Monthly Archives: August 2008

Barack Obama and Joseph Schumpeter

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.

two sides of civic renewal

My first job was at Common Cause, one of the main lobbies that seeks to improve formal American politics by reforming the way campaigns are financed, voters are registered, electoral districts are drawn, and regulations are approved. Even then, I was also interested in the citizen side of politics–how people organize themselves, deliberate, learn from one another, give time and money, and obtain power. I’ve always wanted those two topics to be more tightly connected in theory and especially in practice. In fact, that was the theme of my 1999 book The New Progressive Era. Government reform can stimulate or enable public engagement, but the nature of the engagement will differ depending on the reform. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider what kind of democracy you want. Is your goal equality of power? Involving as many people as possible in creative public work? Mixing people with different opinions and backgrounds? Improving knowledge and understanding? Each goal requires somewhat different reforms. In turn, how citizens organize themselves will determine which reforms pass Congress and will also affect how people use any new rights and opportunities.

In late July, a mix of political reformers and organizers of citizen activities met in Washington. I had to miss the meeting because we were in Europe, but Demos, a reform group, has now posted notes online (PDF). The group converged on ideas drawn from the political reform world (such as “public financing of state and federal elections”) plus proposals from the world of public deliberation (e.g., “a Public Participation Act that eliminates obstacles preventing Federal agencies from using higher quality public participation practices”). The lead idea is a new “White House Office of Participation” to bring it all together.

public participation helps environmental policy

Four powerful agencies that deal with environmental regulation–the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture–wanted to know whether involving citizens improves their decisions by tapping local knowledge and energy and increasing the legitimacy of outcomes, or whether citizens merely make things worse because they lack scientific knowledge. So the agencies (without a touch of irony) asked the experts at the National Research Council to review the evidence about public participation. The experts’ verdict was favorable: well-designed processes that involve the public produce better outcomes.

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Listening to Michelle Obama last night, I thought about a conversation we had in October 2006. I hesitate to report it because I am a strong critic of the kind of politics that prizes personal interactions with leaders–as if other citizens cannot make good judgments based on the public record. Besides, no one should rely on the accuracy or fairness of a reporter, a staffer, or someone else who gets close to the famous–even if he gains access by accident, which is what happened to me.

On the other hand, Mrs. Obama made a strongly positive impression on me, and it has been seriously bothering me to see her misrepresented over the last six months. This is not only unfair to her as an individual; it also has consequences for women. Because she has been presented as an angry and challenging figure, she is going to have to compensate by coming across as completely nice. That will circumscribe her ability to lead.

The irony is that I found her very nice, indeed. She was the moderator of a panel at Campus Compact’s 20th Anniversary gala. I was a panelist, and we chatted for maybe 10 minutes as we waiting to go onstage. She seemed somewhat tired–short of sleep and exercise because of her demanding job, her two kids, and her husband’s constant travel. But she didn’t complain; this came up in the context of a dialog about being parents, in which she focused on my life as much as hers.

She professed not to feel at all comfortable in the glamorous DC scene. I smiled inwardly a bit, because she and her husband were already the most glamorous couple in town–she wasn’t going to have to stand by the cheese platter at a cocktail party, hoping someone would talk to her. But I took her insecurity as completely genuine, because she presented it as a shared problem. Neither of us would feel comfortable at a glitzy reception, she seemed to be saying–even though she would be mobbed by admirers and job-seekers whereas I would be very surprised to be admitted.

Above all, I remember talking about kids. I’ve got a daughter who falls right between Sasha and Malia Obama in age. Whatever you may think about having a First Lady who is thoroughly committed to her own children, Michelle Obama is that person.

the moral evaluation of literary characters

I’m on p. 521 of Dickens’ Bleak House–hardly past half-way–but so far Mrs Jelleby is proving to be a bad person. Like many of my friends (like me, in fact) she spends most of her days reading and writing messages regarding what she calls a “public project”–in her case, the settlement of poor British families on the left bank of the River Niger at the ridiculously named location of Borrioboola-Gha. Meanwhile, her own small children are filthy, her clothes are disgraceful, her household is bankrupt, her neglected husband is (as we would say) clinically depressed, and she is casually cruel to her adolescent daughter Caddy. Caddy finds a man who pays some attention to her, but Mrs Jellyby is completely uninterested in the wedding and marriage:

    “Now if my public duties were not a favourite child to me, if I were not occupied with large measures on a vast scale, these petty details [sc. the wedding] might grieve me very much. … But can I permit the film of a silly proceeding on the part of Caddy (from whom I expect nothing else), to interpose between me and the great African continent? …”

    “I hope, Ma,” sobbed poor Caddy at last, “you are not angry?”

    “O, Caddy, you really are an absurd girl,” returned Mrs Jellyby, “to ask such questions, after what I have said of the preoccupation of my mind.”

    “And I hope, Ma, you give us your consent, and wish us well?” said Caddy.

    “You are a nonsensical child to have done anything of this kind,” said Mrs Jellyby, “and a degenerate child, when you might have devoted yourself to a great public measure. But the step is taken, and I have engaged a boy [to replace Caddy as her secretary], and there is no more to be said. No, pray, Caddy,” said Mrs Jellyby–for Caddy was kissing her–“don’t delay me in my work, but let me clear off this heavy batch of papers before the afternoon post comes in!”

Mrs Jellyby’s friends dominate the wedding breakfast and are “all devoted to public projects only.” They have no interest in Caddy or even in one another’s social schemes; each is entirely self-centered.

Within the imaginary world of Bleak House, Mrs Jellyby is bad, and her moral flaws should provoke some reflection in the rest of us–especially those of us who spend too much time sending emails about distant projects. The evident alternative is Esther Summerson, a model housekeeper who cares lovingly for her friends and relatives and refuses to interfere with distant strangers’ lives on the ground “that I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated …; that I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others …”

Fair enough, but we could also ask why Dickens decided to depict Mrs Jellyby instead of a different kind of person, for instance, a man who was so consumed with social reform that he neglected his spouse, a woman who successfully balanced public and private responsibilities, or a woman, like Dorothea Brooke, who yearned for a public role but instead devoted her life to the private service of men. Both the intention and the likely consequences of Dickens’ portrait are to suppress the public role of women.

The general point I’d like to propose is this: the moral assessment of literary characters (lately returned to respectability by theorists like Amanda Anderson) requires two stages of analysis. First one decides whether a character is good or bad–or partly both–within the world of a fiction. And then one asks whether the author was right to choose to create that character instead of others.