Participation in Government

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.

Progressiveness, Populism, and Stalled Politics

Jonathan Rauch is critical of moves that have been made by populists and progressives with the intent of making government more transparent and handing decision-making power back to citizens. Rauch is not critical of broad participation in government and transparency directly, but he challenges the idea that it is always better to have more transparency and more participation in the decision-making process. The argument that Rauch puts forward is that some of the things we constantly fight against are not as bad as they seem from the outside. Backroom deal-making seems shady and corrupt, but it is also necessary for legislators to have a safe space to discuss bills, goals, possible outcomes, and political considerations. Encouraging more political amateurs to run for office and replace career politicians also feels like a smart move, bringing good people to power and replacing politicians who just want to stay in power, but political outsiders often have trouble building coalitions and forming groups to move legislation and they tend to be more extreme in their policies.

 

Regarding recent trends, in his book Political Realism, Rauch writes, “Together, by fusing their ideologies, the progressive and populist reform movements have performed an impressive public relations feat: they have combined the intellectual prestige of meritocracy with the moral claims of democracy. Because participation improves decision-making, democracy and meritocracy are one and the same—and insider politics is the enemy of both.” In an ideal system, human beings could be completely rational actors. We would not allow ourselves to be biased by prior assumptions and we would work toward the most efficient and equitable decision possible for each issue and question. Within this system we truly could have greater participation in government from political outsiders and we could have more transparency and open discussion, because we are all focused on rational facts.

 

The reality, however, is that we are not purely rational machines moving through our lives and organizing society in the most perfect economic and efficient manner. As humans, we are not truly capable of being fully rational, and creating a system that was too rational would be objectionable in many ways. We simply cannot hold all alternatives and variables in our head at one time. We also can only bring rationality to the means of our politics, the ends are always going to be politically selected. Choosing to use our nation’s last 10 million dollars in the budget on improving roads rather than on defense spending or early childhood education will never have a solidly rational base, but will be a political decision and value based judgement.

 

In a similar way, deciding that we need more political amateurs in our system is a politically selected end, not a rational conclusion of policy analysts. Deciding that our system needs ever more transparency and openness into the minds of decision-makers is a feel-good political outcome that we want, but it is not a rational process to improve government. Rauch’s views are technical and rational, and to most people are probably ridiculous and unwanted, but his steps to make government more functional by rolling back some of the steps we have made in service of positive outcomes is rational, focusing on the means of good governance.

Participation in Government

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 based on ever expanding participation and openness 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, 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 spaces that rely on public input. 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.

Cory Booker on Cynicism

Being Cynical is easy. Being Cynical is also dangerous and damaging. Toward the end of his book United Senator Cory Booker reflects on the cynical state of politics and society today, and what it means for individuals and for the nation to be as cynical as we are today. Booker writes, “cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change.” When we don’t take action to be involved in our city, when our knowledge of politics (or anything else) is only cursory, and when we fall into a habit of not looking beyond our own perspective, we begin to think everyone is like us, and we accept the easy cynical story. Booker, in United, challenges inaction, challenges cynicism, and challenges the idea that only bad people are involved in how government and society operates.

 

I study Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and it has forced me to focus on the realities of government, which is that there are a limited number of resources available for society, and somehow we must decide who gets what, when, and how. Any time you think about the way the world operates and begin to consider the world, the word ‘should’ undoubtedly pops up, indicating that you are making a judgement statement about your beliefs of the world. I don’t use belief in the religious sense of the word, your opinion and worldview could be shaped and reformed by objective empirical data to a large degree, but ‘should’ indicates political preference, ideology, and what you think would work best for an individual or collection of individuals in a situation. The important thing about the word “should” is that there is almost never 100% clear evidence that the suggestion following it is the only answer. When dealing with limited resources we must make political decisions, meaning that we must write down our “should” and our perspectives influence how we decide what is the most important.

 

Cynicism fails to recognize what is happening when the word “should” is introduced into discussion. It assumes there is an easy answer, and assumes that resources are not constrained and that we do not have to make difficult decisions that undoubtably give some people more resources or access to resources than others. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we are looking at a shell of any given situation and seeing what we want to see. We look for the negative and criticize what is in front of us. Being cynical is not about finding the errors and problems in a given situation and looking for a solution. Instead it is about propping ourselves up and placing ourselves on the right side of a moral divide, in much the same way that we use outrage to feel better about ourselves.

 

Booker is critical of cynicism, arguing that it takes our power away from us when we need to take more action on our own. Rather than recognize that we can band together to improve the world, cynicism looks at the status quo and assumes that we cannot make a difference. It is the result of what Tyler Cowen calls the “Complacent Class” that does not want to put in the effort and focus needed to make a change in the world. Cynicism allows “should” statements to exist in isolation within the brain, never challenged by new facts, and never actually introduced to the world. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we accept complacency when the world needs action and initiative. Cynicism is self-perpetuating, and fighting it off is a struggle, but if we want to grow individually, and if we want to see the world improve, we must understand that our world view will always be incomplete, that other people will have different motivations and will make mistakes, and that it is only by our actions that we can change the world for the better, even if our actions will be infinitesimally small in the course of history.

Hope

Senator Cory Booker has an interesting thought about optimism and the future. He believes that you can’t simply look forward to the positives of the future and that you can’t ignore the negatives of the present that may persist into the future. What you must do, according to Booker, is be honest about the negativity that you wish to change and set out to make the world better through actions and deliberate choice. Intentional actions to drive toward a better world is what Booker calls hope, and it is about more than just believing things will be better one day. For Booker, hope is believing that one can struggle against the negativity, learn, grow, and make the world a better place. He writes, “Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.”

 

The power of Booker’s hopefulness lies in its practical manifestations in the real world. On an interview of the Ezra Klein Show, and again in an interview with Tim Ferris, Booker spoke about the word “optimism” and explained that optimism falls short of Booker’s ideas of hope. He sees optimism as empty beliefs that things will get better, leaving out the important decisions and efforts of the individual to make thing better. If one simply assumes the world will move in the right direction without looking at the specific areas that need to change, then one will never have a plan or roadmap to reach that better future. A positive outlook of the future needs to have more than just blind faith that one day things be great, it needs action items that one can relentlessly pursue to improve the world. This is the hope that Booker describes as a participant driven optimism.

 

Hope for Booker is the belief that one has the power to make the world a better place through awareness and action. If you fail to see what negativity exists, if you fail to think about how you could change what you dislike and understand to be unjust, if you fail to acknowledge the pain and suffering of now, then you won’t be able to live in a way that fights against such forces. Booker continues, “It does not ignore pain, agony, or injustice. It is not a saccharine optimism that refuses to see, face, or grapple with the wretchedness of reality. You can’t have hope without despair, because hope is a response.” Hope is the ability to look at the world, visualize a way to improve it, and take steps toward a better future. Hope does not run from the negative of the world today, but looks at the negative more closely to understand where it came from and how it can be overcome.