So what kind of democracy do we have? Do our institutions do a great job of establishing the public interest over the medium term, or have our institutions been captured by private interests, leaving essentially no real power in the hands of citizens?
The way it is supposed to work, according to Civics 101:
- Elected officials faithfully consider proposed legislation, based on their expressed political values, the interests of their constituents, and their perception of the best longterm interest of the polity.
- Decisions are made in public view.
- Legislative debates turn on the public presentation of reasons in favor of or against proposed legislation, invoking only rational assessment of likely consequences, fitness of proposed legislation to the longterm best interests of the polity, and consistency with existing law and constitution.
- Agencies use experts to faithfully create regulations that implement legislation in ways that are consistent with legislative intent, grounded in rational study of relevant scientific findings, and impartially applied without regard to persons or specific private interests.
- Lobbyists are able to influence legislation and regulation only through compelling rational arguments based on cost-benefit analysis, legitimate expression of a given set of affected interests, and public knowledge of their advocacy.
This sounds pretty much like the way that Rousseau would have expected the legislative process to have worked within the ideal polity; legislation enacts the “general will”.
The not-so-ideal case:
- Elected officials give excessive importance to the impact their positions will have on the voters back home — thereby paying less attention to the facts and consequences for the public good of various legislative initiatives.
- Elected officials sometimes permit themselves to be influenced by campaign contributions and other personal advantages from industries and other private interests, thereby supporting or opposing initiatives for reasons other than the overall goodness or badness of the legislation for the public good.
- Regulative agencies are influenced by industry “experts” in writing regulations, with the result that regulatory regimes are tilted towards the private interests of the regulated industries rather than neutrally establishing public health and safety.
- Lobbyists have substantial access to legislators and regulators, with the result that they are able to move the dial in their favored direction.
We might describe this scenario as the pluralism scenario, along the lines of Robert Dahl’s theories of democracy. Various interests contend through the use of various legal tools of influence, and the resulting set of laws, policies, and regulations represent a rough-and-ready balance of the many interested parties in a complex society. Private interests have weight on this scenario, but they don’t determine the outcomes.
The nightmare scenario for democracy:
- Elected officials have no sincere adherence to the public good; they pursue their own private and political interests through all the powers available to them. (Senator Jim Bunning’s unembarrassed willingness to block extension of unemployment legislation for narrow personal and political reasons falls in this category.)
- Elected officials are sometimes overtly corruptible, accepting significant gifts in exchange for official performance.
- Elected officials are intimidated by the power of private interests (corporations) to fund electoral opposition to their re-election. (The Supreme Court decision on corporate free speech makes this much more likely.)
- Regulatory agencies are dominated by the industries they regulate; independent commissioners are forced out of office; and regulations are toothless when it comes to environmental protection, wilderness protection, health and safety in the workplace, and food safety.
- Lobbyists for special interests and corporations have almost unrestricted access to legislators and regulators, and are generally able to achieve their goals.
This is the nightmare scenario if one cares about democracy, because it implies that the apparatus of government is essentially controlled by private interests rather than the common good and the broad interests of society as a whole. It isn’t “pluralism”, because there are many important social interests not represented in this system in any meaningful way: poor people, non-unionized workers, people without health insurance, inner-city youth, the environment, people exposed to toxic waste, …
The fact that healthcare reform, regulation of CO2 emissions, and significant reform of the financial system have all been essentially blocked in the current legislative process seems to point to one of these scenarios; and it isn’t the first or the second.
I’ll quote an idea used in the previous posting to suggest one possible way forward for our democracy: a movement towards substantially greater participatory democracy in this country. Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright address the future of our democracy in Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance. Here is how they set the stage for their analysis:
As the tasks of the state have become more complex and the size of polities larger and more heterogeneous, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century — representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration — seem increasingly ill suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century. “Democracy” as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices. Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and implementing public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions fo the democratic idea, assuring that all citizens benefit from the nation’s wealth. (3)
It is an interesting question to consider whether a participatory process surrounding the issue of healthcare reform would have led to a more satisfactory outcome. Given the results of the raucous, aggressive, and incivil disruption of town-hall meetings that occurred last summer around this issue, it is hard to be too optimistic about this approach either.