June 12, 2003
We need less Democracy
Mark Pincus has an interesting idea he’s calling eParty. Mark and I chatted about it in late April and I grumpily challenged some of his assumptions (for some reason I was in a bad mood that day—sorry Mark). Specifically while I was supportive of the idea of empowering individuals and making the system more democratic, I questioned whether people feel as disenfranchised as Mark seems to think they do. Well I now believe that I was wrong—on both counts.
I think people are feeling underrepresented and less and less connected to the political process. However, I think the solution is less democracy, not more.
Now I know what you are thinking—that’s absurd on the face of it. Many readers may actually feel that there is no such thing as too much democracy—but I will wager that if you read this I can convince you that indeed such a thing does exist (though I may not be able to convince you that we in fact are at that point.)
The reason for my latest epiphany is that I just finished Fareed Zakaria’s impressive new book, “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal democracy at home and abroad.” It truly is a must read for anyone focusing on these issues.
It's important to be clear about what I mean by "democracy." We often use the word to describe modern, liberal systems of governance in general but I am specifically referring to the democratic aspect of democracy, which is to say how much people are directly involved in the political system. More democracy means more popular democracy—more voting—while less democracy means more representational democracy.
Zakaria lays it out very well. What's most important is liberalism—and freedom—not just democracy. There are countless examples of illiberal democracies (look at Russia, Peru, Venezuela) and more liberal autocracies (consider Singapore). Democracy by itself, without liberal constitutionalism, a legal system, a middle class, economic freedom, and other components, is often not sustainable. In fact, Zakaria makes a persuasive case that the key issue is sequence. The goal is certainly to bring democracy to the world, but democracies tend to stick only when they are installed after many of these other systems are in place. In fact, Zakaria claims that only when a country is above a certain per capita GDP will democracy last. Poorer countries should instead focus on liberal constitutionalism—protecting individual rights—and developing legal and commercial systems. Otherwise, without constitutional protections and a healthy economy, democratic demagogues can too easily manipulate fragile systems—leading often to one person, one vote, one time. Remember: Hitler was elected.
When poor countries without liberal systems in place try to democratize before liberalizing they often fail—as with Ghana, Tanzania, and Kenya. There have been countless dictators that got their start by being elected. Heck, Saddam Hussein was elected by 99% of the vote! On the other hand, countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Chile, all functioning democracies today, were liberalized under autocratic regimes—with democracy following these reforms, not leading them.
Obviously this has implications for places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It may be wise to liberalize, commercialize, and THEN democratize.
But what about America? Well let’s look at what works and what doesn’t work. The most respected public institutions in the country are the Supreme Court, the Fed, and the military—no one is elected to any of these bodies. The least respected is usually Congress—an elected body, of course.
Should the courts be more democratic? Scott Peterson is guilty, right? We all know is so why don’t we just vote on sending him to jail—rather than leaving it up to an unelected legal system? This is a democratic but illiberal idea. The Bill of Rights, while liberal, is in a sense anti-democratic because it prohibits our elected representatives from doing certain things. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Even if the people demand it, Congress can’t prohibit free speech. The Bill of Rights is in this sense a constraint on democracy—in favor of freedom and liberalism—while at the same time being a fundamental prerequisite of a successful democracy.
A pure democracy would mean no courts, no congressmen, no president, no constitution and majority rules on everything--there is clearly such a thing as too much democracy. The question is, are we at the point?
The more democratic an institution is, the more it is subject to the whims and short term passions of the populace. With some distance, leaders can plan for the long term. Alan Greenspan can afford to be unpopular in the short term if he delivers in the long term. Often short term pain is needed to accomplish long term results. When was the last time a congressman sacrificed pleasing his constituency in the short term for a higher purpose?
I think when people want "more democracy" this because they feel "special interests" and corporations have all the power—while the "people" do not. That may be true—but it is not necessarily the case that the problem is not enough democracy: it may in fact be the other way around.
Most people believe that the vested interests have been gaining power in the last few decades. Is it a coincidence that since the 1960s our system has become increasingly democratic and open? Congress, which used to conduct much of its business behind closed doors, is now out in the open—and often on TV. The parties which used to select candidates in smoke filled rooms are now simply fundraising vehicles. Ballot initiatives have grown in use—a cop out for many representatives and a sop to the "people." Campaign finance reform laws have restricted the ability for big players to focus their funds. The system is not less democratic in form, only in function. Those that believe we need more democracy to counteract the special interests will have to explain why more democracy over the past decades has produced just the opposite effect.
The truth is that we will always have concentrations of power. Clay Shirky reminded us of that recently. But with more representational democracy the power centers are known and explicit—and the democratic aristocrats tended to have a sense of societal obligation. But with excess democracy the power centers aren’t eliminated—they just move. And often they move to places that are harder to detect and harder to control. When a candidate for congress must raise a huge amount of money and can only raise it $1,000 at a time, he will spend less of his time leading and much of his time fundraising—and those experts that know how to fundraise will find themselves in new positions of power.
Will a working eParty focused on issues, with politicians snapping two whenever there is a wave of emotional popular sentiment around a particular topic, result in a better democracy? I fear not.
I believe a better approach would be to focus on people--political leaders. Support them, advise them, help get them elected, and hold them accountable next election, but don't micromanage them. Let them represent us by using principles, not polls.
Ultimately I believe that excess influence of vested interests is a problem--but my solution is not to engage in a special interests arms race, with special issue-by-issue interests, whether by corporations or grass roots organizations, continuing to play more and more direct roles in governance, but rather to limit the scope of government, thereby depriving it of the ability to pick winners and losers in the first place.
Should progressives want more democracy?
Is moving back to a more representational form of government bad for certain groups? I think it may be better for most constituencies. Let's take the case of progressives.
No one ever accused me of being a "progressive"—and after this post I don’t think anyone ever will. And this is too bad because I really do feel on many levels I have common cause with many principles of modern progressives: I want a healthier, wealthier (that is, especially, less poverty), better educated, cleaner world that is “sustainable.” I too am worried about the “have nots”—though I may part company with many progressives in that I’m not that worried about the “haves”—and am generally concerned with the over abundance of human suffering on this planet. I am skeptical of Hollywood and of those zealously imposing their personal morality on others. Only problem is, when it comes to how these objectives are actually met I seem to be from Mars while many progressives are from Venus (or from elsewhere in the galaxy, if Joe Firmage is to be believed.)
These thoughts occur to me because I spent some time over the weekend at a conference called “PlaNetwork—Networking a sustainable future” in San Francisco. It was sort of a hybrid between an emerging tech conference (focusing on new ideas on social networking) and a progressive strategy session. It was unlike any “tech” conference I’ve been to in that it had a moral purpose—part call to geeks, part call to arms. This produced an interesting mix of presentations—many with a strong social message and a dash of technology thrown in, others more focused on new technologies and how they might be applied to progressive causes.
It also produced an interesting mix of attendees—a whole range from those trying to make money to those who want eliminate money all together (how will they buy all those bumper stickers and buttons?). I was part of the former group.
As I roamed the halls and listened to the sessions, there seemed to be a uniform desire for more democracy. One presenter, with a life size poster of George W. Bush (perhaps it was an homage but I think it was for comical effect), made the uncontested claim that it is “not that there is a majority of people who oppose us, there is a democracy gap.” Brewster Kahle, citing a common complaint heard during the conference, lamented the recent FCC decision on media ownership rules saying “who elected them?” The sentiment seemed clear: we are the majority; our voices are just not being heard. The solution: more democracy.
One of the highlights of the conference from Joan Blades, from MoveOn.org (so named because they wanted to "move on" from the Clinton impreachment trial.) MoveOn.org is "democracy in action" and an inspiration to Mark Pincus. Their mission:
MoveOn is working to bring ordinary people back into politics. With a system that today revolves around big money and big media, most citizens are left out. When it becomes clear that our "representatives" don't represent the public, the foundations of democracy are in peril. MoveOn is a catalyst for a new kind of grassroots involvement, supporting busy but concerned citizens in finding their political voice. Our international network of more than 2,000,000 online activists is one of the most effective and responsive outlets for democratic participation available today.
MoveOn represents the sentiment well: representation isn't working well enough--because it is corrupted by vested interests--so we need more direct democracy and more participation from the people. Who can argue with an attempt to create a grass roots counterweight to special interests? But is MoveOn moving our political system in the right direction? What if EVERYONE was as active as MoveOn members? The success of the MoveOn model (and the verdict is out on just how successful it can be) may be a Pyrrhic victory.
I have to say that I find it a bit strange on the face of it when radicals from San Francisco think that the solution to their problems is more democracy—have these people traveled outside of the Bay Area recently? Many progressives comfort themselves with the “fact” that George W. didn’t win (really, he didn’t win. Honest, he didn’t. It was all fixed. There’s a whole book on it.) Well that’s fine. But really it was a tie. And who would win a Bush v. Gore vote today? This is false comfort.
There are three possibilities: progressives are underrepresented, overrepresented, or represented in just proportion. From what I could tell, this audience seem convinced that it is the former. They are in the majority, it’s just that their voices aren’t being heard. And if they are not in the majority, it’s only because corporations and right wing propaganda have fooled the rest. But is this a fatal conceit? Why have progressives alone been able to see the path of truth and light while the rest of us wallow in darkness, shrewdley manipulated by commercial interests? Perhaps the notion that others would join the progressive revolution if they only knew the TRUTH is another false comfort. It is more than an academic question: if progressives are in fact not underrepresented, then perhaps they are getting their strategy wrong. Perhaps more democracy—in part what this conference was all about—is the wrong direction.
Let’s look at some of the issues. Do progressives want more democracy when it comes to abortion? Hardly. In fact, the entire pro-choice movement is centered around PREVENTING the abortion issue from being democratically decided. It’s a rare pro-choicer who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and allow the states to decide democratically whether they will allow abortion or not.
How about the Patriot Act? Most people at this conference weren’t too thrilled by it. Would more democracy solve this problem? If we had voted on September 12th, 2001 on whether we should err on the side of security vs. civil liberties what kind of Patriot Act do you think we’d have now? More democracy would have resulted in a more severe act, but it is the constitution that has been the main constraint on the Patriot Act. This is the problem with too much democracy—it favors the daily passions of the populace, often at the cost of longer term interests.
Another speaker at PlaNetwork was outraged by the Republican attempt to reapportion congressional seats in Texas. I don’t like gerrymandering either, but do progressives really want more democracy in Texas? The governor, senators, and state legislatures are all dominated by Republicans—and with good reason: most of the state is Republican. The congressional delegation is disproportionately Democratic because they were the last ones to gerrymander. More democracy would mean fewer Democrats—I don’t think this is a desirable result for progressives.
Mark Pincus thinks we need more democracy when it comes to the issue of legalizing marijuana, but ballot initiatives to legalize pot haven’t faired well.
What about one of the most democratic things we have in the country—California’s ballot initiative system. How many progressives out there were happy with Prop 13 (limits on property taxes), Prop 187 (immigration) or Prop 209 (limits on affirmative action.)
If people could vote on taxes, they'd go down. If people could vote on social security, if would be privatized (in part). If they could vote (as they did in CA) on affirmative action, it would be abolished—the courts are the progressive’s best shot on this issue. How do you think people would vote if we had a national referendum on gay marriages?
And what about the mouse? Despite anger at the FCC of late, it's the FCC, an unelected body, that is imposing what restrictions there are on media ownership rights. The progressive complaint seems to be that the FCC is too suceptible to corrupting political pressures and the influence of vested interests. Would more or less democracy—that is would more distance or less distance from political forces—achive the progressive's goal?
Truth is that progressives are more than willing to use non-democratic vehicles to achieve their goals. I've not met a progressive yet who would abolish the EPA, FDA, or FCC. Heck, most of the government is appointed, not elected. So the solution from the progressive perspective is probably not more direct influence on the political process--the kind that can give special interests more direct leverage--but better representation. So, if you are progressive, be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.