Democracy, Participation, and a Left Program

One of the recurring criticisms of my recent post on neoliberalism was that I didn’t offer a clear alternative. The implication being, I think, that the absence of an articulated alternative made my essay just worthless bellyaching. I couldn’t help but think of Thatcher’s famous dictum: “There is no alternative.” Discussion over.

As for the critique, it was only partly true. A good many of neoliberalism’s failures could be remedied simply by reversing some of its constitutive policies. Achieve full employment again, re-regulate the financial sector, put the law—and the federal government—back on labor’s side. In the present environment, with the present configurations of power, none of these things will happen. But they’re still a political agenda.

At the same time, they’re all reactive. That’s the reactionary’s game. We on the left are supposed to— and should—offer something wholly different, something that can stand alone, something that isn’t directly derived from, contingent on, or framed in the right’s terms.

I’ve argued before that the left needs to crystallize the dichotomy on democracy: The right doesn’t like it, we do. We view it not merely as a system of government or a necessary evil, but as an egalitarian, potentially emancipatory force that should permeate society and structure our relations in various spheres. In their more candid moments, conservatives will acknowledge their antipathy toward popular democracy. And (right) libertarians—well, many of them absolutely trumpet their disdain for democracy. They pen books called the The Myth of the Rational Voter, take umbrage at the curtailing of the boss’s prerogative in the workplace, and concoct conceptions of democracy which evacuate the term of all meaning and substance.

The democratic left should seize on this fissure, expose it, and widen it. Deepening democracy should be one of our core commitments, reflected in our programmatic prescriptions. When evaluating individual policies, one of the cardinal questions should be: How does it/ will it affect participation, attitudes toward the state, and existing power relations?

A couple years back, two political scientists, Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman, published a fantastic paper [PDF] entitled “Political Consequences of the Carceral State.” In it, the pair argued that a major drawback of mass incarceration had been overlooked: its deleterious effect on political participation, especially voting. When one’s most “frequent, visible, and direct contact with government” takes the form of a “prison, court, or police station, rather than a welfare office, state capital, or city hall,” it’s no surprise that many will adopt a jaundiced view of the state and opt not to vote.

Here, Weaver dukes it out with Heather MacDonald on Bloggingheads:

Mass incarceration, it should go without saying, is abhorrent. It would be abhorrent even if it somehow increased political participation. My larger point is, though, participation and democracy should enter the equation whether we’re talking about mass incarceration or unionization.

If we begin to think and talk in these terms, the left can craft a viable alternative to the neoliberal consensus.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. To what extent do you figure participation requires government?

    Just a toss off, maybe it’ll lead to further discussion. I know you feel that way more than I do, since my answer would be zero, I’m just curious how much demo- is in your democracy. After all, “representative” gov’t still implies somewhere along the line that the representatives will be trusted to somehow make decisions that don’t serve themselves and their friends.

    • I favor as much participation as possible when it entails making decisions of consequence. I don’t oppose representation– in some instances, it frees people from being be bogged down by minutiae.

        • What color to paint a room or a door, what type of food to serve at a gathering— stuff like that. Freedom is not an endless meeting. I think most occupiers quickly found that out.

          • While I can understand not wanting to deal with certain things, to me scale problems suggest more the problem is scale itself than how to decide at a larger scale. It’s the danger of spreading capacity to pay attention to what is going on thin.

        • Contrary to what Mitt Romney would have you believe, knowing how to run a business does not equip you with a knowledge of economics (or vice versa). Import substitution was one of the primary reasons New Zealand suffered a Greek-style collapse in the early 1980s.

          • James, there is no such thing as a ‘set it and forget it’ economic policy.

            Red China seems to be doing quite well practicing mercantilism on the USA lately, for example.

          • China’s economy is growing rapidly because it is moving from basically an agricultural peasant economy to a modern industrial state. Once the institutional barriers preventing growth are gone rapid growth is inevitable, until you’ve caught up at least. It will be very interesting to see what China does when their catch-up growth starts losing momentum.

            In my experience, the biggest mistake non-economists make when talking about economic policy is that they assume you can just point to one policy in a period of good (or bad) economic times, and attribute the good (or bad) times to that policy. Attribution is arguably the hardest problem in the social sciences, and it’s an area where expertise counts for a lot.

  2. One of the recurring criticisms of my recent post on neoliberalism was that I didn’t offer a clear alternative

    For the record, I didn’t want a clear alternative as much as an example of “success” if the US system is to be considered a failure.

    Now, I’m a *HUGE* fan of “we’re doing X and we shouldn’t do X so we should stop doing X and we don’t need to replace it with anything.” Prohibition, for example. Much of the Drug War, for another.

    If you’re saying that we need to change because our system has failed, I’d like an example of success. If there are none, maybe that’s a red flag.

    • I think, in many ways, our political economy was moving toward greater social justice– and had very real successes, including reducing poverty– in the postwar period. There were underlying conflicts that, perforce, had to be addressed. These came to a head in the 1970s. At that point, I would have favored moving in an anti-capitalist direction, toward economic democracy. Instead, we moved in the exact opposite direction and, in my estimation, that path has proven abysmal.

        • Yeah, there were individual successes for sure. Although, as contemporaneous critiques and movements underscored, the system was far from perfect.

      • You realize that the civil rights movement succeeded *despite* grass-roots democracy, right? It took a federal court system to order and federal marshalls to implement what were undemocratic and unpopular (but correct) policies. And when the power of those forcing change waned, democracy reemerged in the body of one Richard Milhous Nixon. Who made a botch of things at the end, but the people who followed him made a even worse botch of things, and so then democracy gave us one Ronald Wilson Reagan. And neoliberalism to save us from both him and the people that made a botch of things. (though to be fair to the second guy who made a botch of things, he’s the one who started the presumption, “Hey, maybe the State doesn’t need to be part of every aspect of the economy”) (and so did the guy that primaried that guy)

        • You’re whitewashing history. SNCC, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party– these were paragons of grassroots democracy. Democracy is more than just majoritarianism; the racist Southern whites who who supported Jim Crow were fiercely opposed to basic democratic principles like egalitarianism.

          • There are two sides to the ‘grassroots.’ At the end of the day, democracy doesn’t draw its power from egalitarianism, it gets its power from votes. And even after you let everyone vote (which itself requires an outside, un-democratic power to guarantee), if you’re outnumbered, you don’t have squat for political power.

            Though, of course, you can coalition build. And then you have political power.

            But that’s exactly the Democratic Party you are fighting against today.

  3. Unfortunately, a lot of Democrats are skeptical of popular democracy, although I think that can be overcome. See the responses to my post:

    “The democratic left should seize on this fissure, expose it, and widen it. Deepening democracy should be one of our core commitments, reflected in our programmatic prescriptions. When evaluating individual policies, one of the cardinal questions should be: How does it/ will it affect participation, attitudes toward the state, and existing power relations?”

    I like this formulation a lot, especially if we’re clear that it includes the workplace as well.

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