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Can We Ever Be A Self-Governing People?

One thing that is clear with the debate on health care and the evolving legislation in the U.S. Congress is discourse in that country is filtered through an issue agenda that is top-down and highly manipulated. What I mean by that is while we are free to have our own opinions and exercise our constitutional right to express them, we rarely choose the topics for discussion. Much less do we participate in formulating the solutions. What happens instead is that the average person is presented with a menu of the issues of the day - already determined by someone else - and then we are left to comprehend them (not always accurately) and take sides.

The direction of public discussion turns out something like this; we are presented with a set of issues that are already defined, with back-door compromises that have already been made and then they sit back and see if it "plays in Peoria." That is, the public debate is the last phase of a process to see what the public will swallow. We, the people, have been reduced to beta testing democracy. Hardly that, even. More like being part of a giant market research project. I'll use an analogy to illustrate. Rather than all of us collectively creating a list of our favorite flavors of ice cream ourselves and sending it to the dairy producers, we are presented with vanilla and ketchup-flavored ice cream. There is sustainable support for vanilla and the reaction to ketchup is so negative that it is rejected. Oh, what powerful consumers we were. We made our choices and determined the market. But what happened to chocolate, fudge swirl, pistachio, black cherry and a hundred other flavors? Well, those weren't on the agenda. Sorry.

This is what happens in the political marketplace every day. And unlike the retail marketplace, there is really no competition to keep the system somewhat honest. Ben and Jerry's government is not out there to offer alternatives. We may periodically elect candidates to office, but we get the same existing institutions - and they go on and on. We don't have a choice of types of government or economic systems. Real change is thus only incremental at best.

Fear of losing the next election is not a powerful enough force to create a voice of the people that is coherent, specific and powerful. We elected Obama, but we did not vote on the agenda item-by-item. We just said that candidate B was so much better than candidate A. And we can never really be sure why each voter made the choice they did. One voter may have chosen on the basis of stage presence, another based on frustration with the previous regime, another in solidarity with shared culture and characteristics. Perhaps some based their vote loosely on support for parts of the candidate's platform. But it is naive to assume that a vote for a candidate is a vote for everything the candidate wants to do. I'm sure very few voters bothered to read the candidate's platforms and even if they did, a voter couldn't go into the booth and say "I want candidate B and I like what he wants to do about issues 1, 2 and 4, but I vote against his solution for issue #3." And then, the campaign platform is hardly a binding or comprehensive document. You need only remember being asked to read George H.W. Bush's lips to realize that's true.

My point is not to foment mistrust of Obama here - in fact, I pretty much support everything he wants to do. My point is that there is no real voice of the people in our governance and the claim that the vote is our voice is weak. We need the vote (and need to use it more than we do) but we need considerably more. We need voice with power.

Some will look back and be impressed with the degree of civic engagement with the issue of health care reform. And on the surface, it might appear that way. There will have been lots of chatter -- internet forums, town hall meetings, rallies, radio talk show "discussions", media coverage - even conversations among friends and family. Yes, we discussed every angle of it and we were so engaged. Hooray for us!

And in the meantime, here is what is happening. Powerful lobbies dismantle the legislation piece-by-piece. Compromises are made between opposing sides in Congress until the bill becomes watered down to nothing more than a lukewarm bucket of spit. The image of reform will triumph over real reform. Mark my words. It is the only thing that can happen in the current structure of pluralistic representative democracy.

The theories of representative democracy and pluralism are as follows. Representative democracy, as conceived by our "founding fathers" who mistrusted the general public - "the mob" - and articulated later by political theorists since such as Robert Dahl - is based on certain assumptions. One assumption is that there are too many of us to have a direct voice in our own governance. The resulting cacophony would render us ungovernable. So we need to have representatives we elect as proxies for our wishes. They will follow our wishes, supposedly because we knew what we were voting for when we voted and that they will be afraid of not getting re-elected if they go against us. So - we vote, ergo Vox Populi!

But this isn't how it happens in real life. We really don't have any power to tell our elected officials what to do between elections - and no power over the unelected ones at all. True, legislators do pay a lot of attention to the constituents that bother to contact them. But these few constituents that write letters or send e-mails may not be representative of all the people in their district. And you have to know what's going on in order to venture an opinion about it. None of us have any idea what's in the hundreds of bills that come before Congress and state legislatures every session. We hardly know what's become law after it's passed. Most of us are ignorant of most of the laws that govern us. We only find out when we try to do something that the law prohibits or someone uses something the law enables against us. Think about that again - we don't know our own laws.

But wait - say the supporters of the current system. The people do have a voice between elections. They organize in groups and lobby elected officials. Every opinion will eventually have a group that represents it. Representatives of these groups will track issues for you and communicate your wishes to the government. The government negotiates with the groups and cuts deals to satisfy as many interests as they can. Since all groups and opinions are represented in proportion to their support among the public, it all balances out. It's like a market system for opinions - through competition, we arrive at just the right policy "price point" - the opinion that incorporates all our opinions somehow.

The theory articulated in the paragraph is known as "pluralism." And it is full of defects. First of all, not everyone becomes a member of a group that represents their opinion. Second, lots of group organizations claim that the opinions they advocate are the opinions of the group of people that they represent. The National Association of Small Businesses wants Congress to think that they represent the opinions of small businesses across America. And Congress generally believes that. In reality, they represent the opinion of the National Association of Small Businesses, nothing more. And the idea that the result of competing interests is a balanced result is meaningless. What is "balance?" How do you know when you are at the balance point? And is every opinion legitimate? Should we balance every opinion with the opinions of Nazis and skinheads? Is it possible that sometimes there might be one right way to do something? If we balance the needs of strip mining companies with conservationists - and get half-conservation and half-strip mining - have we done the right thing? Or have we made a colossal mistake that can never be undone?

Most importantly, when we leave policy to interested groups, we cede power to people we didn't elect and who don't have our interests at heart. The American Petroleum Institute lobbies the government on arcane oil policies behind back doors and you can bet that the result is energy policy that benefits the oil industry more than it does us.

And I don't buy the argument that direct participation of a large population is inconceivable and so representative democracy is the only viable alternative. On the state level, there is already experience with initiatives and referenda (which have their own problems, but actually the same problems as voting for candidates) - and current and future technology opens up a lot of possibilities. There is another way. It's called "deliberative democracy."

Deliberative democracy asks that we create ways for ordinary people to discuss issues, come up with solutions and direct those with the power to implement those solutions to do so. There are some ways we can do this.

1. Citizen forums and town halls with real agenda setting power. We would get together on a regular basis at specified locations in our communities and discuss issues. The policies that emerge from these discussions would be communicated to the government, which would incorporate them into its own policymaking and implementation.

2. Bring a version of the jury system into the executive and legislative branches of government. Choose panels of citizens by a fair process of random selection to participate in the creation of regulations and laws. This has been tried only a few times in England and Canada for some specific issues - but it's been successful each time.

3. Internet discussion and voting that connects directly to government. There would be a system in place where people at home could vote on proposals along with legislators. A system would be worked out to combine the results - how Congress voted on the issue and how the people voted on it.

4. Deliberative polling. This is the pet concept of James Fishkin. People are given issues to discuss, then polls are taken to gather the results after they've had time to discuss. He doesn't say what to do with the results of the polls, though, hoping that the powers that be will just 'listen." I would suggest some mechanism that requires the issue to be put on the government agenda once the poll results are in.

You can read more about some of these ideas - look for names like Amy Gutmann, Benjamin Barber, James Fishkin, Jon Elster, Joshua Cohen.

In practice, we might find that most of our neighbors are idiots and get frustrated with the process. But that's the risk of real democracy. And do you really prefer a system that gives all the power to the rich and powerful?

Originally posted at

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