Competing Methods to Reform Democracy

Book reviews

democracy more or less

Democracy More or Less: America’s Political Reform Quandry (2014)

“Democracy More or Less: America’s Political Reform Quandary” has important things to say about reforming the U.S. political system, but I fear its message won’t reach many people.

The author, Bruce E. Cain of Stanford University, does write clearly and precisely, and tries to liven things up here and there with a personal anecdote or illustrative story. The problem is that he presupposes a familiarity with lots of political and governmental processes, policies and institutions that the average non-specialist reader simply does not have.

Which is ironic, since one of his main points is that reformers of the U.S. political system often over-estimate the level of knowledge and interest that the average citizen brings to political issues.

He calls these kinds of reformers “neo-populists.” Their favored solutions to the problems of our political system rely on giving more power to citizens. Some examples would be: making more offices subject to elections, passing new laws by a citizens’ vote (the initiative), making meetings by government bodies open to public view, making government documents and campaign contribution information available to the public, and restricting large donations to electoral campaigns in order to favor small donations by average citizens.

The point behind all of these is to give citizens the power and information they need to monitor and control what happens in the government. The problem, as has been well documented for many decades, is that the vast majority of citizens do not have the time, interest or background knowledge necessary to make effective use of this power and information.

They don’t vote in elections for the less visible offices. Interest groups have taken over the initiative process. Only lobbyists show up for open meetings. The press and interest groups are the ones accessing publicly available information. And so on.

An alternative type of reform is to put more power in the hands of neutral experts instead of either partisan elected officials or uninformed citizens. An example would be to create a panel of people knowledgeable in demographics to adjust the boundaries of political districts, rather than leaving the job to legislatures.

The objections to this approach are obvious. Isn’t giving power to experts undemocratic? Are experts really unbiased? How can we trust them to know or do what is in the best interest of the citizens?

Cain contends that these two reformist paths have competed with each other as well as with the realities of the political system, creating a maze of often contradictory reforms, many of which do not work as intended. To resolve this “Reform Quandary,” he proposes a third way to conceptualize democratic reform.

This other way is “pluralism,” a term of art well-known to political scientists but unknown to the general public. Cain clearly regards it as a more realistic way to think about these things, and I have to agree with him. The pluralist view sees citizen control necessarily being exercised through the mediation of a host of semi-public and private institutions, such as political parties, interest groups, non-profits, and the media.

It is these groups that inform and guide citizens in their political activities. What reformers need to do is insure that mediating institutions are balanced between various interests rather than being dominated by a particular one. Pluralist reforms would enhance the ability of such mediating institutions to create a fair and balanced representation of all the interests at stake in government decisions.

Some examples of pluralist reforms would be: channeling large campaign contributions through parties and broad-based political action committees, creating some political space for politicians to seek consensus among opposing interests, and including representatives of all relevant interests on redistricting panels. He even mentions the reform I favor, which is ranked choice voting to increase the viability of alternative political parties.

According to Cain, an ideal reform agenda would borrow from each of these three approaches, using the right approach for a particular problem. But the pluralist approach needs to be part of the mix, which it is not currently because reformers (and citizens) haven’t been trained to think about political problems through the lens of pluralism.

I have to agree with Cain in his conclusions, which is why I wish the book were written in a more accessible style. But the main take-away can be expressed quite simply:

Parties and interest groups are not the problem, and “direct democracy” or experts are not always the solution. A broader range of interest groups, a greater number of viable political parties, and more competition among media sources are at least as important for a functional democracy.

My name is Alan Zundel, and I approve of this message.

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