Tag Archives: Democracy

Botswana, Micronesia and Us

According to the Pew Research Center’s “Fact Tank,” no other democratic nation elects its President quite the way the U.S. does, and only a handful are even similar.

Besides the U.S, the only other democracies that indirectly elect a leader who combines the roles of head of state and head of government (as the U.S. president does) are Botswana, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, South Africa and Suriname. (The Swiss collective presidency also is elected indirectly, by that country’s parliament.)

At this writing, Hillary Clinton looks likely to win the popular vote by over two million; Donald Trump won the electoral votes of the so-called “swing states” by the thinnest of margins–  a collective hundred and seven thousand votes.

The dictionary definition of “democracy” is “rule by the majority.” Although it is certainly true that America’s system was not originally intended to operate by majority rule (it was instead conceived of as a representative democracy), and it (thankfully!) remains true that our Bill of Rights limits what government can do even with the support of popular majorities, we have changed our electoral system over the years, and we have done so in the name of increasing popular democracy.

In two of the last four national elections, the candidate clearly preferred by a majority of citizens has not become President.

We need to ask ourselves whether America truly wants to move in the direction of genuine democracy, or whether we want to continue a system that privileges the votes of more rural citizens over the votes of urban Americans– a system that decides who will win based  not upon the larger number of votes cast, but upon where a candidate’s voters happen to live.

I fully expect that the elevation of a mentally unstable and monumentally unfit man to the Presidency of the most powerful nation on earth will usher in an era of chaos and social upheaval. I have no idea what will emerge in the aftermath–assuming that there is an aftermath, and that a thin-skinned and vengeful ignoramus in possession of the nuclear codes doesn’t destroy the planet.

If and when we do emerge, we need to decide whether we are committed to democratic decision-making or not. If we are, we have a lot of housekeeping to do.

Facing Up to Reality

When something absolutely unforeseen challenges your worldview, it is probably prudent to take a step back and re-examine your assumptions.

After the shock of a Presidential election that successfully appealed to festering bigotries and primal hatreds that I naively thought had declined, and after a period of disbelief (and nausea), I made myself take that “step back.” You may or may not agree with my conclusions, but I’d ask you to consider them.

America’s democratic institutions and processes haven’t worked properly for quite some time. All of us can tick off evidence: a Senate that simply refuses to hold hearings on a Presidential nominee for the Supreme Court; legislators’ willingness to petulantly shut down government when they don’t get their way; the widespread, obstinate denial of science and rejection of empirical evidence in favor of policies based upon ideology and/or religious dogma; and of course, the toxic partisanship and racial resentments reflected in the decision of Congressional Republicans to block anything and everything proposed by our first African-American President, irrespective of the merits of any particular proposal. I could go on.

Had Hillary Clinton been elected President, she would have faced the same ferocious, partisan hostility that Obama has had to deal with–but on steroids. Irrational hatred of the Clintons, especially Hillary, is baked into Republican DNA. Not only would she have faced constant, repetitive Congressional “investigations,” several House members were already drawing up Articles of Impeachment. (Why wait for her to actually do something impeachable?)

Meanwhile, lawmakers in both parties continue to block policies seen as threatening to the interests of the oligarchs that effectively control our national and state legislatures. It is irrelevant that large majorities of Americans favor background checks for people buying guns, higher taxes on the rich, a discontinuation of obscene subsidies to oil companies or numerous other measures. Especially at the federal level, the policy preferences that count are those of the big donors as conveyed by their lobbyists–many of whom used to be legislators in the incestuous political stew that is Washington, D.C.

This is not the way a working democracy operates.

Although the self-dealing and the nastiness has unquestionably gotten worse, most of this isn’t new. It has become more visible in the Internet Age, but the inability of our governing structure to deal with a technologically integrated, inexorably globalizing, demographically diversifying modern world has been apparent for decades.

American government does not work as it should, and it hasn’t for quite some time. It certainly hasn’t ameliorated or addressed–or even explained– the dramatic changes that have created economic and social distress among so many of our citizens.

Dissatisfied citizens look for someone to blame. To the extent they blame the status quo in Washington, that’s probably fair enough. Given human nature, however, a lot of our fellow-citizens blame immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, “uppity” women…the “other”…for cultural changes that disadvantage them or make them uncomfortable, and for a government that doesn’t work for them.

Social scientists tell us that the two strongest predictors of support for Donald Trump were racial resentment and misogyny.

So now we have a President-elect whose profound ignorance and incompetence is likely to deliver the coup de grace to creaky government institutions and even more likely to exacerbate the social divisions and bigotries he cultivated during the campaign. Whether he serves out his term, or we end up with Mike Pence (a rigid theocrat who is equally incompetent, equally uninterested in the mechanics of governing), all signs suggest we are on the cusp of an era of massive social upheaval.

The question is: when the incommensurate passions triggered by impending conflicts subside, will we be able to construct a fairer, more streamlined and responsive, more (small-d) democratic governing structure, one that is more adapted to the realities of the modern world?

Can we salvage the best parts of our governing philosophy, and create institutional structures that work for all our citizens? Or will four years of authoritarianism and continued exploitation of racial, religious and ethnic divisions leave the oligarchs and white supremacists firmly in charge?

What would a better, more trustworthy American democracy look like?

I have some ideas I’ll share tomorrow. I invite yours.

Explaining Why “It Depends”

These days, commenting on public policy and the political environment is a mostly depressing slog through various bigotries, misunderstandings, inadequate communications—in a nutshell (and boy, sometimes it is a “nut” shell!), a hot mess.

When I look for an explanation, a common thread that might shed some light on the place we find ourselves, I keep coming back to the unsettled, fragmented and frequently unreliable sources from which Americans get our information, and the seeming loss of what we used to call the journalism of verification.

Obviously, the information landscape is not wholly responsible for all of our various crises of governance, but it sure is implicated in much of it.

The Brookings Institution recently issued a report on the importance of what it called “explanatory journalism.” After noting the wealth of information now available online, and the fact that the internet has enabled unprecedented access to millions of people who didn’t previously have such access.

The digital revolution has laid waste to the 20th century business models of news reporting and publication but even in these early days of the digital revolution, citizens seeking information about politicians, public policy, and government performance have resources never before imagined.

But that, of course, raises the pertinent question:

But how many such model citizens take advantage of these resources to exercise the popular sovereignty and democratic accountability at the core of our democracy? Most citizens are inadvertent consumers of news about politics and government, limited mostly to local television news dominated by crime, traffic and weather, with mere snippets of news related to public affairs, along with emails from family and friends forwarding materials that sound plausible but often are the opposite. Their lives are filled with responsibilities and interests that draw their attention away from election campaigns and policy battles. What little they know and learn about politics is often laden with misinformation and provides little basis for coming to public judgment beyond group identities, tribal loyalties and fleeting impressions of candidates and officeholders.

What citizens know ultimately depends upon the credibility of the information sources they access. If my students are any indication, most of us lack skill in evaluating such credibility–and the opinions of assorted “crazy uncles” and radio shock jocks suggest that  a substantial number of Americans are uninterested in information that contradicts their preferred world views.

The results aren’t pretty. These paragraphs from the report say it better than I could:

American democracy has come under severe strains in recent years. We’ve seen a precipitous decline of trust in its central political institutions, the radicalization of one of its two major political parties, a vehement oppositional politics in Congress that has turned divided party government into a graveyard for nominations, while turning legislative initiatives and congressional oversight into little more than a weapon of partisan warfare. All of this has been capped off with the emergence of a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination uniquely miscast for the office whose election would constitute a threat to American democracy and make a mockery of the U.S. leadership position in the world.

The roots of America’s dysfunctional politics are deep and complex. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to say that the media has done little to help the public understand what is amiss. An aggressively partisan talk radio, cable news, web and social media community has fueled a tribal politics that traffics in lies and conspiracies. The mainstream media has handcuffed itself out of fear of charges of partisan bias into antiseptic balanced treatment of both sides in spite of their obvious asymmetries. This pattern of false equivalence has served to reinforce a generalized, inchoate public distemper, one that is vulnerable to radical and anti-democratic appeals.

The question is: what can we do about it?

Economic Despair

More and more, I am reminded of that old adage that “it ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so.”

A recent research paper from the Brookings Institution investigated one of those “things we know,” and came to some disquieting conclusions.

When it comes to staying in school, many economists talk about the “aspirational effects” of income inequality. When students look around them and see a better life, they are incentivized to invest in their own human capital—such as investing in their own education.

But what if that conventional thinking is wrong? What if inequality doesn’t incentivize students at the bottom of the income ladder to work harder, but rather disincentivizes them? This is one of the questions Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine sought to answer in a new paper published as part of the Spring 2016 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

Among other things, Kearney and Levine found that low-income children growing up in states that have greater income inequality are dropping out of high school at higher rates than are children living in states with less income inequality.

The authors point to a concept they call “economic despair,” or a feeling that economic success is unlikely because the distance from the bottom to the middle of the ladder is too far to climb. If a student perceives a lower benefit to remaining in school, then he or she will choose to drop out—even if they aren’t struggling academically.

What is particularly interesting about this study is that it focused upon the perceived distance between the bottom and the middle of the income distribution—not the distance between the bottom and the top. The idea is that what they call “lower tail” inequality is a more relevant measure, because—although the top may realistically seem to be out of reach—making it to the middle would seem to be a more manageable goal.

The authors suggest interventions: mentoring programs that connect youth with successful adults, programs focused on establishing high expectations and pathways to graduation, or early-childhood parenting programs to build self-esteem and engender positive behaviors. Although such interventions might help ameliorate the problem, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the effects would be modest, at best.

In fact, this study is one more “data point” in a picture that increasingly points to an inescapable conclusion: the level of inequality in America today is unsustainable and extremely detrimental, not just to the prospects of poor children, but to the nation as a whole.

We are in the midst of an election season that has unleashed a furious and troubling display of social dysfunction, in-your-face bigotry and populist anger. It’s hard not to attribute a significant part of that to economic realities that pit low-wage workers against each other and against a perceived plutocracy that has “rigged the system.”

Social scientists tell us that stable democracies are characterized by distributional equity, and the existence of a large and relatively secure middle class. Economists tell us that economic growth requires robust demand, generated by consumers with discretionary dollars to spend in the market, and a well-educated workforce.

When large numbers of people working 40 hours a week cannot earn enough to cover basic living expenses, when children don’t believe education offers them a path out of subsistence, democracy and the economy both suffer.

It’s past time to revisit some of the economic “facts” we think we know.








Canaries in the Coal Mine

Historically—or so we are told—miners tested the breathability of the air in mines by releasing a canary into the space. If the canary continued to fly and look healthy, the air was safe; if the bird died, it wasn’t.

Recently, Pew Research published findings about the millennials who are, for all intents and purposes, our American canaries. As we older citizens die out, the values, fears and ambitions of the millennial generation will determine the direction of the country.

Pew announced six “key takeaways” about this generation. Some were unsurprising: this is a financially burdened generation, largely as a result of student loan debt; as a result, fewer millennials are married than previous cohorts at the same age. They are also the most racially diverse generation thus far.

Two of the characteristics found by Pew deserve special “canary” status.


Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media. Half of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents and 29% are not affiliated with any religion—numbers that are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the last quarter-century.

My discussions with students in this age cohort anecdotally support this conclusion—and suggest that the public behaviors and pronouncements of political and religious figures is one significant reason they reject those institutions. My students are repulsed by the use of religious or patriotic language in service of discrimination and generally hateful behaviors; rather than rejecting the specific individuals or organizations guilty of such behaviors, they tend to develop a “pox on all of you” attitude.

But a less obvious finding also casts considerable light on the institutionally detached status of this generation:

Millennials are less trusting of others than older Americans are. Asked a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

This really troubling absence of trust manifests itself in a number of ways: millennials don’t expect Social Security to be there for them, for example (although, interestingly, they oppose proposals to cut benefits for current recipients). Their lack of trust in a wide variety of social institutions helps explain their rejection of political and religious identification, their pervasive skepticism about media information sources, and their increased reliance on friends and colleagues.

Assuming these findings continue to hold, what does this “canary” generation tell us about America’s future?

One the one hand, greater diversity and tolerance—together with rejection of dogma and partisanship—bodes well. This generation is likely to reject racism and address the glaring flaws in the criminal justice system, likely to welcome immigrants, likely to scorn anti-LGBT bias.

On the other hand, participation in a democratic polity requires at least a minimal level of trust—trust that the information one receives is credible, trust that the operations of government are mostly fair and ethical, trust that one’s fellow citizens are basically well-intentioned. Without that trust, without social capital, societies cannot function.

The canary isn’t dead. But it’s coughing a lot.