two doses of realism about democracy

I’m an egalitarian, participatory democrat (with a lower-case “d”). I believe that everyone should have as close as possible to an equal say in the political process. We can then decide fairly what scope we will give to markets. I also believe that participating in political institutions and community work can be intrinsically rewarding; therefore, as many people as possible should have the skills and opportunities to participate. Finally, I believe that everyone has knowledge, talents, and energies to contribute.

Nevertheless, political equality has two limitations that I think we should face squarely:

1. Business has a ?privileged position,” as Charles Lindblom noted long ago. Corporations shouldn’t be able to buy influence through campaign contributions or control of the mass media. However, they will be influential in any commercial society?and I believe that that’s what we have, by virtual consensus, in the United States. Without even seeking to affect government policies, they will allocate investments in communities and in nations that have favorable economic policies. Governments will compete to attract investment, and this competition will put downward pressure on taxes and regulation. Although there should be countervailing pressures, the influence of business is unavoidable in a commercial society.

If this is true, then we should be concerned about the degree of alignment between business interests and those of the rest of the public. Peter Peterson, Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, recently lamented the demise of “corporate patriotism” and the lack of “corporate statesmen” today. He recalled the essential role that business had played in passing the Employment Act of 1946, (attacked at the time as “socialistic”), creating the president’s Council of Economic Advisors and the World Bank and IMF, and selling the Marshall Plan. Each of these reforms can be criticized for its substance, but each had broad support on the left.

We will be particularly suspicious of such reforms if we view the very idea of benign business influence as a myth and a sham. My sense is that business interests sometimes align sufficiently with public interests to allow compromises that are about the closest we can get to social justice in a commercial society. I also have the sense that such alignment is less likely today than in the period 1945-1970. Big businesses should be concerned about the federal government’s long-term fiscal solvency, and also about extremes of wealth and poverty, since their broader self-interest is involved. Yet they have little tangible positive influence today.

I suspect that business interests are most likely to align with broader interests if (a) firms have a lot of ?sunk costs? and cannot casually move their investments around; (b) the personal standing of their leaders is connected to their reputations for public service; (c) they are forced, by collective-bargaining and other arrangements, to consult regularly with workers and consumers, so that they are aware of other perspectives; and (d) they know that corporate ?statesmanship? is valued by religious congregations, community associations, colleges, and the press. Each of these factors is weaker than it used to be because of globalization, market worship, and declining unions.

2. Civic engagement is a minority taste. All types of people can and do participate in politics and civil society, whether they are young or old, rich or poor, white or people of color, women or men, citizens, residents, or even illegal aliens. However, participation is not for everyone. Only a minority of any community will attend meetings regularly, closely follow the news, lead and form associations, and organize and motivate others.

If this is true, then we should care whether these civic activists are a diverse and representative group, whether their interests align with those of average people, what techniques they use to gain influence, and how public-spirited they are. We should also care what resources they have at their disposal.

This is an abstract argument, but it has concrete, practical implications. For example, I have argued in favor of some kind of separate space on the Internet that imposes civic norms (decided on by the participants) and that serves civic activists. One way to do this would be to have a separate .civ (?dot-civ?) domain in which websites would be governed by norms that they enacted deliberatively.

There?s an argument against such an approach. The ?dot-civ? space would doubtless become a kind of walled-garden for people who are already civically active–uninteresting to those who go online for other reasons, including pop culture. Beth Noveck writes (pdf, p. 22) that my proposal was ?roundly criticized and rejected by the group assembled? to consider it. I remember the same conversation as considerably more balanced. In any case, I would argue?as a general matter?that it can be more effective to provide resources and networks for the ?civic tenth? in all our communities than to try to infuse small doses of civic values into mass culture. Again, we must be concerned about how diverse the active citizens are, but it?s a mistake to imagine that they will be very numerous.

2 thoughts on “two doses of realism about democracy

  1. Michael Weiksner

    Thanks for the link to Beth’s work. In the end state, civic life has to be integrated into other aspects of life. The physical analogy is that the townhall is at the center of the town square, near the market for business. How can you ensure that “.civ” doesn’t suffer the same fate as “.us”?

  2. futurstan123

    I agree with this post, and in general I think we should be using our limited resources to reach the goal of high-quality and fair decision making, and getting a diversity of active citizens is one requirement for achieveing that goal. But I wonder if achieving the diversity we desire in the pool of active citizens can be helped by infusing small doses of civic values into mass culture. It seems to me there is a spectrum of engagement that includes more than just the unengaged and the actively engaged and my guess is that there is a sizable pool of people that aren’t particularly interested in public policy and the issues of the day, but do (or could) feel a sense of responsibility to at least be somewhat active to varying degrees. I’d also guess that these somewhat engaged people would find the kind of networks and resources you talk about useful, in part because they would represent a clear community that people can join (sort of like a church is a clear community that people can join). And if this is the case, then I wonder whether or not bringing in the somewhat-engaged Americans as an audience (and occasional participants) to the active-Americans’ discourse would help bring about the diversity we want.

    Assuming all of that (yes, yes, I’m creating a pile of assumptions here), then I can think of a few small doses of civic values that would be useful to infuse in our political culture, like the need for our democracy to have a diversity in its active citizenry, to help enforce fairness, if nothing else.

    There’s also the need for the normally unengaged Americans to recognize that there IS an Active Community, consisting of the politically active Americans, and they can never forget that this community exists and wields enormous power in concert with the our political leaders. I think this is common value worth disseminating.

    And we could also let everyone know that there is no guarantee enough other people like themselves are engaged and effectively fighting for their interest within the Active Community, and it’s something they need to keep on eye on. And if they find there aren’t enough people like themselves in our active communities and the diversity being isn’t upheld, maybe they should considering becoming more active themselves, not just help look out for their own interests, but to look out for all the other people out there that share their interests too.

    When I think about it, there are two main reasons we usually hear for active participation like voting and all that: Looking out for your own best interests, and looking out for everyone’s common best-interests. But maybe we should point out more that when you become engaged, and do your part to ensure our society treats you fairly, you’re not just looking out for your own best interests and our collective interests. You are also helping the people you can most easily empathize with: Other people in a similar situation in life that are experiencing the same types of challenges and hardships you are.

    So maybe we should tell single-mothers that when they become active citizens, they’re not just helping themselves, but they’re helping single-mothers everywhere that have a lot of the the same needs as themselves and helping to rebalance the Active Community, and that’s a good thing. And we could tell unemployed or underemployed that when they become engaged do their part to ensure our government has an adequate safety net, they are helping millions of people that are in the same place and they should feel good about that.

    A diversity of active Americans is a requirement for a diversity of empathy in the active communities of America. If that diversity does not exist, and people like you are not being adequately represented, then the millions of Americans that elect our leaders and help set our priorities will not necessarily feel your pain. That’s an idea I think is worth spreading.

    But, in the end, I really don’t know how much it costs to spread these ideas or if it’s something people haven’t really heard before, or would just shrug off. I’d be curious to see a compilation of the various “civic value” messages people hear nowadays and how much money is spent in total on spreading those messages. Are there any studies you could point me towards that have that info?

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