In America we are obsessed with being more democratic than any other nation. As the world’s oldest democracy, we have made changes to open government ever further and to be more democratic so as to show the world how great we are with our ever expanding participation in government. We love our democracy, and we constantly fight to make our democracy more representative, less driven by special interests and big money, and more accessible by the average citizen. These are all excellent goals for our country, but they contribute to what Richard Pildes has called Romanticizing Democracy.
In his book Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch reviews the ideas of romanticizing democracy and thinks about political participation from a realistic and pragmatic point of view. What Rauch finds and what is important to remember is that more participation in government and more direct democracy does not necessarily translate into better outcomes. He writes, “The general assumption that politics will be more satisfying and government will work better if more people participate more directly is poorly supported and probably wrong.”
Rauch is not arguing that fewer people should vote in elections or be knowledgeable about issues, programs, and what is taking place in government, but that our country does not need to continually reshape systems and institutions to be ever more democratic simply because they could be more open. When we push government to rely on more direct democracy, then our systems require more input from a citizenry that is poorly informed of any given issue. Continually opening government or forcing government to rely on input from public constituents makes it more likely that issues will become polarized, leading to charged discussions driven by shadow actors. Rauch writes, “Where direct engagement with politics is concerned, the polarized and financially interested have an inherent advantage.”
Not everything in our system should be operated by and determined by the opinions of experts, technocrats, and academics, but at the same time not everything needs to be decided by direct referendum from the public. Some features of government should be opened to the public, but other aspects are poorly understood by the public and do not need to be completely open. On his podcast The Ezra Klein Show and on his media company’s show The Weeds, Ezra Klein has often remarked that congress (which we have made more democratic and transparent) has dismally low approval ratings while the Supreme Court (which is less democratic and less transparent than almost any other part of government) has very high approval ratings. More transparency and direct participation does not always mean better outcomes and a more satisfying democracy.