Monthly Archives: July 2003

CIRCLE is funded

In the past, I couldn’t

blog about an activity that’s taken a lot of my time over the last six months:

namely, fundraising for CIRCLE.

Now that the grants have been approved and announced, I’m happy to say that The

Pew Charitable Trusts and Carnegie Corporation

of New York have come through for us, generously giving CIRCLE a budget of

almost $4 million for the 2003-5 period.

Meanwhile, for those who are doing

civic work with youth and the Internet, here’s a great

discussion forum on the ContentBank website.

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.

the young don’t read newspapers

According to CIRCLE’s new fact

sheet on media use, this is the trend in newspaper readership since 1972:

We know that newspaper reading correlates with many forms of civic engagement,

so this trend is worrisome. (It is also very bad news for the newspaper industry.

Why don’t they do something aggressive to reverse the decline, like giving millions

of free newspapers to schools?) I think one piece of the problem is that young

people don’t learn how to read a newspaper. My own experience as a volunteer

high school teacher has taught me that the "inverted pyramid" style

of journalistic writing assumes a lot of background knowledge, and thus makes

news stories baffling to inexperienced teenagers. They can learn to read newspapers,

but they don’t pick up this skill by osmosis.

aid to Africa


believe in asset-based development, which means

that I am loath to itemize deficits and problems without putting at least as much

emphasis on the assets that any human community or nation possesses as

the basis for its own development. I am certain that Africa has tremendous assets:

cultural, social, and natural. Unfortunately, I lack the detailed knowledge necessary

to list the main ones. In lieu of an asset inventory, we ought to pay attention

to the following gaps or problems on the occasion of President Bush’s African


  • life expectancy at birth: Sierra Leone = 34.5 years; USA = 77.1


  • adult literacy rate: Niger = 16.5%; Estonia = 98.8%
  • population

    earning less than $1/day: Ethiopia = 81.9%; USA = 0% (reported)

  • probability

    at birth of not surviving to age 40: Mozambique, 56%; Japan = 7.5%

  • population

    without access to improved water source: Ethiopia, 76%; USA = 0%

  • physicians/100,000

    people: Mali = 1; Italy = 567

  • health spending/capita: Guinea-Bissau =

    $12; USA = $4,499

  • undernourished people: Burundi = 69% of population;

    USA = 0% (reported)

  • percent of adults with HIV/AIDS: Zambia = 21.52%;

    USA 0.16%

  • official development aid received, per capita: Dem. Rep. of

    Congo = $5; Israel = $172.4 (The new European Union members get more aid than

    Israel, but their assistance comes with club membership in the EU.)


these statistics come from the "Human

Development Indicators" section of the United Nations Development Programme’s

Human Development Report 2003.

honesty means having to say you’re wrong

President Bush said

in his January State of the Union Address that Iraq was trying to buy uranium

in Africa—an extraordinarily important charge that could justify a preemptive

war (on the assumption that Iraq would only need uranium for nuclear weapons).

According to today’s Washington

Post, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice "said Secretary

of State Colin L. Powell did not include the uranium allegation in the speech

he gave to the United Nations on Feb. 5, eight days after the president spoke.

She said that was because [the State Department] had questioned the matter."

This suggests to me that top Administration officials realized before Feb. 5 that

the State of the Union speech had included a dubious, but extremely significant,

assertion. Why then did they not issue a statement casting at least partial doubt

on the uranium story? Failure to withdraw a false claim of such enormous magnitude

seems to me deeply unethical. It was not nearly enough to refrain from repeating

the charge.