable people hold a diversity of views and exposes citizens to complex processes of decision making that might undermine stealth democracy beliefs. With such deliberative methods as the National Issues Forums and Deliberative Polling, it is commonplace for practitioners and researchers to find that participants engage in respectful and thoughtful discussions of the issues as well as their differences (Fishkin 1997; Price and Cappella 2002).

    The findings of this paper support the middle-American mentality thesis, suggesting that e-government efforts to encourage citizen participation, particularly deliberative participation, will not run contrary to a reasonable public desire to be politically uninvolved and may have positive benefits in cultivating a more civically-minded public.