Today's post deserves the encomium "thought piece." If this is a (fair & balanced) response to “... People like me don’t have any say,” so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
Is There Too Much Democracy In America Or Too Little?
By Michael Lind
WordCloud of the following piece of writing
Does the rise of Donald J. Trump mean there is too much democracy in America? This is one way to explain the surprising success of Mr. Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders this year, which resembles the flourishing of anti-system candidates in Europe.
In a widely read essay for New York magazine called “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic,” the journalist Andrew Sullivan denounced both Mr. Trump and “the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders” and declared that “the barriers to the popular will, especially when it comes to choosing our president, are now almost nonexistent.”
In the United States, though, and in Europe, too, the problem is not an excess of democracy, but a democratic deficit that has provoked a demagogic backlash.
In “Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy,” the Irish political scientist Peter Mair identified the trans-Atlantic trend that he called “the twin processes of popular and elite withdrawal from mass electoral politics.” Politicians chosen by membership-based mass parties have been replaced by politicians selected by donors and sold by advertising to voters. At the same time, the decline of neighborhood party machines turning out the vote has resulted in declining participation by lower income and less educated voters. The Americans who do vote are disproportionately affluent.
The need for candidates to raise large sums of money to run for office effectively screens out Republicans and Democrats whose views differ from those of the donor class, even if those views are popular with conservative or progressive voters. The only candidates able to break through the donor-class stranglehold on the political system tend to be those who do not need to raise money that way because they are movement icons like Bernie Sanders, self-financed billionaires like Ross Perot or Michael Bloomberg or celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura. Donald Trump is two out of three.
A 2016 Presidential Election Panel Survey by the RAND Corporation revealed that the single factor that best predicted voter support for Donald Trump among likely Republican voters was not income, education, race, gender or attitudes toward Muslim or illegal immigration, but agreement with the statement “people like me don’t have any say.” What if these and other voters who feel powerless really are?
Over the last few generations, for good reasons as well as bad, the number of policy outcomes that voters can actually influence through the ballot box has steadily declined. The Supreme Court has successively removed civil rights, reproductive rights and gay rights from the whims of tyrannical local or national majorities by constitutionalizing them, notwithstanding attempts by conservative legislatures to resist. Beginning with the New Deal, the economic safety net, once limited to state and local governments, has been largely nationalized. About a third of state spending today consists of federal grants-in-aid, including Medicaid and funding for education, transportation and community development. These grants-in-aid often come with strings attached, turning state and local governments into franchises of the federal government for some purposes, except on rare occasions when states rebel, as many states have done in the case of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.
Within the federal government itself, much of what was once done by congressional legislation is now done by judicial decrees, agency rules or presidential executive orders. In many cases, Congress has abdicated its constitutional responsibilities, preferring to criticize rather than legislate. It is easier, for example, for members of Congress to attack executive orders on immigration than to reform immigration law.
Another way to thwart majority rule is to transfer rule-making about domestic safety, privacy, health and the environment from national legislatures to unelected bodies like the secretive transnational committees that negotiate trade deals. Some of the deals also expose nations to lawsuits by corporations or individual investors who claim to be adversely affected by domestic laws or policies. You don’t have to be a protectionist to believe that the delegation of national rule-making authority to unelected officials influenced by corporate representatives and nongovernmental organization staffers sacrifices too much popular sovereignty for what many would consider minor economic gains.
As a result of all of these trends, the power of electoral majorities really has ebbed away to a great extent. When people keep putting money into a vending machine that does nothing, or gives them the opposite of what they ordered, some of them will kick the vending machine or turn it over.
Voter apathy and disenchantment is a political problem that can be solved only by political reforms that give nonelite voters more actual power to affect policy outcomes — not by a new tax credit here or a wage subsidy there.
Worthwhile reforms like automatic voter registration (now limited to Vermont, Oregon, California and West Virginia), online voting, and voting on weekends or a special national holiday instead of on Tuesdays would not necessarily increase voter turnout much, if many continue to see voting as ineffectual. According to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll from the last presidential election cycle, 59 percent of respondents said that they didn’t bother to pay attention to politics because “nothing ever gets done; it’s a bunch of empty promises.” Demoralizing paralysis in government may be more effective in disenfranchising citizens than photo-ID laws.
Basic civil rights should not depend on majorities at any level of government. And social insurance programs are most efficient and fair when they are uniform and national, like Social Security and Medicare, unlike Medicaid and unemployment insurance, which vary among states because they are funded both by federal and state governments. But in many other areas of public policy, majorities should be allowed to prevail.
The higher the level of government that makes a decision, the less influence ordinary citizens will have. Corporate lobbies or well-funded NGOs that lose battles at the local level can try to persuade state legislatures or members of Congress to reverse the results. In contrast, working-class Americans on the losing end of a local ordinance are unlikely to prevail in the state capital or Washington. Convincing alienated American citizens that their votes count must begin with empowering the city and county governments in which they have the greatest influence.
In some states, this might mean loosening strict constitutional or statutory limits on the tax and expenditure authority of local governments, like California’s 1978 ballot initiative Prop 13, which restricted the autonomy of local governments when it came to property taxes. When such limits prevent municipal governments from raising adequate revenues, they may be forced to resort to regressive and more burdensome revenue collection methods like user fees and sales taxes.
Cities and counties should also have more freedom to experiment, without being constrained by interest groups working through state legislatures. For example, in many states private Internet service providers have used their clout in state capitals to prohibit or obstruct municipal broadband systems.
For its part, Congress can share power as well as money with local voters by putting fewer constraints on the revenues it shares with state and local governments for purposes like education, health and infrastructure.
At the level of local government, electoral reforms like ranked choice (instant runoff) voting, which transfers the second-choices of voters who backed losing candidates when there wasn’t a clear winner, can give all voters more influence than standard winner-take-all rules. A number of cities, including San Francisco and Oakland in California and Takoma Park, MD, have adopted ranked choice voting in recent years.
In an earlier era of white supremacy and Protestant Christian hegemony, the United States was what the Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria and others call an “illiberal democracy,” characterized by majoritarian tyranny. But the solution is not the other extreme of technocratic rule by purportedly enlightened elites, described by the Harvard political theorist Yascha Mounk as “undemocratic liberalism.”
Majorities need to be constrained when it comes to essential rights. But removing too many decisions from local to remote governments and from legislators answerable to voters to unelected judges, executive officials and treaty negotiators, is likely to create a democratic deficit that provokes a backlash against the system.
If we want to avert the sense of powerlessness among voters that fuels demagogy, the answer is not less democracy in America, but more. Ω
[Michael Lind is co-founder of the New America Foundation and a Politico magazine contributing editor. Most recently, he has written Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (2012). Lind holds a BA (English and history) from the University of Texas-Austin, an MA (international relations) from Yale University, and a JD from The University of Texas-Austin.]
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