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March 22, 2005

two levels of politics

(Macon, Georgia.) I have been recalling the conversations last Friday and Saturday at Catholic University, especially some comments by Lew Friedland and Carmen Sirianni. The following is my own view, but I believe it's generally consonant with theirs.

We need two levels of politics. One involves major policy issues, the kind of questions that are ultimately decided by legislative votes, court decisions, and referenda. In considering these issues (e.g., taxation, welfare, war, or the right to abortion), people fall into ideological groups that are represented by major organizations and parties. Voting is a citizen's main source of power. Debating, organizing, petitioning, and raising consciousness are important, but they count only insofar as they change votes. Free and fair elections are what make this level of politics democratic.

Politics at the macro-level can sometimes be "win-win" and creative. Wise legislation and competent public administration can make everyone better off. Nevertheless, a lot of macro-level politics is zero-sum, because (for example) a victory for abortion rights is a loss for abortion opponents--and vice-versa. Indeed, this level of politics should be competitive, because tough competition between parties and ideologies gives citizens choices and keeps incumbents honest. Besides, when parties are forced to compete, they mobilize ordinary people to engage as voters and activists; thus competition encourages participation. Perhaps the worst flaw in today's macro-politics is a lack of fair competition caused by gerrymandered electoral districts, incumbents' advantages in campaign finance, and various impediments to insurgent campaigns and movements.

There is another level of politics--most common at the local level and within institutions--that involves direct participation. At this level, many of the people who will be directly affected by a decision should personally participate in deliberations about it. For example, before a religious congregation makes a major financial decision, often the whole group discusses it. Furthermore, there is no need to isolate discussion from action at this level of politics. The same people who meet and talk about an issue can also implement their own decisions. A student government can decide to implement a mentoring program and then actually serve as the mentors. A neighborhood group can decide to protest a crackhouse and then actually picket it. An academic department can choose a new curriculum and then actually teach it.

The micro-level of politics--characterized by direct participation, deliberation, and "public work"--is not necessarily more pleasant or less divisive than macro-politics. On the contrary, when issues arise in our everyday lives, involve our identities as workers or neighbors or parents, and cause disagreements with people we know well, politics can become intensely emotional and painful. That's why "office politics" and "academic politics" are phrases with very negative associations. Diana Mutz shows that people tend to avoid controversy within families and social networks, and for understandable reasons. Persistent disagreement can tear a group apart; and even when most people agree, minorities may feel excluded and mistreated. However, it is possible for micro-politics to be consensual and "win-win" rather than competitive. Indeed, if the main problem with macro-politics is a shortage of competition, the main flaw in micro-politics is a weak set of institutions and practices that allow Americans to collaborate on common problems.

I believe there are two main reasons that we need the micro-level as well as the macro-level of politics. First, a whole range of issues is better addressed in a participatory, deliberative way than through state action. Governments can do some things well, but they cannot change hearts, care for individuals holistically, or tailor solutions to local circumstances. Second, participation in micro-level politics may be the most powerful form of civic education, giving people confidence and deep knowledge of issues that will enable them to participate in macro-politics effectively and wisely.

For those interested in such topics, some of the major texts include Jenny Mansbridge's classic Beyond Adversary Democracy, Steve Elkin's City and Regime in the American Republic, and Sirianni & Friedland's Civic Innovation in America.

Posted by peterlevine at March 22, 2005 08:44 AM


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