a good government primer

(This post is meant to resemble my “primers” on community economic development and relational community organizing–each an element of the civic renewal network or movement.)

At the national level, there are at least a dozen organizations devoted to “good government” in ways that Progressive Era reformers like Robert M. La Follette and Teddy Roosevelt would immediately recognize and endorse. They have a handful of consistent political allies, notably former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). Another set of organizations has a libertarian definition of reform: small government is good government. These two networks are largely opposed, but they make strange bedfellows on certain issues.

The main elements of the Progressive “good government” reform agenda are: (1) opposition to money in politics; (2) transparency in government, and (3) an accessible, equitable voting system that yields consequential decisions. Thus today’s priorities for concrete, practical reforms include such measures as public funding for elections, a public right to information, and easier voting. (The last could be accomplished, for example, by allowing people to register at the same time and place that they vote.)

Over the past century, the “good government” agenda has shifted somewhat in response to arguments, experiences, and crises. The direct election of Senators and the right of voters to recall elected officials were high priorities early in the last century; open meeting acts and disclosure of campaign contributions were victories of the 1970s; and opposition to filibuster abuse has risen on the agenda in the past decade. Referenda were objectives of good government reformers circa 1900; now they appear highly problematic in states like California where they are used for routine lawmaking. Deregulation of such industries as long-distance trucking was a good government priority in the 1970s. Re-regulation of the financial industry is a priority now.

The structure and strategies of the good government groups have also evolved. The League of Women Voters was founded in 1920 and still uses the model that was typical in civil society then: active local chapters with face-to-face meetings and events, state organizations and conferences, and a professional national staff guided by the members. Common Cause, Public Citizen, and the Public Interest Research Groups were founded around 1970 with an innovative model: mass mailings to raise small donations to support professional staffs who litigate, lobby, and “expose” corruption to motivate more support. The models of the 1920 and 1970s are suffering due to declines in civic engagement, and the newcomers mostly rely on digital technologies, loose networks of volunteers, and/or foundation grants. They include the Sunlight Foundation (founded in 2006), Fix Congress First! (2008), and the Coffee Party (2010).

Beneath the specific policy agenda at any moment lies a distinctive and durable political philosophy that ought to be taken seriously–but also assessed critically. At its heart is a distinction between “citizens” or “the people” (on one hand) and “special interests” and “politicians” (on the other). The people should rule; politicians should be responsible and accountable to them; and special interests should be curtailed. Citizens are not necessarily virtuous and wise, nor are organized political groups and elected leaders inevitably corrupt. Rather, when people act through the channels organized for them as citizens, the odds are high that they will act well. As citizens, we talk with diverse others about common issues without coercion or bribes. As citizens, we vote, and that is basically a public-spirited act because the cost of voting isn’t worthwhile if one thinks of the payoff in narrowly selfish terms. As citizens, we promote our values and interests, which, even if foolish or selfish, are at least checked by the rival interests and values of millions of peers. Frederic Howe, the Progressive Era reformer and writer, launched his own political career with a characteristic speech against machine politicians, “men who have substituted corruption for discussion, and ours is a government of discussion.”

In contrast to citizens, special interests expend resources to get favorable policies, and they sometimes obtain lucrative returns on their investments. (For example, $15 million of lobbying on last year’s financial reform bill bought a provision worth $10 billion.) In contrast to citizens, firms and coalitions of firms are required to maximize returns for their own shareholders are are thus blocked from deliberating about what is just or best. La Follette thundered against the special interests of his day: “Their resources are inexhaustible. Their efforts never relax. Their political methods are insidious.” But, he thought, “the united power of the people expressed directly through the ballot can overthrow the enemy.”

In sum, the “public interest” is what the people would want if they talked, listened, learned, and voted freely. Corruption is the undue influence of special interests, whether inside or outside the government, especially if their influence can be traced to money or to special powers that they can wield. If the people show demonstrable weaknesses as citizens (such as low knowledge or weak motivation), the solution is education, broadly defined. Thomas Jefferson’s words apply: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

One alternative philosophy is embodied in the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision, which treats lobbying and campaign contributions as free speech, and businesses as voluntary associations responsible to their citizen-owners. It legitimizes and renders fully respectable the combination of money and politics.

A different alternative holds that corporations basically run modern market economies, not just by deliberately lobbying and funding politicians, but also by making discretionary (and completely legal) decisions about their own investments. Thus democracy is basically a sham without economic reform of a type that is too radical for our actual citizens today. Charles A. Beard criticized Progressives from this perspective in 1916. He was challenging any “good government” strategy that puts political reform ahead of economic reform.

My own views would require a longer essay to defend, but I can summarize my conclusions as follows. I am enthusiastic about the policy agenda of the good government groups, especially their opposition to private money in campaigns. I agree with their philosophical distinctions between citizens and special interests; the public interest and corruption; political reform and economic reform. Even though no specific legislation will keep money completely out of politics, it seems important to pass laws that not only restrain the practical impact of money but also reinforce the norm that using cash to influence the government is basically disreputable.

Of all the objectives of the field today, I think transparency is the least important because information does not translate easily into power; and transparency in the public sector can simply weaken the government unless it is matched by transparency in private business. Meanwhile, one item on the 1970s agenda has since been forgotten and should be revived: the struggle against delegating legislative powers to unelected bureaucrats. Finally, I agree with the implicit definition of citizens as deliberators and voters, but I believe that we all learn best from experience and action. Thus citizens will not be able to do their job of talking, listening, monitoring, and voting until we all have opportunities to do public work as well. That is why such fields of practice as relational organizing and community economic development (mentioned at the very top of this post) are important complements to good government reform.