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January 20, 2005

Democratic Malaise in US?

Archon Fung: January 20, 2005

In his second inaugural address, our President proclaimed his commitment to spreading democracy abroad,

Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

But when I look out in the world, I see many who recognize that their own democratic institutions fall short of the ideal of self government. They take pains and embark on bold experiments to discover more workable forms of self-government for themselves, rather than attempting to create self-government for others. When I look here, in my own country, I see substantial democratic innovation in civil society organizations at the state and local level, but very little is initiated or even sponsored by government, and almost none of it by the federal government. Why is that?

Why don’t Americans--despite all that has happened--have a palpable sense that our democracy is deficient?

I recently travelled to the Canadian province of British Columbia. There, a randomly selected “citizens assembly” of 160 British Columbians have been deliberating for a year about whether the province should abandon its first-past-the-post winner-take-all election rules in favor of some sort of proportional representation. This group decided that their electoral system should serve three important values -- fairness understood as proportionality; voter choice; and local representation. They decided that the voting system best advancing these values is a version of the Single Transferrable Vote. Their proposal will be subject to a popular referendum in May. If it is wins, it will become the law of the province. Many other Canadian provinces are undergoing similar democratic soul-searching.

To the south, dozens of cities in Latin America have created directly-democratic institutions to make decisions over their public budgets. This so-called “Participatory Budgeting” was made famous by the fifteen year experience of the Workers' Party in Porto Alegre, Brazil. More generally, almost everyone working in the field of development has to include words about participation if they hope to gain the support of international donor agencies.

Across the Atlantic, our European cousins are much concerned about democracy deficits not only at the supra-national level, but also inside nations and in regions as well. These concerns have prompted substantial official and civic experimentation with complex structures of regulatory committees, as well as with more popular devices such as consensus conferences, planning cells, citizen juries, and deliberative polls.

Do you agree that the democratic imagination is much more vital abroad than at home? How have we in the U.S. escaped the impulse for democratic renewal?

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» Democratic Malaise? from Cinerati
Archon Fung, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in an article on Left2Right called Democratic Malaise in US? asks When I look here, in my own country, I see substantial democratic inno... [Read More]

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Left2Right, a current events blog largely authored by intellectuals and academics, claims that the United States may be suffering a democratic malaise as compared to the rest of the world: [W]hen I look out in the world, I see many... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 24, 2005 7:47:54 PM

Comments

Posted by: Achillea

It's one thing to conduct off-the-wall political experiments at the city or provincial level, and another to do so nationwide (especially with a nation the size and complexity of ours). Even if they work, there's no guarantee they'll scale up successfully. Further, given the current state of affairs in the areas of the world where we're most actively trying to foster democracy, navel-gazing at our own instead is rather like dickering over brands of caviar while other people starve for want of a bread crust.
As far as proportional representation goes, it certainly sounds nice in the abstract, but isn't that the procedure Israel has that results in a government that tears itself to pieces about every six months?

Posted by: Achillea | Jan 21, 2005 12:49:02 AM


Posted by: Achillea

It's one thing to conduct off-the-wall political experiments at the city or provincial level, and another to do so nationwide (especially with a nation the size and complexity of ours). Even if they work, there's no guarantee they'll scale up successfully. Further, given the current state of affairs in the areas of the world where we're most actively trying to foster democracy, navel-gazing at our own instead is rather like dickering over brands of caviar while other people starve for want of a bread crust.
As far as proportional representation goes, it certainly sounds nice in the abstract, but isn't that the procedure Israel has that results in a government that tears itself to pieces about every six months?

Posted by: Achillea | Jan 21, 2005 12:49:02 AM


Posted by: Achillea

Sorry. Don't know why it does that sometimes. I didn't go near the refresh button, honest.

Posted by: Achillea | Jan 21, 2005 12:50:14 AM


Posted by: LPFabulous

Umm, is your point here that it's more important that we have a referendum on something like proportional representation than it is to smash dictatorial regimes that stone women for showing their faces in public?

Forgive me if I'm going a little overboard in my example, but the challenges of spreading democracy abroad just strike me as obviously more urgent than carping on our own (relatively minuscule) shortcomings at home.

Sure we haven't achieved perfect self-government in our own backyards, but a huge portion of the world isn't even playing the same game we are.

Posted by: LPFabulous | Jan 21, 2005 12:53:11 AM


Posted by: Jim Hu

Perhaps it is related to a different understanding about the role of government here vs. the other countries you cite. Our historical approach to self-government is more centered on individualism, for one thing.

I can't find the link, but I believe it was columnist Mark Steyn who observed that one consequence of nationalizing health care in Canada and Europe, while relying on the US for national defense, is that the health care and social services dominate what the citizenry view as the purpose of government. Thus, the citizens experiment to try to optimize the system for distributing the collective resources because that is most of what government does in their lives (I have no idea if any of this applies to Brazil). I'd argue that our culture is more about government that is needed to run the military and to act as the referee between private entities. Although we have widely accepted social programs (despite the pleas of my fellow libertarians), our primary citizens/government relationship is in experimenting with institutions to protect us from government.

So, do other countries ever have large segments hoping for divided government in order to promote gridlock? We see serious people argue for this all the time. Is it even possible in the kinds of democratic experiments you discuss?

Incidentally, my favorite discussion of self-rule is in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Posted by: Jim Hu | Jan 21, 2005 1:42:01 AM


Posted by: Dom Eggert

To say that the American system is anything close to democratic is a joke. To suggest that our shortcomings are "relatively minuscule" is absolutely ludicrous. (And I leave aside the issue of how any attempt to force other peoples to be free is not merely highly unlikely to succeed, as Iraq should have taught us by now, but ineluctably translates into slaughters of genocidal proportions.)

But turning to our purportedly democratic system, what kind of choices do we have, what kind of freedom, when we are always forced to pick between two parties grossly and explicitly wed to corporate interests (albeit one more so than the other)? How democratic is it when politicians don't run on issues but, as though contestants in a beauty pageant, on appearances, likeability, perceived "leadership," moral "character," and so on? Judging from the way campaigns are run, I often ask, are we choosing a brand of toothpaste here or voting for president?

It's no wonder that we consider a good turnout to be 60%. Voter apathy, and general civic apathy, is endemic in the United States; politics for most people is a non-issue, something impolite to talk about at the dinner table. Most people are too immersed in trying to get by, or get ahead, or are riveted with the drivel spewed out by the entertainment industry (which of course includes mainstream news sources).

When the president and other politicians bandy about the words "freedom," "liberty," "democracy," "justice," etc., so often and so carelessly that they lose their original meaning and become tired cliches, they also lose whatever critical force they might have had as ideals. They are simply co-opted by the forces of the status quo. The hypocrisy of the president's inaugural address today would be glaring, if these words but retained a shred of the meaning they once had.

People think we live in a democracy--that's what they're incessantly told. Most are not educated sufficiently and in the right way to understand what the difference between totalitarianism and a free state could possibly be. That's the way the ruling classes would prefer it. Most of us have no idea that there's any possibility of alternative, because we're brought up to believe that existing relations of power are natural and unchangeable.

Generally speaking, people are discouraged from organizing in any sort of effective political way. Unions have declined in membership and power for decades, for example. The major political parties care more about special interests, since they provide the economic clout to get them in office, than they do about their constituents. Everywhere, people are disconnected, isolated atoms. And hence, they are easier for corporate America to exploit as producers and consumers.

Indeed, if we really want to be a "beacon of democracy" to the world, we could start by setting a good example. Not only does that mean bringing real democratic institutions here, but also we might think about stopping our support of tyrannical states like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc. (not to mention our sordid recent history in Latin America and southeast Asia).

Look, many of you will dismiss me as a liberal or a socialist or an elitist or something else unpleasant. But if you truly support freedom as a cause, or truly care about the well-being of your fellow human beings, you would really stop and think about what your political beliefs and endorsement seriously entail. Are you honestly satisfied with your choices as a voter? Do we really have the domestic institutions that you think we should in this country? If you look at the historical record, can you really say that America has acted blamelessly toward other nations and always for the good?

Totalitarianism is the constant threat of democracy. Don't forget that Hitler was popularly elected. People don't go around calling themselves "fascists" these days, but even if they're acting more subtly, they're still exploiting nationalism and religious prejudices for the sake of a minority of wealthy elites. Just think about it.

Posted by: Dom Eggert | Jan 21, 2005 2:20:53 AM


Posted by: Perseus

There is only a democracy deficit if democracy is defined as participatory democracy. If, however, democracy is defined as representative democracy, the participatory deficit is small; indeed, in certain cases, there may be a participatory surplus.

Posted by: Perseus | Jan 21, 2005 3:04:41 AM


Posted by: nospam

We have less participation in government not because our government is less democratic, but because we have less government.

The financial decisions that are made by government bureaucrats in far-off capitals in other countries are made by free citizens over the kitchen table in America.

Posted by: nospam | Jan 21, 2005 3:09:45 AM


Posted by: Mark

--The financial decisions that are made by government bureaucrats in far-off capitals in other countries are made by free citizens over the kitchen table in America.--

Wow, on first reading I took that to mean something completely different than you intended.

It's true in this other sense too though: the amount of power the US government and entities plausibly under the jurisdiction of American law have influences decisions by government bureaucrats in far-off capitals despite the fact that such connections are seldom understood by those kitchen-table sitters in a swingy state that ultimately decide what our government does and doesn't do.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 21, 2005 4:35:18 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

“Malaise” strikes me as too, oh, say, Jimmy Carteresque, but there certainly is little interest on the part of those in power to reform those institutions and processes which gave them that power. That’s human nature. So, for that matter, is the disinclination on the part of most Americans to bother with political processes, especially at the national level. Some of that lack of interest no doubt springs from a sense of alienation, but a good bit of it springs from complacency and even genuine satisfaction in the status quo.

Were it not for the fact that they tend not to work well in emergencies, I’d be all for proportional representation which would lead to a parliamentary form of government with multiple parties which tends to result in weaker national government than our sainted two-party system has yielded. Go for it. For that matter, how about a new Constitutional Convention? How much power to the people is the Left really interested in seeing exercised?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 8:33:44 AM


Posted by: sierra

Dom Eggert says: "It's no wonder that we consider a good turnout to be 60%. Voter apathy, and general civic apathy, is endemic in the United States; politics for most people is a non-issue..." I think this is about right. I wouldn't want to live in a country where only 10% of the people voted, but neither would I want to live in a place where 100% voted. If people don't feel things are going so horribly awry as to motivate them to vote, that's not necessarily a bad thing. That, and I'm more gratified at election results that are the product of the most motivated voters, who tend to be more well-informed.

Posted by: sierra | Jan 21, 2005 8:41:36 AM


Posted by: oliver

"Don't forget that Hitler was popularly elected."
I think that's only sort of true. I think I read his party earned seats enough through a popular vote for him to lead a minority coalition government but that he only became Fuhrer through legislative motions (during which uncooperative MPs were coerced to vote the right way). Of course, he was very popular with the people as Fuhrer.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 21, 2005 9:02:45 AM


Posted by: oliver

"How have we in the U.S. escaped the impulse for democratic renewal?"

Why are most of us complacent about national politics? Yikes. If I had to pick one thing from the top of my head I'd say the abundance of cheap mindless entertainment and the ease with which one can escape encountering or spending any time with real journalism.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 21, 2005 9:15:14 AM


Posted by: oliver

Also TV production values are so high now and people depend so much on TV that everything national has an Olympian aspect that makes it seem like its happening on another plane.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 21, 2005 9:18:04 AM


Posted by: LPFabulous

Most are not educated sufficiently and in the right way to understand what the difference between totalitarianism and a free state could possibly be.

I'd love to know where you went to school.

Also, in the same post that you seem to indicate moral chracter is irrelevant to a president, you ask me not to dismiss you as "something... unpleasant". How can I possibly do that when you understand so little about America?

Posted by: LPFabulous | Jan 21, 2005 9:19:42 AM


Posted by: LPFabulous

Why is it the case that something nefarious has to be responsible for our low level of engagement with politics? As another poster indicated, why are you all so sure that it isn't just general satisfaction?

Posted by: LPFabulous | Jan 21, 2005 9:21:59 AM


Posted by: SamChevre

Part of the problem here is the confusion between(what I'll denote as) "democracy" (the majority rules) and "Democracy" (used by politicians and the public to denote a liberal state). So Hong Kong in 1997 was a Democracy but not a democracy; Zimbabwe today is a democracy but not a Democracy.

In practice, democracy is dangerous--as Jeff Cooper said, "It's the system that says that in a boat with 5 castaways, 3 can legitimately decide to eat the other two". There are plenty of historical examples--the Terror in France, Hitler in Germany, the Tojo government in Japan--of democracies treating minorities horrifically; pure democracy doesn't protect minorities.

When the President opposes Democracy to tyranny, he is clearly using the second meaning--Democracy as in liberty, respect for minority rights, and so forth.

The USA is not designed as a democracy; that was very clearly not the intent of its Constitution or of its Founders. Many of the un-democratic features of US government--the Senate, the Supreme Court, the Electoral college--were explicitly designed to protect minorities. First-past-the-post elections are beneficial in some ways; they protect geographical minorities, and they reduce the influence of fringe groups (Greens, nativists, etc) which is often desirable.

There are numerous national laws, though, that reduce the ability of the States to experiment with different electoral arrangements; almost all of these are in the democratic direction. For example, the Motor Voter Act and the proscription of a requirement to show ID before voting (which make effective controls on election fraud much more difficult to implement), the proscription of literacy and property qualifications for voting (which protect property-owners against others), and the proscription of geographically based voting districts in the States (although they are permitted in the Senate).

So while I certainly wouldn't argue that the US system of government is perfect, I think it does a better job of protecting minority rights, and has proven to be more stable and resilient over time, than any other system that's out there. As such, I think it prudent to let States and cities experiment, but to be very hesitant to do so at the national level.

Posted by: SamChevre | Jan 21, 2005 9:22:55 AM


Posted by: Terrier

I'm sorry - I don't want to offend - but to say that we have a stable successful democracy because people do NOT vote is just loony! The most ridiculous thing about it is people say this that commonly say the government is doing wrong - illegaly taxing them, redistributing wealth, and so on. They must love those things! Or else believe that support for their position is so weak that it should not even be mentioned politically. Take your head out of the anthill of long dead Austrians. There are alternatives available that I think we could agree on regardless of our economic philosophies. Instant runoff voting, nonpartisan redistricting, right to vote amendment, ending the electoral college, and many other innovations have been proposed to revitalize the democratic process in America. I support making our government more democratic even if it leads to some dead Austrian being engraved on my cash because at least it would be the actual will of the people and not a faint reflection in the echo chamber of the beltway of she-bop.

Posted by: Terrier | Jan 21, 2005 9:49:51 AM


Posted by: Craig

LPFabulous wrote:

...the challenges of spreading democracy abroad just strike me as obviously more urgent than carping on our own (relatively minuscule) shortcomings at home.

This is the old "one thing at a time" fallacy. We can easily pursue democratic improvements at home at the same time as we promote democracy abroad.

And just because our democracy at home isn't so bad doesn't mean it can't be and shouldn't be improved.

Posted by: Craig | Jan 21, 2005 10:23:34 AM


Posted by: Peter Levine

In this discussion, most of the people who favor domestic reforms and innovations are focused on our electoral system. So there's an argument about what the turnout rate means, and whether we should have other forms of voting, such as proportional representation, instant runoffs, etc. I would suggest that this discussion should be a lot broader. It should include at least the following issues (relevant to federal policy:

  • Campaign finance, and more generally, the way that candidates gain access to mass media;
  • The array and structure of mass-based political institutions, such as parties, unions, and activist churches. To whom are they accountable? How do they operate? Which groups have such organizations, and which do not? While federal policy cannot create such institutions, it can affect them (for example, through the tax system).
  • The regulatory apparatus. Critics on the left and right agree that administrative agencies make policies without much supervision from elected officials. They gain legitimacy from expertise and build close relationships with regulated professions and industries. Is this system adequately transparent and accountable?
  • Civic education, broadly defined. The next generation must always learn skills and attitudes necessary to sustain democracy. They don't only need to learn to vote, stay informed, and understand the structure of government, but also protest, organize, and resist. There is much evidence that young people do not get opportunities to learn the full range of important civic skills.
  • While a debate about forms of voting is welcome, there are arguments against each reform; and I doubt that any will emerge as tremendously effective. After all, we can explain our poor turnout rate by citing (a) the enormous number of separate elections that we are asked to participate in, none of which are decisive; and (b) the decline of mobilizing institutions such as unions and parties. I doubt that reforming the electoral system, e.g., by abolishing the Electoral College, would raise turnout much.

    Posted by: Peter Levine | Jan 21, 2005 10:35:51 AM


    Posted by: sierra

    Terrier, I don't mean to suggest that "we have a stable successful democracy [sic: "republic"] because people do not vote." But neither do I accept the flipside: that we have a dysfunctional republic because many people don't vote. In both cases we're measuring inputs (number of voters) rather than outputs (freedom & happiness). All I'm saying is that you can rephrase the issue: because we have a successful republic, many people do not vote.

    Part of having a successful republic is a certain measure of stability. Again, stability is not an end in and of itself (just ask the North Koreans), but then again neither is volatility. Sure, I would prefer a certain set of reforms take place right now, but our system is a lot slower & more deliberative than my impatience would dictate. E.g., it took a long time for meaningful debate on Social Security reform, but it seems to finally be happening.

    So I don't necessarily reject any of the democratic reforms you suggest, as long as the results are more freedom & happiness rather than simply more democracy.

    BTW: I don't understand your comment about long-dead Austrians on my currency. Anyway, isn't Arnold Schwarzenegger still alive?

    Posted by: sierra | Jan 21, 2005 10:46:37 AM


    Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

    Mr. Levine writes: The next generation must always learn skills and attitudes necessary to sustain democracy. They don't only need to learn to vote, stay informed, and understand the structure of government, but also protest, organize, and resist.

    I wonder what sorts of attitudes he has in mind, not to mention what sorts of resistance.

    Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 11:04:19 AM


    Posted by: oliver

    Peter Levine writes: "They don't only need to learn to vote, stay informed, and understand the structure of government, but also protest, organize, and resist."
    Is there really a national concensus regarding the "appropriateness" of protest and the forms it may take. It seems like any city council or mayor can spontaneously impose rules so as to make almost any demonstration plan illegal and only the fear that the electorate will remember this unfavorably restrains them. Rather than assuming a public consensus regarding protest, local governments appear to put their fingers in the air to test the wind direction, play things by ear and take risks as they please regarding offending public opinion in this regard.

    Also I'd like to note that the financing or other reforms that will dig us out of political complacency, while probably the most important topic of discussion, don't exactly answer the "why" question.

    Posted by: oliver | Jan 21, 2005 11:13:35 AM


    Posted by: Paul Deignan

    Reaction to question posed in header article:

    It is the difference between action that realizes democratic intent and talk without form.

    In our last several elections there was presented to the electorate distinct choices. The electorate was then able to act to choose based on small margins in various states. Based on that decision, the US has become the implement of democratic reform in the world.

    It is hard to envy the debating societies of a socialist/isolationist country under those conditions.

    Posted by: Paul Deignan | Jan 21, 2005 11:22:28 AM


    Posted by: Peter Levine

    The following goals for civic education are interesting because they were endorsed by most of the major educational organizations, including both teachers' unions and various liberal groups. The Bush Administration positively received a report that contained these goals and distributed it at a White House conference. Then Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation provided several million dollars to a campaign in support of state policies to achieve these goals (see www.civicmissionofschools.org):

    “Civic education should help young people acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives. Competent and responsible citizens:

    1) are informed and thoughtful; have a grasp and an appreciation of history and the fundamental processes of American democracy; have an understanding and awareness of public and community issues; and have the ability to obtain information, think critically, and enter into dialogue among others with different perspectives.
    2) participate in their communities through membership in or contributions to organizations working to address an array of cultural, social, political, and religious interests and beliefs.
    3) act politically by having the skills, knowledge, and commitment needed to accomplish public purposes such as group problem-solving, public speaking, petitioning and protesting, and voting.
    4) have moral and civic virtues such as concern for the rights and welfare of others, social responsibility, tolerance and respect, and belief in the capacity to make a difference.”

    I personally would like to see some young people (those who hold relatively radical views) develop skills for nonviolent civil disobedience, picketing, and maybe even "hacktivism"--but many people don't think that public schools should have anything to do with teaching such skills. The basic package described above would be very valuable in itself.

    Posted by: Peter Levine | Jan 21, 2005 11:35:22 AM


    Posted by: AlanC9

    I don't think the percentage of people voting is meaningful. I'm as politically engaged as anybody, but voting in November was pointless. No power on earth could have made New York go for Bush, and all the other races were pretty much locks too.

    Actually, there's never any point to voting in a NYC congressional election, since the districts have been gerrymandered all to hell. Sometimes you'll see an interesting primary, but that's it.

    Posted by: AlanC9 | Jan 21, 2005 1:29:11 PM


    Posted by: Henry Woodbury

    "Why don’t Americans--despite all that has happened--have a palpable sense that our democracy is deficient?"

    Is it? I mean we obviously could improve many procedural aspects of our system (impartial redistricting, improved ballot designs, and reliable, accurate voting machines, for example), but why should we assume that a completely different voting method is better than what we do now? Just to mention one alternative, the idea of disaffected and misinformed voters engaged in participatory democracy seems like no step forward to me.

    In theory smaller representative bodies should be more democratic. Local and state governments are closer to the people and accordingly should have more authority. Then I think of Tammany Hall and the Jim Crow south and begin to have my doubts.

    Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Jan 21, 2005 2:20:00 PM


    Posted by: Yehudit

    "how any attempt to force other peoples to be free is not merely highly unlikely to succeed, as Iraq should have taught us by now, but ineluctably translates into slaughters of genocidal proportions."

    I agree we cannot force anyone to be free. What we can do is remove the oppressive entities (tyrannical ruler, police state) that keep them from establishing civic institutions that would protect their freedom (independent judiciary, secret ballot, etc). Then we can teach them how those civic institutions work and help them create them.

    All this is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, and people are enthusiastic about it. The Afghans voted in an impressive turnout, including a majority of women, in spite of threats and bombs. Iraqis - men and women - say in every poll in all parts of the country that they want the elections to go forward as scheduled, regardless of threats and bombs. In local elections held so far, they have preferred local secular professionals respected in their communities to clerics.

    The number of countries with representative governments has increased dramatically in the past 50 years. Since tyrannical dictatorship is easy and self-government is hard, and must be voluntary, that says to me that if given the opportunity people want to govern themselves and live free from fear.

    No genocidal slaughters have ever occurred as a result of "forcing people to be free." Genocidal slaughters have occurred as a result of forcing people to conform to totalitarian utopias or eliminating them because they supposedly get in the way of totalitarian utopias. The utopians may use the word freedom, but they use it in an Orwellian sense.

    Posted by: Yehudit | Jan 21, 2005 2:28:51 PM


    Posted by: sierra

    AlanC9 says "No power on earth could have made New York go for Bush." If we got rid of winner-take-all & the electoral college, New Yorkers might have actually seen him campaign once in a while. I'm not endorsing this as a solution, though, since candidates would never again go near rural areas. But I know how ya feel. I'm in Massachusetts, so my vote is pretty much worthless regardless of what I do with it. (Under any system, my vote is arbitrarily close to worthless.)

    Posted by: sierra | Jan 21, 2005 2:31:33 PM


    Posted by: Jim Hu

    I'm going to dispute the a premise implicit in the final questions of Archon Fung's post, and then argue that which one of us is right is irrelevant. Fung :

    Do you agree that the democratic imagination is much more vital abroad than at home? How have we in the U.S. escaped the impulse for democratic renewal?
    Fung tries to show in his post that the US is doing less innovation in governance than other countries, including Canada, Brazil, and the EU. He says:
    I see substantial democratic innovation in civil society organizations at the state and local level, but very little is initiated or even sponsored by government, and almost none of it by the federal government.
    The qualifier here refutes the premise. He cites local and provincial activities in Canada and Brazil - and then ignores the fact that he already admitted that there is innovation in governance at the state and local level in the US. The growth of the referendum process is one example. The many "reforms" aimed at making voting easy, are another. So is the debate about redistricting, and Colorado's debate about changing from a winner-take-all approach to its electors. And we should not forget that a lot of the discourse about governance in the US takes place in the courts. Look at the Washington governor's race, where the debate seems to be headed to court last time I looked.

    Our discourse about innovation in democracy at the national level seems to me to be reasonably lively, if imperfect. For example, I would include campaign finance reform as innovative. Bad innovation, as it happens since I think BiCRA is terrible law, but it was certainly motivated by the perception that there were defecits in the current system.

    Fung then brings in national and supranational innovation in the EU:

    Across the Atlantic, our European cousins are much concerned about democracy deficits not only at the supra-national level, but also inside nations and in regions as well. These concerns have prompted substantial official and civic experimentation with complex structures of regulatory committees, as well as with more popular devices such as consensus conferences, planning cells, citizen juries, and deliberative polls.[emph added]
    Do these "innovations" even count as addressing defecits in democracy? I don't know enough about these examples (and once again, L2R bloggers, links add a lot to the quality of posts) but they sound more like they are trying to address defecits in the legitimacy of bureaucracies in Brussels.

    My criticisms of Fung's post are partly based on the reaction I have over and over when I read posts at L2R. Is he trying to ask a serious question about how we should implement democracy, or is the purpose of the whole exercise to make unfavorable comparisons between the US and the rest of the world because the left lost the election. If it is the former, then we should ask questions about our implementation of democracy whether or not we are better or worse than somewhere else, and if others are proposing useful innovations, then who cares who invented it? So let's start by putting some cards on the table: I will grant you that our "democratic institutions fall short of the ideal of self government." I consider this to be nearly tautological and therefore close to useless. But how about telling us in future posts which specific ones you are talking about, in what ways they fall short of the ideal, and how alternatives could or do improve the situation? Only then can we evaluate whether a proposed cure is not only innovative but an improvement.

    The commenters to this thread have been more specific in many cases, as usual. Pick an issue and post on it.

    Posted by: Jim Hu | Jan 21, 2005 3:28:52 PM


    Posted by: chainlink

    I find Archon Fung's comments question-begging and a weak basis for discussion. What specifically are the problems of American democracy that he is upset about, and what measures would improve them?

    And the rhetorical contrast between "change at home" and "change overseas" is pretty sloppy--in no way are these mutually exclusive.

    Posted by: chainlink | Jan 21, 2005 4:24:03 PM


    Posted by: Perseus

    Jim Hu cites one example of what I mean by an excess of participatory (direct) democracy: the referendum process. Here in "Caleeeforneeea" (as der Gubernator would say) we have an initiative process run amok where anyone who can afford to hire signature gatherers has a very good chance of getting a proposition on the ballot. As a result, there has been an explosion of propositions, which makes it very difficult for the average citizen to follow and to understand them all. Many of these propositions also make governance difficult by placing all sorts of requirements and restrictions on the state government that amount to micro-management. In other words, the answer to the problems of democracy is not necessarily more direct democracy, but less of it.

    Posted by: Perseus | Jan 21, 2005 4:42:40 PM


    Posted by: S. Weasel

    Fung's post sounds like government as a consumer product, measured by the size of its customer base. Got to capture the youth demographic with new, sexy product lines to compete in the democracy biz, dontcha know.

    Posted by: S. Weasel | Jan 21, 2005 5:22:35 PM


    Posted by: LPFabulous

    For the record, I agree with Craig. I see no reason why we can't make things better at home and abroad at the same time. My point was that, since Fung seems to think there IS a choice to be made, the correct choice is obvious: it is far more important to stop tyrants from stoning women and committing genocide against their citizens than it is to have a deep and meaningful discussion about proportional representation. If these options aren't mutually exclusive, then by all means, let's do both.

    But let's also be clear that the point of this post was to ham-handedly criticize America and its leaders, not to address any real points of substance. Like to much of the content of this site, this post was just another liberal utopian rant disguised as earnestness.

    Posted by: LPFabulous | Jan 21, 2005 6:09:00 PM


    Posted by: oliver

    Maybe in addition to the right of leave from work to attend family concerns we could have an additional number of days legally allowed us for attending protests and political concerns.

    Posted by: oliver | Jan 21, 2005 6:43:17 PM


    Posted by: frankly0

    I do think that much of the stasis in the democratic processes on the federal level have to do with the fundamental difficulty of changing the Constitution. By long experience, we know that adopting a new amendment, which most important changes to our democratic processes would demand, is an arduous procedure, requiring vast, lengthy efforts, and is very unlikely to come to fruition. Constitutions in other countries, perhaps in part because they are so detailed, are revised far more frequently and readily.

    While there are changes in our procedures that would NOT require Consitutional amendments, I think that the general attitude of stasis inspired by the difficulty in changing the Constitution incline us to be reluctant even to change things not set in stone in the Constitution.

    Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 21, 2005 7:05:35 PM


    Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

    It can't be all that difficult to change the Constitution. The Supreme Court does it all the time.

    So, no one wants to join me in calling for a Constitutional Convention?

    Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 7:17:55 PM


    Posted by: Henry Woodbury

    Oliver -- how about we call such days "Saturday" and "Sunday."

    Most school board meetings are held at night as are those archetypical New England town meetings.

    There's also this concept called "Writing to your Senator/Representative." They always reply.

    Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Jan 21, 2005 9:36:07 PM


    Posted by: LPFabulous

    It can't be all that difficult to change the Constitution. The Supreme Court does it all the time.

    *drums*

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

    Posted by: LPFabulous | Jan 22, 2005 12:52:43 AM


    Posted by: Jim Rockford

    Perseus -- The reason for the Initiative system is that the Parties follow extremes, due to gerrymandered safe seats. Democrats are pursuing far left identity politics (except for Kuehl's visionary single payer health proposal) such as drivers licenses for illegals and gay marriage. Not what the average Californian wants. On the Republican side it's about extracting as much corporate pork or consumer rights rollback as possible. Neither are going to address citizen needs hence the iniative process. Initiatives happen because the legislature and governor sit on their ass.

    As far as reform of Democracy, no. At most we need fewer Gerrymandered districts for state legislatures and Congressmen. This will inevitably make politics more centrist, which will include also inevitably the more compelling policies of both left and right. America is a fusion culture and this is a good thing.

    What's left out in this discussion is how utterly corrupt other Democratic systems are, leading to nothing of substance being done in many levels. Japan has yet to tackle it's economic problems, most of Western Europe has not addressed it's huge social issues that make their economic collapse even worse, particularly with immigration and lack of a melting pot. Nobody would want to replace a sane, federal, divided government with the revolving governments of Italy, the corporate corruption of France (think Halliburton is bad, try Total-Fina-Elf), and the truly massive corruption in Latin America.

    /sarcasm on "Yes Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela have much to teach us about Democracy and new systems." /sarcasm off

    Our Democracy is like a guy who needs to lose ten pounds. You can get on the treadmill and cut out the fast food, or go get risky liposuction. Stop Gerrymandered districts and you get a rush back to the center.

    Posted by: Jim Rockford | Jan 22, 2005 4:12:59 AM


    Posted by: exguru

    Americans are content, that's all. We don't care what they do in British Columbia, either.

    Personally, I think the change to direct Presidential primary voting was a bad mistake. Why should Joe-sixpack, who gets off the couch once every four years, be presumed to know more about electing a president than the foot-soldiers of the party who labor year in and year out, and go to all the meetings, and want to nominate someone they know personally and believe in?

    Mark Hanna or Boss Flynn would never have nominated Bill Clinton, for instance, because they would have known he had serious personal problems. Right there it would have saved the country an impeachment, and might also have destroyed binLaden before 9/11.

    Posted by: exguru | Jan 22, 2005 4:21:57 AM


    Posted by: frankly0

    t can't be all that difficult to change the Constitution. The Supreme Court does it all the time.

    Hey, if our Founders didn't want to allow people some real legroom for creative interpretation of the Constitution, they wouldn't have thrown in the Ninth Amendment.

    The Ninth Amendment, on its plain meaning, is practically an invitation to open-ended elaboration. It's how you say in legalese, We know we haven't thought of everything yet, and here's your cover to go after the things that haven't occurred to us already.

    Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 22, 2005 12:49:22 PM


    Posted by: Jim Hu

    perseus notes the problems with the referendum system in California, and in addition to the problems he points out, I believe that referenda also have the problem of not having any check on consistency. The populace can happily pass referenda that are simply incompatible in their implementation. My point in bringing up referenda and other innovations was to point out that Americans innovate too. Many innovations in democracy are not improvements on what went before, just as most new ideas in any field are less likely to be valuable than what has been subjected to the tests of time. Thus, whatever the problems of referenda in California, we can be thankful that the data on the effects of referenda can be studied for those states that have them before we contemplate such innovations on a national or supranational scale. Same for the innovation of encouraging a large fraction of the electorate to vote by absentee ballots.

    Unfortunately, we did not insist on gathering data from local experiments before passing BiCRA.

    Posted by: Jim Hu | Jan 22, 2005 2:06:39 PM


    Posted by: LPFabulous

    frankly0 - And the 10th Amendment was a pretty damn specific rule that said the other two branches of government were to keep well enough alone. Too bad they didn't bother to play by the rules.

    Posted by: LPFabulous | Jan 22, 2005 2:28:52 PM


    Posted by: frankly0

    LPFabulous,

    The tenth amendment does not subtract from what the ninth amendment clearly underpins, namely that there may well exist unenumerated rights that the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in particular, is intended to cover. Clearly, those rights are intended to be protected throughout the land.

    Look, here's my view of the idea that the judiciary has read into the Constitution all kinds of things that aren't there. If the Founders really didn't want the Constitution to be used as a launching pad for fairly creative and open interpretations, it's their own damn fault that it's being used that way. To begin with, there's the Ninth Amendment, which is just leading with its chin for some major creative hits. Beyond that, it's the very brevity of the Constitution that makes it impossible to keep the judiciary at bay in interpreting. It's actually almost absurdly short -- real estate deeds are many times more detailed. With a legal document this spare, covering such a complex set of entities and processes, anybody with a brain understands that it's going to wind up in court, with all kinds of potential interpretations being layered on top. Some people are going to be made happy by those interpretations, and some are going to scream bloody murder.

    The tragedy of brevity in the Constitution has other consequences too, in particular the setting in stone of the relatively few things that the document IS explicit about -- which, I think, accounts for much of the stasis in our democratic processes at the federal level, as I argued in another thread.

    Of course, one can look at these consequences and see some very positive things too - but I'll leave detailing those for a more optimistic mood.

    Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 22, 2005 3:48:11 PM


    Posted by: Perseus

    Jim Hu points out yet another problem with direct democracy that Madison identified in Federalist 62: mutability of policy. Indeed, LPFabulous got it exactly right. Archon Fung is disguising his own normative views as "earnestness"--a nice rhetorical trick. But The Federalist furnishes trenchant critiques of direct democracy and frequent innovation in government. So if Fung truly wishes to know why America has less innovation and direct democracy than other countries, I suggest that he start by re-reading The Federalist and then provide us with some cogent responses to the arguments of Publius.

    Posted by: Perseus | Jan 22, 2005 6:37:11 PM


    Posted by: Jodi

    I agree with Dom Eggert. There is no democracy in America. The US is a plutocracy, plain and simple. A recent study (Kevin Phillips?) showed that now, as opposed to (I forget, the 50s maybe?), the class of the father is a strong predictor for the class of the son. Changes in the tax code benefit inherited wealth. Political dynasties-in both parties--belie the myth that anyone could be president.

    More evidence that the US is not a democracy: the problem of 'too many voters' in some areas. People aren't even expected to vote. And this is at a 60% turn out rate. So even by the most minimal of measures, the US is not a democracy.

    We have no business spreading our plutocracy (empire) elsewhere.

    Posted by: Jodi | Jan 22, 2005 6:47:43 PM


    Posted by: LPFabulous

    Jodi -

    Are you claiming that, in the 50s, the class (I assume you mean socioeconomic) of a father was NOT a strong predictor for the class of the son. Without evidence to the contrary, which you have not provided, I find that startlingly unlikely.

    Also, your claim that there is NO democracy in America is just hyperbole. And especially bad hyperbole at that.

    Posted by: LPFabulous | Jan 22, 2005 10:17:58 PM


    Posted by: taylor

    There are many different forms of proportional representation. If you don't like one kind, there are plenty of others available. The Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia referred to by Fung was a model exercise in participatory democracy. I think it's unfortunate, however, that it chose the Single Transferable Vote as the form of PR to be put to a referendum on May 17, since the method of distributing seats following an election under STV is not easy to understand. This will hurt its chances of being approved. New Brunswick has announced it is considering MMP (Mixed Member Proportional), the kind that Germany uses and that was preferred by many in British Columbia who made submissions to the Citizens' Assembly. Germany is not exactly an unstable system; nor is the Netherlands, which uses another kind of PR, one that encourages plenty of parties. New Zealand has switched to PR from first-past-the-post, and even the UK uses PR for its Scottish and Welsh assemblies.

    By the way, the British Columbia exercise in participatory democracy was initiated by the right-wing party: the Liberals. That's correct: on Canada's west coast the Liberals are as far right as it gets in provincial politics; to the left of them are the social democrats, the Greens, and the Marijuana Party.

    Posted by: taylor | Jan 23, 2005 12:14:57 AM


    Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

    I find it odd that Jodi's plutocracy let the likes of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton be elected president, too. Perhaps there's something to that myth, after all.

    Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 23, 2005 10:58:48 AM


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