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July 16, 2003

Stealth Democracy

A new book is causing quite a stir among people who work for in civic and democratic reform. John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that the public doesn’t want a bigger role in government and politics. In fact, people would like to have a smaller role, but they suspect that elites are corrupt, so they believe that citizens must periodically intervene just to prevent sleaze. These are some of the themes of Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

I've posted a full review of Stealth Democracy here.

Posted by peterlevine at July 16, 2003 03:57 PM


The link to my review has changed: see

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 2, 2006 03:22 PM

Peter Muhlberger writes:

I've just written a paper challenging a key part of the Stealth Democracy thesis. You may find the following excerpts interesting.

An important aspect of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse's position is normative. Their overarching concern is with insuring the stability and legitimacy of the political system. Consequently, in their chapter of prescriptions, they do not seek to address political disinterest or conflict aversion, which they do not see as injurious to system legitimacy. The book depicts political ignorance and disinterest as "perfectly understandable" (p. 134) and discomfort with conflict in political discussion as "avoiding a distasteful activity," a dislike that makes "perfect sense" (p. 10). People are described as naturally more interested in their everyday lives than in politics.

Thus, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse do not consider stealth democracy anti-democratic but simply realistic in light of the public's reasonable preference to be politically uninvolved. The authors are disturbed by one matter only fear false perceptions of consensus may delegitimize the political system. False consensus beliefs create unrealistic expectations that leaders can readily act with little debate or compromise. The authors suggest such beliefs could be addressed with an intensive educational effort.

To the stealth democracy thesis, this paper opposes the "middle-American mentality thesis." This thesis suggests that many Americans possess a syndrome of unreasonable and socially harmful orientations and that this syndrome can be addressed by involving people in political deliberation.

The middle-American mentality involves an inability to conceptualize complex systems of governance and an inability to take alternative political perspectives. People with this mentality therefore falsely believe in political consensus and embrace undemocratic forms of governance, specifically the authority-driven stealth democracy. The best way to reverse this middle-American mentality may be direct exposure to the views of other citizens in the course of political deliberation. Such an exercise both helps clarify that reasonable people hold a diversity of views and exposes citizens to complex processes of decision making that might undermine stealth democracy beliefs. With such deliberative methods as the National Issues Forums and Deliberative Polling, it is commonplace for practitioners and researchers to find that participants engage in respectful and thoughtful discussions of the issues as well as their differences (Fishkin 1997; Price and Cappella 2002).

The findings of this paper support the middle-American mentality thesis, suggesting that e-government efforts to encourage citizen participation, particularly deliberative participation, will not run contrary to a reasonable public desire to be politically uninvolved and may have positive benefits in cultivating a more civically-minded public.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 2, 2006 03:25 PM

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