I love many aspects of the Obama Campaign, but until recently, I had been thinking that its “change” slogan was pretty much empty. Then it occurred to me that the slogan could reflect a particular conception of democracy–if not intentionally, at least in the way it is being received. This is that idea that the people’s job is to vote the incumbent party in or out, depending on recent performance. As Joseph Schumpeter wrote in 1942:
- [D]emocracy does not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the terms ‘people’ and ‘rule.’ Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them. But since they might decide this also in entirely undemocratic ways, we have had to narrow our definition by adding a further criterion identifying the democratic method, viz., free competition among would-be leaders for the vote of the electorate.
Applying Schumpeter to the 2008 election would mean saying that the Republicans and Democrats are “would-be leaders,” and the Democrats are asking to be chosen because the Republicans have messed up. That could be a good way for Democrats to get elected, assuming (a) that Americans act like Schumpeterians and (b) that we render verdicts on parties rather than individuals.
There are two big problems with Schumpeter’s theory, however. First, immediate past performance is often a poor predictor of future performance. Schumpeter believed that citizens voted on the past record because they simply couldn’t make rational predictions. But that’s bad news, if true.
Second, limiting voters’ role to an up-or-down verdict is very much at odds with the other rhetoric of the Obama Campaign, which (pace Schumpeter) is about the people actually ruling. Perhaps “change” means a new way of tapping the energies and ideas of American citizens. If that’s the intention, it must be made very clear.