Tag Archives: Democracy

What We Don’t Know…

When I give presentations like the one I recently posted, addressing deficits in civic literacy and the extent of American ignorance of our constitutional system, I often include a statistic from a 2011 survey: only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government. Audiences tend to gasp. Only 36%! How awful!

Well, the Annenberg Public Policy Center has just released the results of a similar survey taken just this year, and not only has there been no improvement, the results are actually worse.

The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey finds that:

  • More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly think it is accurate to say that immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution;
  • More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment;
  • Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government.

When asked about rights protected by the First Amendment, most of those who could name at least one right connected the Amendment to Freedom of Speech. But naming a right obviously isn’t the same thing as understanding it: 39% of those respondents said they support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on “any issue of national security” without government approval.

I’m sure Donald Trump believes that any reporting critical of him is an “issue of national security.” Definitions can be so pesky….

I know I sound like a broken record, but civic ignorance matters. It’s one thing to have different policy preferences and to engage in debates about the relative merits of those preferences; such debates can be illuminating and productive. Most of us have been in situations where we are “schooled” by a person arguing for a different approach to an issue; sometimes, we’re introduced to information we didn’t have, other times to arguments we haven’t considered. Even if we don’t change our own preferences, we appreciate where others are coming from.

However, when one party to a political argument is clearly ignorant of the most basic premises of American government, we don’t consider that person’s point of view legitimate. Those who know better will discount the person, and any organization he or she might represent, in the future.

The problem is, too few of us know better; as a result, we can often be persuaded by arguments that a civically-literate person would recognize as specious.

When Americans don’t know squat about their government, democracy doesn’t work. Voters don’t have the tools to evaluate candidates’ platforms or assess their fitness for office. They can’t hold public officials accountable, because they don’t know what those officials are supposed to be accountable to. 

Activists, candidates and office holders who don’t know what they’re talking about ought to be marginalized for that reason– but as we have seen, when Americans dismiss knowledge and expertise as “elitist,” even profound and obvious ignorance is no longer an electoral handicap. Today, too many Americans don’t vote for the person they consider most knowledgable and thoughtful; they vote for the demagogue who is most closely channeling their bigotries.

We are about to discover that the old adage was wrong: what you don’t know can hurt you.

 

Has Liberalism Failed?

For quite a while, I called myself an “18th Century liberal,” because I considered myself a genuine conservative, a term I defined as a fiscal conservative who believed in conserving the libertarian principle developed during the Enlightenment.

The meaning of “liberalism” (at least until Rush Limbaugh et al appropriated the term for use as an expletive) was–as Fareed Zakaria recently noted in a New York Times book review–

the tradition of liberty and democracy and, by extension, the open, rules-based international economic and political system that has characterized the Western world since 1945, and many more parts of the globe since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

A couple of weeks ago, in the Sunday New York Times, Zakaria reviewed a book by Edward Luce, titled “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” Luce was surveying the economic and political decay of the United States and European democracies, and he was less than sanguine about the future of Enlightenment liberalism, to put it mildly.  I haven’t read the book, but judging from Zakaria’s response, Luce places much blame for the current assault on liberty and democratic norms on the “elites” that it has become so fashionable to bash (and so rare to define).

Zakaria points out that recent European elections–with the exception of Brexit–have actually been cause for celebration by those who are rooting for the success of the European Union and the stability of liberal democratic regimes.

Instead of viewing the entire West as being overwhelmed by a tsunami of right-wing populism, we might step back and study countries separately. Those that have had strong safety nets as well as programs to help people move up the economic ladder, like Northern Europe, do not have as much of a problem as others. There, immigration rather than economics is the key driver, but that will wane in importance since immigration flows are dwindling. In my view, Germany seemed vulnerable to right-wing nationalism in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland only after Merkel’s extraordinary decision to take in a million refugees, but as that fades into the background, so has the AfD. In France, Macron is articulating a defense of Western democracy against Russian interference in much stronger terms than is the American president.

Zakaria began his review by focusing upon a recent speech by Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister. The speech was widely reported in the U.S., because Freeland essentially suggested that Canada–along with other democracies–needed to step up its defense of the liberal international order to compensate for the “situation” in the United States. (Although she never mentioned Trump, it was pretty clear what “situation” she was referring to.) Zakaria returned to Canada in his final observation.

In many ways, the one Western country that has seemed immune from any of this populism has been Chrystia Freeland’s Canada. That is not because Canadians are genetically immune to populism but rather because for the last 20 years, they have pursued good public policy. Canada’s economics, health care, banking and immigration policies have been inclusive and successful. One sign of the strength of Western liberalism would be if the United States could recognize that there are now other countries with a deep commitment to these ideas and values that might even be approaching them more successfully than is Washington. The West, in other words, we now live in is a post-American West.

Social science research confirms Zakaria’s reference to “good public policy.” Countries with strong social safety nets, like Canada’s, are more stable and less violence-prone; their populations exhibit fewer socially undesirable behaviors (everything from crime rates to out-of-wedlock births, divorce, drug abuse, etc.)

Paul Ryan and his cohort can insist that taking away access to health care and reducing other social supports is “pro freedom,” but people aren’t free when their waking hours are consumed by efforts to put food on the table, and their nightmares are of an accident or illness that plunges them into bankruptcy.

Eighteenth Century liberalism promised personal autonomy; your right to live your life in accordance with your own values and beliefs, so long as you were willing to accord an equal liberty to others. That’s a concept of liberty that is not only consistent with a social safety net–these days, as a practical matter, it requires one.

 

Democracy Vouchers

The outrage that followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United focused national attention on a problem that has long preceded that unfortunate ruling: the influence of money on democratic deliberation.

Even if we ignore the armies of lobbyists and the corrupting influence of “big money” campaign donations in Washington and our state capitals, anyone who is at all familiar with the way in which policy is made understands that our elected representatives respond to the constituents from whom they hear, and those constituents are highly unlikely to be poor people.

People who are struggling to make ends meet rarely have time or energy to visit legislative bodies, testify in hearings or participate in grass-roots lobbying efforts. And it goes without saying that they are not numbered among the donors to legislative campaigns. As a result, even the most conscientious lawmakers (and they do exist) simply do not hear the voices and perspectives of working class Americans.

Seattle has recently embarked upon an effort to change that dynamic, at least to a degree.

If money amplifies the voices of wealthy Americans in politics, Seattle is trying something that aims to give low-income and middle-class voters a signal boost.

The city’s new “Democracy Voucher” program, the first of its kind in the US, provides every eligible Seattle resident with $100 in taxpayer-funded vouchers to donate to the candidates of their choice. The goal is to incentivize candidates to take heed of a broad range of residents – homeless people, minimum-wage workers, seniors on fixed incomes – as well as the big-dollar donors who often dictate the political conversation.

This August’s primary is the trial run for the program. But before Seattle can crow about having re-enfranchised long-overlooked voters, it must contend with conservative opposition.

A Libertarian law firm has sued the city to stop the program, alleging that democracy vouchers violate the first amendment rights of homeowners because their taxes are funding vouchers that will be contributed to candidates they oppose. That case is pending, but constitutional lawyers consider its prospects dubious.

The program opponents appear to be in the minority; the voucher program and its funding mechanism (a 10-year, $30m property tax levy) were approved by voters in a ballot measure in November 2015. All registered voters are sent the vouchers automatically. Residents who are not registered or who lack a permanent address – such as homeless people – can apply by mail or in person.

Seattle’s proposal joins other efforts that have emerged in the wake of the Obama and Sanders campaigns, both of which demonstrated that significant funds could be raised through appeals to small donors–no one of whom, presumably, would have the same ability to influence policy as individuals contributing large sums.

Last fall, South Dakota voters approved a program similar to Seattle’s, joining more than a dozen other states with some form of public financing, usually a matching fund for small campaign donations. Cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley, California, also followed the public-financing trend last year.

Democracy Vouchers are unlikely to make much of a dent in current levels of inequality of political influence, but the effort is encouraging. It represents an acknowledgment of the disparity in political influence between the rich and the rest, and to the extent it encourages candidates to focus  fundraising strategies on vouchers/small donors, it should add a (currently absent) perspective to the political conversation.

My Civic Utopia

Before November’s election, I was collaborating with a young colleague from Political Science on a book that we’d decided we wanted to write about America’s democratic institutions, and whether and how those institutions function in a modern world that is very different from the world in which they were created.

It was going to be about “civic mechanics,” about how a democratic society should choose the people who make its policy decisions, not about the content of those policies.

Then we woke up on November 9th, and deep-sixed the project.

To be perfectly blunt–and politically incorrect–we realized that the problems with American democracy were far more profound than we had thought (and we weren’t very optimistic to begin with). An electorate and a system that could make someone like Donald Trump President was much farther gone than we had imagined.

The book project has been discarded, but before the election we had begun making a list of changes to our electoral system that we’d dubbed “utopia.” I found a copy the other day when I was cleaning out some files.

Here–for what it’s worth–is what we’d listed before we abandoned the project. Important details, caveats and justifications are missing, but you’ll get the idea.

In our democratic utopia:

  • A bipartisan national commission would administer elections under uniform standards, to minimize state-level game-playing, encourage (rather than discourage) turnout and standardize the voting process.
  • We’d get rid of the Electoral College, allowing my urban vote to count as much as the vote of rural inhabitants. (I didn’t say our list was realistic.)
  •  Gerrymandering would be illegal; Independent Commissions would draw state legislative and Congressional district lines.
  •  Numerous positions that are currently elected would be appointed (coroners, recorders, auditors, township trustees, etc.) The Governor would appoint the State Treasurer, Attorney General and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, increasing Gubernatorial accountability and avoiding unseemly and damaging turf battles like those Hoosiers saw when Governor Pence refused to work with Glenda Ritz.
  •  Election day would be a national holiday and voting would be mandatory, as it is in Australia, where non-voters are fined (it’s pretty nominal) and ballots have a “none of the above” option, or voting would be by mail, as they do now in Oregon, Colorado and Washington State, increasing turnout and saving lots of public money.
  • A Constitutional Amendment would overrule Citizens United.

Our utopia would also address the growth of propaganda that has been spawned by Fox “News” and talk radio and propagated by the Internet, taking care to avoid violating the First Amendment.

  • The Federal Government would establish a national, user-friendly “fact-check”/reference site for purely factual information about government–a “one-stop shop” for information that is now scattered across multiple government websites.
  • Reputable news organizations–perhaps the Society for Professional Journalists?– would establish a non-governmental, voluntary accreditation process; it would certify that accredited sources demonstrate compliance with practices characterizing ethical and responsible journalism. (It wouldn’t vouch for the accuracy of published information, only compliance with sound journalism practices.) That wouldn’t remove the click-bait, or suppress the conspiracy theories and propaganda, but it would provide a tool for use by citizens who care about the veracity of the information they are consuming.

We also considered measures that might improve civic competence and trust in government, like tightening ethics rules for legislators (in my utopia, they would be forbidden from joining or being paid by lobbying organizations for at least 2 years following their departure from the legislature); and requiring merit selection of judges.

And of course, my utopia would require vastly improved and increased civics education in the schools.

What would your civic utopia look like?

And I Thought I Was Being Too Negative….

I sometimes feel guilty about the fact that so many of my posts to this blog are dispiriting. Then a friend shared a link to an article in Salon, saying “read it and weep.”

I’m weeping.

The article analyzed recent polling, and found that 96% of those who voted for Donald Trump say they would do so again. Only 85% of Hillary Clinton voters, however, would stick with her.

That’s not because former Clinton supporters would now back Trump; only 2 percent of them say they’d do so, similar to the 1 percent of Trump voters who say they’d switch to Clinton. Instead, they’re more apt to say they’d vote for a third-party candidate or wouldn’t vote.

President Donald Trump is the antithesis of what Hillary Clinton’s voters desired in a candidate. And in many ways Donald Trump’s incompetent, ignorant, reckless, racist, demagogic and cruel behavior in office is worse than even his most concerned and cynical critics had predicted. This outcome should motivate Clinton’s voters to become more engaged and more active, instead of making a decision in a hypothetical election that might actually give Trump a victory in the popular vote.

The findings from this new poll are troubling. But they should not come as a surprise.

Political scientists and other researchers have repeatedly documented that the American public does not have a sophisticated knowledge on political matters. The average American also does not use a coherent and consistent political ideology to make voting decisions. As Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen demonstrate in their new book “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” Americans have identities and values that elites manipulate, which voters in turn use to process information — however incorrectly.

I have read the Bartels and Achen book, and it is hard to argue with their thesis. I also have a young colleague who studies “correct” voting–defined as casting a vote for the candidate whose positions come closest to the positions the voter has identified as important and motivating. (Spoiler alert: a lot of voters don’t vote “correctly.”) As the Salon article puts it,

American voters en masse are not rational actors who seriously consider the available information, develop knowledge and expertise about their specific worries and then make political choices that would maximize their goals.

These matters are further complicated when considering right-wing voters. While Trump may have failed in most of his policy goals, he has succeeded symbolically in terms of his racist and nativist crusade against people of color and Muslims. Given the centrality of racism and white supremacy in today’s Republican Party specifically, and movement conservatism more generally, Trump’s hostility to people of color can be counted as a type of “success” by his racially resentful white voters.

American conservatives and right-leaning independents are also ensconced in an alternative news media universe that rejects empirical reality. A combination of disinformation and outright lies from the right-wing media, in combination with “fake news” circulated online by Russian operatives and others, has conditioned Trump voters and other Republicans to make decisions with no basis in fact. American conservatives do, however, possess a surplus of incorrect information. In that context, their political decisions may actually make sense to them: This is a version of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Republican voters also tend to be have more authoritarian views than the general public. As a type of motivated social cognition, conservatism is typified by deference to authority, groupthink, conformity, social dominance behavior and hostility to new experiences and new information. These attributes combine to make Trump voters less likely to regret supporting him and in some cases — because of a phenomenon known as “information backfire“— to become more recalcitrant when shown that Trump’s policies have failed in practice.

There’s a wealth of social science research confirming these observations.

The 64-thousand-dollar question (as we used to say back when sixty-four thousand dollars was a lot of money) is: what the hell are we going to do about it?