Featured Post

We are Still Conflicted and Uncomfortable with Democracy

Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds.

– Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1941)

Democracy means responsibility. Responsibility means work and effort and strain. We generally dislike work when it is focused on things that seem immediately intangible, as government by The People can sometimes certainly feel when all the millions of us try to make some collective decisions.

But our problem with democracy isn’t really best described as some struggle with civic laziness. It goes deeper, as Erich Fromm articulated – we might actually fear freedom to a certain extent. Freedom is a new thing for us as a species. It comes with whole sets of expectations – from ourselves and our peers – to chase profit and our own personal empires. To carry our share of the weight of governing. To be informed and participatory democrats. To worry about and struggle with the morality of our views and the way we treat our fellow man.

Governing, in a word, feels gross. We have rightly learned to be suspicious of our fellow citizens who enjoy governing. We like responsibility in an abstract sense, because having a say, even our one drop out of 300 million in the bucket, is preferable to having no say at all. But in the non-abstract sense, it means we are culpable for our political decision-making. When I vote for the local bond issue to build a new library, I am partially culpable for the sales tax that will affect poor families as they buy groceries. When I vote for a President who favors the use of drone strikes, I carry some of the ownership of that policy. When I argue to my fellow citizens that we should all boycott a company that discriminates against transgender Americans, I carry some ownership of an action that might jeopardize the continued employment of others. Agency has consequences, and my freedom means that my decisions will definitely affect other people. My place in a democracy means that my decisions (or failure to participate) will definitely have a consequence.

We struggle with the power of populism in the United States in different ways. The founders were more comfortable with people-power than most any other people of their generation, but even they implemented any number of checks on populism: the electoral college, limitation of the voting franchise, separation of powers, a bicameral legislature, unelected judges, staggered terms, age restrictions, natural-born restrictions, — the list goes on.

We have even strengthened those restrictions on populism in many ways over time. Most Americans prefer term limits, and 15 states have imposed term limit restrictions since the 1990’s. The 22nd amendment placed them on the Presidency.

Yet, interestingly, we have sometimes gone the opposite direction too – toward more populism. Placing U.S. Senators into popularly elected positions with the 17th amendment, and creating systems in many states for initiative petitions, referendums, and recall elections that overturn or overrule the decisions of elected leaders. We have expanded the voting franchise with the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments. Conservatives are even arguing lately for more electoral input in federal judgeship.

We can’t seem to make up our minds about whether we trust ourselves to govern, or if we need limits on our fellow citizens due to their malleable and persuadable characteristics. Huge supermajorities assail government as corrupt despite also choosing who runs the government. Only 17% of us approve of Congress right now. And yet, we choose who gets to be in the Congress every 730 days. We re-elect incumbents at a rate exceeding 90% despite the fact that 51% of us think our own congressman is part of the problem. We seem to really hate our collective decisions. Sometimes we are bad at participating at all. Only 36.4% of the eligible voting population even bothered in the last federal election.

A recent Pew poll shows us that a full 39% of Americans believe that voting is inconsequential. That’s more than one out of every three people. This demonstrates a pretty distinct dissatisfaction with the efficacy of the individual on the process of government, yet in Presidential years the voter turnout can sometimes reach 60% of eligible voters – meaning that more than a few Americans are probably casting their ballots despite a belief that those ballots literally don’t matter. Perhaps worse, the same poll shows us that only 34% of Americans have confidence in the political wisdom of the American people. That’s down from 57% in 2007, and down from 64% in 1997. Recent decades have seen a massive decline in our trust of our fellow citizen.

Yet, a solid majority of Americans believe ordinary people would do a better job than elected officials solving the country’s problems. They say that. It looks like a great time for an ordinary Joe to run for Congress. But Americans don’t agree with themselves at the ballot box, because they don’t elect ordinary people. More than half of congress is comprised of millionaires despite the fact that the median net worth of the average American family declined by one third between 2007 and 2013. If voters genuinely prefer ordinary people, the certainly don’t do a good job of choosing them.

So why all this conflict? Why do we clearly love our politicians by a large magnitude and despise them at the same time? Why do we prefer the ordinary and elect the non-ordinary regardless of our own preferences? Why do we continue to wrestle with whether we trust ourselves to make decisions, or if government should be insulated from populism? We have had more than two centuries to hammer this out, expanding the voting franchise many orders of magnitude along the way, but feeling less and less efficacy or influence on governmental outcomes.

There was a throwaway line in a West Wing episode that encapsulated this conflict:

Josh: 68% think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59% think it should be cut.

Will: You like that stat?

Josh: I do.

Will: Why?

Josh: Because 9% think it’s too high, and shouldn’t be cut! 9% of respondents could not fully get their arms around the question. There should be another box you can check for “I have utterly no idea what you’re talking about. Please, God, don’t ask for my input.”

We are still grasping our arms around the simplest of questions. Ridiculously under-informed views are killing our ability to make decisions. The average American thinks 26% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, and 56% believe we spend too much on foreign aid. But once respondents are told it’s actually less than 1% of the budget, the number who think it’s too high drops to only 28%. Americans literally think we spend more on foreign aid than Social Security. But we are befuddled by far more: Americans think that wealth is far more evenly distributed than it really is. More Americans say their taxes are too high than the number who even pay taxes. Americans think far more people are on food stamps than really are. They underestimate the salary packages of CEO’s. They underestimate the number of pregnant women who receive abortions. And they underestimate defense spending by several orders of magnitude.

These are not small issues in the American political debate – and trust me, I think we all know how long and exhausting our elections happen to be – we beat these horses to death. These are things that we talk about regularly during election time, and they are issues on which many Americans make their choices at the ballot box, so how do we remain so collectively ignorant on the very things on which our government makes policy? We keep betraying ourselves as either deeply uncomfortable with self-government, or at least deeply uninterested in trying to do it in an informed and interested manner. We are a massive bundle of contradictions.

Part of this is the democratic paradox of having your cake and eating it too. We have the power to both lower our taxes and increase spending. It might not be particularly wise, but we do have that power. We have definitely chosen that path over the past decade – by lowering taxes at the same time we spent more than ever. We now have exceeded $19 Trillion in debt (it was half that just 16 years and two wars ago). $19 Trillion looks like this when you put it in numerical form: $19,000,000,000,000.00.

You might think that since we continue to keep choosing a congress that enjoys this disparity between spending and revenue, that we prefer it this way. But we don’t. In fact, most Americans keep saying the national debt is a huge factor in how they intend to vote. Most Americans despise spending borrowed money so much that they support not raising the federal debt ceiling – even though they surely know that would cause economic calamity. Or worse, maybe they are just entirely confused by what a debt ceiling even is.

We are going to have to get a grip if we want this little experiment in self government to work itself out. We have been spoiled by promises by politicians who are far too willing to placate our childish wants, and far too craven to demand better of the voters. We have been immature in our dereliction of civic duty, so much so that we can’t even find candidates for public office that agree with us on the things we prefer. We re-elect a congress we despise. We hold strong opinions on issues we don’t even understand  – which maybe should be a basic expectation of a citizen?

Erich Fromm was right. This isn’t really a laziness thing. It’s deeper than that. It’s a genuine fear of responsibility, a psychosocial reaction to what freedom really demands of us on an individual level. Our instinct is still to carve out our own safe little spot behind a gate, protect family and friends, and kiss off the world instead of trying our darnedest to make the community better. Many of us just let the decisions be made by someone else.

Well here’s the thing about that. When we let the decisions be made by someone else – when the reasonable minded and informed among us walk away from the public sphere because it’s icky and gross – we leave that sphere to partisans and crooks and scoundrels of all stripes. We abandon all that power, diffuse as it might be, to the most partisan and craven among us. No wonder we got problems.

[Photo Credit: www.freeimages.com Kristen Price]

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

89 thoughts on “We are Still Conflicted and Uncomfortable with Democracy

  1. I notice this on the individual level often: people want their voice to be heard, but don’t want power because of the responsibility that comes with it; and it is always easier to negate another’s decision than actively decide.

    “Where should we go to dinner?”
    “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?”
    “Pizza.”
    “No.”
    “Chinese.”
    “No.”
    “Tacos.”
    “No.”
    “Okay, you pick.”
    “No. I don’t want to pick the wrong thing.”

    It’s fear of being wrong, making mistakes, and having to take responsibility.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. Freedom is not a new thing for the human race.
    There have always been People In Charge.

    Mistaking controlled breeding experiments for “laziness” is practically criminal — though you don’t do that here. You call it a “psychosocial reaction”, which implies far more currency to what’s going on. The past may be but prologue, but in this case it’s really more predictive than you think.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. “I am partially culpable for the sales tax that will affect poor families as they buy groceries.”

    Wrong Tess, you are 100% responsible. Whether or not the measures passes, you voted for it and you own it. There is no sharing of blame. Everyone who votes for that measure is fully responsible, just as you are responsible for using the gov’t as an agent to take that money from my wallet if I voted no.

    How can anyone trust the wisdom of the american voter when they routinely support “having your cake and eating it too” They know the drill. They also know (the ones that think about it) that elites ALWAYS rule, if only because they have the free time and money to achieve it.

    No, americans don’t want the responsibility because then they can blame someone else when the house of cards falls apart. Human nature. But in the end, this is the path the collective has wanted and taken, and they are going to get it, to quote Mencken, “good and hard”.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I disagree, Damon. Tess is 100% responsible for her decision to cast that ballot. But seeing as how she cannot unilaterally effect that change, she does not bear 100% responsibility for it. Otherwise, you’d have multiple people each 100% responsible for a decision and that just don’t add up.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • You do nothing as a person across the world is tied to the ground, and vivisected in some sort of ritual killing.
        I name you responsible regardless of how many other people are watching.

        Doing nothing is always shirking responsibility, and you shirk it no less because others do the same.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • Let’s go over this again. “I am partially culpable for the sales tax that will affect poor families as they buy groceries.”

        No. She’s fully culpable for 1) her vote and 2) for the outcome of the vote, if it passes, which she supported. If that measure leads to poor people having a harder time buying food, that’s on her. Everyone who supported/voted for the measure has that culpability, but is not diminished by the number of voters. If 1m voted yes, she doesn’t only own 1/1m of that responsibility. It’s binary. She condoned the measure, it passed, she owns responsibility for it. Her actions directly contributed to those poor folk’s status. If she didn’t want the responsibility, she could have voted no or not voted.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • County Measure “Q” will raise local property taxes by .25% every year with the funds dedicated to make up for a statewide shortfall in revenues that otherwise would require the local high school to lay off teachers.

          Burt Likko says “Hell, no, I’m not voting for any new damn taxes! Starve the beast!” and congruent with this initiative, votes “no” on County Measure “Q,” along with 344,391 of his fellow county residents. Only 193,760 vote “yes.” County Measure “Q” fails.

          Several months later, the local high school lays off six of its twenty-five teachers, as does nearly every other high school around the county. The GPA and SAT scores of the next year’s graduating class plummet.

          Burt Likko is personally responsible for which of the following?

          a) the underfunded school;
          b) the six unemployed teachers;
          c) the declining academic performance of local students;
          d) all of the above, or
          e) none of the above.

          Does your answer change if there is no state revenue shortfall and instead, County Measure Q cuts local property taxes, and passes (with Burt’s vote) thus compelling the layoffs?

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • Burt, first you’ve set up a convenient argument for yourself, but it really doesn’t reflects reality. My state routinely runs a deficit and still manages to increase funds to the schools. They just steal the money from the highway fund :)

            But as to you’re scenario. A and B. Unless you can provide me with evidence that declining performance of student grades is the direct cause, and the only cause, then it’d be all three.

              Quote  Link

            Report

        • Ah, not voting – the get out of responsibility free card.

          Because you wouldn’t want to vote no and be responsible for the reduced literacy rates and ensuing increased poverty of future generations if the measure should fail either. Only the “all politicians are equally corrupt so I don’t vote” crowd gets out free, wot? Or can you escape responsibility by carefully watching the polls and voting in whatever way is statistically most likely to lose?

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • Alternately, if you don’t vote you’re always responsible for the outcome because you could have acted to prevent it but didn’t. Better to toss a coin in the ballot box and at least have a 50% chance of not being responsible for the outcome.

              Quote  Link

            Report

          • “Ah, not voting – the get out of responsibility free card”

            I’m not sure why you would think this. Not voting, is essentially, a vote itself against the current system. By not voting you could be stating “none of the above” or that you “do not support the existing power structure”, or a variety of other positions. Regardless, voting or not voting, that doesn’t change the responsibility factor, assuming your choose not to vote. (If you forgot to vote or were too lazy or something like that, that’s a different story)

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • How is not voting out of a principled rejection of the current power structure and/or all of its current and putative occupants, different from not voting because you don’t feel like breaking today’s perfect no-pants streak?

              Not voting is a vote for “I’m sure the rest of you will do a fine job of deciding for me – I’m fine with whatever.” If you’re asked why you didn’t vote, I don’t think you can change that with whether you cite Emma Goldman or the TV Guide.

                Quote  Link

              Report

              • The result is the same but how you get to that action isn’t and that’s the key difference. Also, principled non voters don’t think “I’m sure the rest of you will do a fine job of deciding for me – I’m fine with whatever.” If you’re read anything of my posts I’m sure you’d conclude that I most certainly don’t think that. More likely folks think, “we’re so far gone, voting won’t mater”. They’d be right.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

                • I quite realize you don’t think that – I just think that not voting is exactly the same thing, regardless of the why of it.

                  If Tess 100% owns the outcome of her vote, if the measure goes the way she voted (otherwise I guess she can say “Hey, I voted the other way, I did what I could”) (notwithstanding your view that we’re so far gone voting doesn’t matter), then you 100% own the outcome of your failure to vote.

                  Again, it’s the outcomes we own. By the standard you propose upthread, our internal monologues before, during, and after the actions or inactions that led to the outcomes are irrelevant.

                    Quote  Link

                  Report

  4. Most Americans might hate Congress in aggregate but they like their Representative in particular. Also, Americans like democracy just fine. What they can’t understand is that millions of other Americans disagree with them on what government should and should not do.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. I think a lot of this has to do with the Big Sort and the fact that many Amerucans choose to live among ideologically like minded people.

    The Big Sort is a very human thing to do. Being the odd person out is hard and psychologically grinding. But it does give everyone bubbles. There are 300 million people in the United States and it is folly to believe that we will ever have perfect ideological agreement but in our own little pockets, there can be more.

    I live in liberal SF where a majority is like me and wants single payer health insurance, a generous welfare state, strong civil rights protections for minorities, environmental legislation, etc. A conservative can live in an equally conservative district and have no exposure to liberals. We are alien to each other.

    Lee is right that people tend to like their individual Congresspeople and hate the institution overall. I like Pelosi, Feinstein, and Boxerjust fine. I dislike the right-wingers currently in charge who won’t do their jobs.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I dislike the right-wingers currently in charge who won’t do their jobs.

      Let me help you with that.

      I dislike the right-wingers currently in charge who won’t do their jobs the way I think they should be done.

      I’m curious to know who are the right wingers you refer to and where are they supposedly in charge?

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • EVERYONE likes to associate and live with folks similar to themselves. This is a universal constant. The more folks are alike in all the major categories, the better they get along: race, income, education, etc. That’s not to say that races can’t mix decently, just that all the other factors need to be in common.

        Quote  Link

      Report

          • Yes, but please don’t ignore the possibility that a lot of folks are right.
            The weak may only overrule the strong when they are numerous and plentiful.
            And the strong always know the jungle law — the strong take from the weak.

              Quote  Link

            Report

              • But, again, only so far, if they are smart.
                We’re in the current mess we are because our current “rich people” (The Powers That Be) are growing stupider by the year.

                It now takes only two generations to lose a fortune.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

                • Not entirely on point, but interesting comment that rings true.

                  “the people who are first to demand more laws are the same ones who are first to complain that are too many people in jail.”

                    Quote  Link

                  Report

                  • We could get rid of all the “hate crime” legislation if the DA’s were willing to actually use the real laws on the books.

                    The gold standard “hate crime” is someone painting a swastika on the wall of a synagogue. But, really — that’s terrorism. If only we bothered treating crimes with the weight they deserved, we wouldn’t need “hate crime” laws.

                      Quote  Link

                    Report

                      • And terrorism, and “conspiracy to commit…” and a bunch of really quite nasty things that we have on the books.

                        We have tools for dealing with organized crime, and they should be brought to bear on people who willingly aid and abet mayhem and murder.

                        A ballsier president would have hauled Wall Street (Goldmann, primarily) up on charges of treason.

                          Quote  Link

                        Report

                  • Damon: “the people who are first to demand more laws are the same ones who are first to complain that are too many people in jail.”

                    I don’t think that’s really true, at least not in a sense where there’s any hypocrisy or irony. The people saying there are too many people in jail are mostly libertarians and leftists. Libertarians push for fewer laws, not more, so presumably you’re talking about leftists.

                    But leftists mostly push for more civil law, not criminal law. They want lots of new regulations and taxes and such. When they talk about more criminal prosecution of people, it’s limited to a subset of the small minority rich enough to fall into the guilty-until-proven-innocent income bracket. They’re all for prosecuting CEOs and former Vice Presidents, but we’re talking about people numbering in the dozens or at most hundreds nationwide.

                    It’s mostly conservatives who are pushing for cracking down on violent, property, and drug crimes, and those are the laws that put a lot of people in prison.

                    Well, currently, anyway. The tough-on-crime policies that are considered racist nowadays were actually pretty popular with black Democrats back in the days when street crime was devastating black communities.

                      Quote  Link

                    Report

                    • Please remember that most black Democrats are conservative Democrats. These folks believe in the use of torture. Of course they’re okay with hard punishments — what they aren’t as okay with is continuing to punish people after they’re out of jail. Because they also believe in redemption.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Well, depends upon how you define “law”. I certainly consider regulation “law”. The comment I quoted is akin to “won’t someone PLEASE think of the children” or “there otta be a law” ’cause you know, someone is offended by something.

                      It also plays into the “this is for your own good” regulations and drug laws ‘case it bad mkay or such, none of which I ascribe to.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • I dunno. The type of gun laws and changes in laws related to sex crimes favored by large segments of the left would require putting a lot of people in jail. See also my point below regarding criminal penalties for regulatory violations.

                      The practical difference between mainstream right and left I think is more about who should be in jail and how hard it should be to put them there.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                      • A good deal of the left needs to be put into a corner until they can actually explain human sexuality without resorting to Perfect Rationality.

                        A girl is raped, unwillingly — she doesn’t say a word during the entire thing, doesn’t tell on the boy afterward, chooses to conceal the fact that she is pregnant until her parents discover it.

                        This is not rational behavior, but it is very, very common behavior.

                          Quote  Link

                        Report

      • Damon,
        “EVERYONE likes to associate and live with folks similar to themselves. ”
        Hahaha.
        No, not everyone. Some people are mysanthropes, who tend to hate everyone.
        And some people, well, are too manipulative and cunning to get along well with other people who are like them. It gets tiresome if you have to look around the corner at everything ALL THE TIME.

        Some people, of course, just like giving orders, and they like hanging around sheep, even if they aren’t sheep themselves.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  6. Not a word about state governments, which are (at least IMO) more responsive? Where the budgets, generally, balance? And the western states, where direct democracy is used to take things out of the representative government’s hands if they drag their feet too much? Hot topics in direct democracy these days are marijuana legalization and taking district-drawing out of the elected legislature’s hands, both topics that the elected legislature is terrified to touch.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Don’t most state budgets balance because they have to, by their own constitution/laws? (plus that states aren’t their own monetary authority?)

      Your experience with and within the Colorado (iirc) state government may be better than average (Colorado is a better state than average on every measure), but I find in general state government *less* responsive than the feds (though generally not municipalities and counties), especially given the scope of their authority.

      Specifically, given the amount of stuff states are expected to do, and the amount of stuff they actually do, the press coverage of state legislative races is abysmally low. And the money that flows into state legislative races (which I am philosophically opposed to limiting), to make sure the right people get elected, is relatively very high.

      I mean, the whole reason why the populist move to elect Senators was successfully is that state legislatures were so incredibly, and way too obviously, corrupt.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Yes, most states have constitutional requirements that don’t allow them to borrow to pay operating expenses. There are peculiar wrinkles — eg, if the feds top up the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund during a severe recession, and that wasn’t repaid by the end of the state’s fiscal year, did the state “borrow”? If the state pushes its end-of-June payment to Medicaid providers to July 1 (in our case, that’s a new fiscal year), did they “borrow”? California has “capitalized” a variety of interesting things over the years and issued bonds to pay unexpected operating expenses, like bailing out the utilities during the Enron electricity snafu.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  7. Ah… I don’t like this at all (it’s well written, don’t get me wrong), but I haven’t managed to gather my thoughts yet. So why I am commenting on it is quite odd…

      Quote  Link

    Report

  8. If voters genuinely prefer ordinary people, the certainly don’t do a good job of choosing them.

    In order for this to be true, the voting public would actually need an ordinary person to be put on the ballot. Our political elites have structured the system such that, for any federal, and many state offices, getting on the ballot is a very tall order. Tall enough that ordinary people, who have jobs and families, will not have the free time or funding necessary to navigate the system, get on the ballot, and effectively campaign without the support of the political party elites.

    This also questions the attitudes about electing crappy people – again, we are usually given crappy choices because the parties choose who makes the final cut. This would carry more weight if every ballot included a “None of the above” vote, and it generally went unmarked.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I thought about this once before… How many people are in government because of a genuine desire to help others, do good, and make the world a better place? Let’s leave aside whether we share their vision for “helping”, “doing good”, or “better”… just speculate what percentage of government officials and employees are in it for the right reasons? How many Leslie Knopes are out there in the world?

      My hunch is that you actually have a pretty high percentage in the aggregate… but that these folks are largely concentrated down around the lower ranks. I just can’t imagine *anyone* running for President isn’t motivated by other reasons… because any sane person who wanted to make a difference would either choose another route or get eaten alive long before they got in sniffing distance of the Oval Office.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Doing good is a subjective and hard thing to parse. I knew a lot of people in law school who wanted to be public defenders and people who wanted to be prosecutors. They all had genuine sincerity to help and do good but that desire led them to opposing sides.

        But generally you might be right that the people who have those beliefs stay in the lower to middle ranks of government.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • Those people definitely exist. But I’d consider them to be at the lower ranks or, really, to be on the “execution” side. Much like public school teachers (who aren’t all do-gooders, mind you), these people are largely charged with realizing the visions and policies of the decision makers but are rarely involved in the actual decision making process. They don’t really have “power” so don’t attract the sort of person who is looking to acquire vast amounts of it.

            Quote  Link

          Report

    • There are quite a number of stories who dove headlong into the process but were forced to pull out before the end because they couldn’t take that big a bite out of their lives and party functionaries didn’t consider the race to be enough of a strategic priority to fund.

      This is another reason that Ds aren’t contesting enough downballot races.

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • Voters might want an “ordinary person” representing them. I suppose. But I doubt it.

      But they might also want someone who is (or at least appears to be) what an ordinary person aspires to be.

      Someone like themselves, only smarter, who shares their morals and values except is more moral than they are, who is well-educated in a way that they would be happy with being educated themselves or seeing their children be thus educated, who has the sort of background that they would admire in the sort of boy or girl their children might bring home to meet the parents.

      Helps if they’re good-looking, too.

      That’s what I think they really want. And it turns out that yes, this sort of person exists, but isn’t particularly “ordinary.”

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Yeah, when people say they want an ordinary person to represent them — that is, if they say it & mean it, rather than defining Ordinary Person as someone who confirms their existing biases regardless of actual average Joeness — they’re trying to approach an ideal of being ruled by themselves. It’s inevitable that such ends in failure due to the fact that political power marks one as No Longer Ordinary if they ever were to begin with. Simply acquiring it is to join an elite class.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I remember reading a story somewhere about… I want to say it was Henry Rollins… getting the green light for a movie show where he would watch the movie with a hollywood insider (a young up and coming director) and a “Regular Guy”. He said that the show fell apart because the hollywood insider just kept talking about the blocking of each scene and the Regular Guy kept talking about his disappointment that the lead actress didn’t go topless at any point in her career.

            Quote  Link

          Report

    • Our world is brimming with experts. Most every job that’s not minimum wage (and many that are min wage) require significant expertise. From dental hygenist to electrician to trial lawyer, all these jobs are done by “ordinary” people with specific expertise.

      Being a good politician is really just another job, albeit one that requires an unusual skill set to do well. But elevating politicians (except the President and US Senators) to some special status is really a mistake. They are in fact ordinary people (and far too many of them are very ordinary).

      Your next door neighbor may be a great person, an every-day woman who is great to have a beer with. Do you want her setting policy for your city or your state? Is she thoughtful, capable of understanding complicated issues? Is she charming on the telephone? Good at fundraisers? Good at negotiating? Does she known when she’s being BSed? Does she know when to defer to experts and when to assert her values? Can she run a good-sized office? Does she have any political issues that she’s really passionate about? Would you want her to take a leadership position in the government on that issue? Does she understand basic principles of finance, economics and politics? Any science background?

      and on, and on. Me personally, the last thing I want in a politician is an ordinary person. I want someone who wants to be really good at that job. (Just like the lawyers, doctors, accountants, and tradesmen I hire.)

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • As I read your comment, I found myself wondering, “What does he mean by ‘politician’?”

        And it occurred to me that the skill set required to be an expert at ‘getting elected’ is very different than the skill set required to be an expert at ‘leadership’ or ‘governance’. They’re not mutually exclusive but different enough that I think we often find the people who excell at the former aren’t so hot at the latter. And vice versa.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • And it occurred to me that the skill set required to be an expert at ‘getting elected’ is very different than the skill set required to be an expert at ‘leadership’ or ‘governance’.

          Wonderful insight. Now think about stuff like “getting promoted”.

            Quote  Link

          Report

      • It’s is harder than ever to have the training and experience to be a successful poltical leader. Maybe if we start identifiying people for leadership positions early in life? Start teaching them, perhaps as early as childhood, what it takes to be effective? Hey, here’s an idea – what if we take the children of current leaders to put in these training programs, so the kids’ key mentor mentors are the best possible people – their own parents.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • Except political parties to not select & promote candidates based on proven administrative or leadership skill. At best, that is a tertiary concern* behind electability & skill at fundraising.

        *& I am not sure it’s even that high on the list of what parties look for.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  9. We have been immature in our dereliction of civic duty, so much so that we can’t even find candidates for public office that agree with us on the things we prefer. We re-elect a congress we despise. We hold strong opinions on issues we don’t even understand – which maybe should be a basic expectation of a citizen? … It’s a genuine fear of responsibility, a psychosocial reaction to what freedom really demands of us on an individual level.

    I’m having a hard time with this essay, and can’t quite put my finger on why. It’s certainly a thoughtful, well-written piece, so that’s not the issue. It’s something else. For instance, my first thought when reading the above quotation was this: Who’s “we”? What is that thing? I mean, collectively the US population might be incoherent, but that doesn’t mean each individual is. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that any individual is (since collective irrationality can result from individuals acting in their own best interests). Yet, there are all sorts of claims made about “we” and “us” as a group…

    So, consider the following claim: “We re-elect a congress we despise.” First, congress is comprised of individuals, so it’s entirely possible for a voter to despise Congress as a single entity while not despising every member of congress (or even any member of congress!). I could, for example, despise Congress because of the rules under which partisan-based grid-lock has become the norm. Second, “we” don’t re-elect “a congress”, seems to me. Instead, individual US citizens vote for only three of the 535 (is that the right number?) CCers who hold office at any time (and never all three during the same election!). There is no collective “we” responsible for electing “a congress”, only individuals responsible for electing (or not) three members of it.

    That said, I’m not sure how you move from evidence that voters are ignorant and lazy to the claim that those behaviors result from a psychosocial reaction to the responsibilities of freedom. The ignorant surely have a right to vote in elections, yes? And freedom sorta entails that people can refrain from voting if they so choose. And even more to the point, I suppose, is this: are there other ways to account for why people aren’t freely embracing the responsibilities imposed by their freedom than fear of responsibility? Eg, one thing comes to mind: they don’t think voting will change their lives enough to justify going to the polls.

    On the other hand, I agree with you that there are all sorts of problems with democracy. There’s a reason it’s the worst form of government except for all the rest. :)

      Quote  Link

    Report

  10. Governing feels gross?

    Nope. Mostly it’s just tiring. I read (years ago and it was probably fake) that the vast majority of time spent by elected officials in public meetings at all levels is just doing nothing — reading letters of commendation into the record, passing non-binding resolutions, etc. The second thing is budgets. Way down the list is taking on significant policy changes.

    Budgets are the lifeblood of government. And yet having sat through any number of budget meetings, the tedium of determining what work the government will do in the upcoming year, measured against the expected revenue, can be overwhelming. This is why good government matters, from the smallest special district to the federal govt. Goo-goo is about hiring people who are competent to fulfill their assigned responsibilities, from the guy in charge of equipment maintenance at the police department to the Secretary of Defense. And the single most important position for any agency is the director of finance.

    Who here has ever gone to a budget meeting for any govt agency serving them?

    The real problem with governing is that 99.9% of it is boring. Really really boring. Excruciatingly dull. That’s why so many lawyers do it; we’re trained.

    As to game-changing legislation, I try to stay up with major changes in California law. But sitting here today, I can’t think of a single major bill passed in years. What I recall is that through the initiative process the citizens broke the power of minority parties to jam up the state budget. Other important initiatives in recent years relate to criminal justice. At the federal level, 8 years of Obama have resulted in what major legislation?

    Obamacare, Student Loan reform, the bailout, some moderately important changes to the tax code. Anyone got anything else?

    One big problem with the American people is that we (for some value of “we”) expect problem-solving to be easy. Politicians at every level make absurd promises about what they can achieve and people lap it up. But our system was designed to make big changes hard. (One reason that I’m not overly terrified of a Trump presidency is that I think his major goals — trade wars, building a wall on the southern border, massive deportation — would get tied up in court for years.)

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Obamacare, Student Loan reform, the bailout, some moderately important changes to the tax code. Anyone got anything else?

      Changes to the minimum wage laws and overtime regulations matter rather a lot to quite a lot of folks who earn at or just above minimum wage. Same with family leave laws.

      Well, that’s what I’ve got. Granted, it’s pretty close to my own professional wheelhouse, so YMMV.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • The state law change is a big deal and I should have remembered because I just sat down with my management team last week to ensure we are in compliance. (The 2x minimum wage for exempt employees is going to be a really big deal. By 2018, California’s exempt employees will need to be paid at least $55,000 annually.)

        I was staying away from exercises of executive authority because the post is largely about legislating. (If we open up the rule-making that the White House has gotten done, we can see that Obama has been truly transformative.)

          Quote  Link

        Report

  11. A million years ago, we had the “Democracy Forum“.

    My little piece (with which I am still somewhat pleased) was “on the counting of heads“.

    My main takeaway point from my essay was this:

    This brings me to the idea that the culture of “Liberal Democracy” must be one where “Liberal” is the important part… if “Liberal” is there, then it doesn’t matter if there is a Democracy, or Monarchy, or Socialist Meritocracy… and if Liberal is not there, then “Democracy” is as likely to be two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for dinner.

    For some reason, we’ve conflated the idea of “Democracy” and “Liberal Democracy” as if we assume that they’re the same thing… and then we are surprised when we help midwife a new Democracy into existence in the Middle East and the first thing people do after the election is revolt against the people who won.

    Democracy was something that we thought was good, but we loved the unstated “Liberal” in front of it. Not the “Democracy” part.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Interesting. (I remember that very good post, btw.)

      What specific (social, cultural, legal) preconditions do you think necessary for democracy to work?

      Alternatively, do you think there are any preconditions upon which democracy would sustainably work?

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Probably variations on “cultural homogeneity” will will allow most democratic votes to be on little tweaks to stuff everybody agrees on already but democracy is where the haggling will take place. “Should the tax rate be 24.6% or 24.7%?” is a *GREAT* thing to have on a ballot. The biggest debates regarding the fundamental question are already settled.

        It’s when there are not common assumptions on which things are matters of taste and matters of morality that you have trouble. Agreement on these things keeps those things off of the ballot.

        Because the second you have a disagreement over whether a thing is a matter of taste or a matter of morality, you’ve got yourself with something that gets on a ballot and, suddenly, you’re either arguing that people shouldn’t have a particular matter of taste as an option and/or you’re having a religious argument via ballot.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • Probably variations on “cultural homogeneity”

          On a first pass I’d say I agree, and in particular, cultural homogeneity centered around a national identity. Which strikes me as a giving expression to conservative’s worries about multiculturalism. (Yikes! That one snuck up on me.)

          The alternative is variations on ideological homogeneity centered around a shared conception of liberalism. (…???…) (I’m not seeing that happenin…)

            Quote  Link

          Report

      • “What specific (social, cultural, legal) preconditions do you think necessary for democracy to work?”

        A certainty that when the other guy gets to be in charge he won’t use the opportunity to grind my face into the mud–maybe because that’s what I did when I was in charge, maybe because he thinks it’s what I’d do and he figures he needs to do it first, or maybe just because he likes watching my arms flail and bubbles come up.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  12. A thought-provoking post Tess.

    I agree that voters in general don’t do enough to participate effectively in democracy, but I think there is more than fear in the way. Consider someone who wants to use their free time to make their country a better place. Given that goal, how much of their time should they spend becoming a better-informed voter? In all likelihood, the answer is none. One better-informed voter won’t make a difference, so why not spend that time doing charity work instead. Even if someone is prepared to take responsibility for the power as a voter – there is too little power in one vote for it to make a difference.

    The central problem with democracy is that all of the incentives around voting lead to a lot of System 1 thinking, and very little System 2 thinking – after all why waste the energy when it won’t change anything?

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *