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November 14, 2006

politics as a spectator sport

In the Baltimore Sun on Nov. 5, Michael Hill wrote a piece entitled "Insiders' game: More and more, governing has become a process that leaves ordinary Americans watching from the sidelines." He began:

This time of the year, there is a seamless flow on television as Sunday morning turns to afternoon, from the political talk shows to the NFL pre-game programs.

Both feature pontificating pundits chosen as much for their personalities as their insight. Style is at least as important as substance.

Most significantly, both are spectator sports. Professional football was designed as that. American politics was not.

Even on the verge of an election that has energized the electorate more than most mid-term votes, it still seems that the citizens are on the sidelines of a game that was once famously said to be "of the people, by the people and for the people."

Hill then quoted Benjamin Ginsburg and Matthew Crenson, co-authors of Downsizing Democracy : How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized its Public; Harry Boyte from the University of Minnesota; and me.

I'm as satisfied as the next blogger about last week's good thumpin', which was richly deserved. Further, I don't blame the Democratic Party for the way they played the game. Under the circumstances (one-party rule in disastrous times), the election was inevitably a referendum on the incumbents' performance. To have injected other themes might only have created ambiguity.

Nevertheless, we can pause and lament with Hill the reduced role that citizens now play in politics.

First, it's striking that turnout in such a high-stakes election was so poor. Only 40 percent of the eligible electorate voted, according to Curtis Gans. There were big increases in turnout in some states, but they were undermined by decreases in other places. For most citizens, a Congressional race is largely meaningless because the outcome is foreordained by the way districts are drawn.

Second, although I am closely attentive to national news, I heard little or no talk about critical issues such as the federal deficit, poverty, global warming, high school dropouts, or crime and its consequences. I suppose the minimum wage debate represents a proxy for poverty issues, but it is very far from adequate as a policy lever. One of the best arguments for national elections is that they provide an opportunity for public discussion and learning. That opportunity was missed.

Third, there was no empowerment agenda--no talk of how citizens have become spectators but could be given new responsibilities for self-government. This is a deep problem exacerbated by the complexity of modern issues, the delegation of power to administrative agencies and courts, the weakness of grassroots groups, and the influence of specialists (lawyers, economists, professional educators).

Conservatives respond to public unease about spectator politics when they attack "activist judges" for "legislating from the bench"; but their critique is usually inconsistent and opportunistic. Some progressives may have seen voting as a sufficient form of empowerment in 2006--but it isn't. We will need richer and more demanding forms of civic engagement if we are really going to grapple with our problems.

November 14, 2006 9:32 AM | category: populism | Comments


Are progressive caught in the trap of seeing voting for regulations and entitlements as a proxy for civic participation b/c they are _concerned_ about others when voting? If so, is this a fatal characteristic to progressive politics or redeemable (as liberal communitarians) have attempted?

November 14, 2006 11:01 AM | Comments (4) | posted by Scott D

"Second, although I am closely attentive to national news, I heard little or no talk about critical issues such as the federal deficit, poverty, global warming, high school dropouts, or crime and its consequences. I suppose the minimum wage debate represents a proxy for poverty issues, but it is very far from adequate as a policy lever."

I'd like to know why you think that there would be better policies in place if things were covered more thoroughly in the news media and citizens paid more attention. Are you saying that citizen involvement in govt is a good thing for its own sake, or that it would lead to better outcomes? If the latter, there are a raft of counter-examples (Medicare drug bill; Iraq war; tax cuts) where widespread public attention nevertheless produced disastrous policy, simply because most people have neither the time nor the inclination to pay attention to policy issues in a complicated world.

November 14, 2006 1:34 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Meelar

Good questions, and obviously I don't have definitive answers. But I think that ....

Broad civic engagement is good for policy. That's especially true at the local level. For example, Robert Putnam finds: "states where citizens meet, join, vote, and trust in unusual measure boast consistently higher educational performance than states where citizens are less engaged with civic and community life." Putnam finds that such engagement is "by far" a bigger correlate of educational outcomes than is spending on education, teachers' salaries, class size, or demographics.

I don't see the disasters of Iraq or Medicare as a result of excessive public involvement. More like the reverse--there was not nearly enough public deliberation about Iraq before the invasion. As for tax cuts: people do want them, but that's partly because they don't have enough opportunities to participate in their government, which therefore appears to be an alien force.

As for the relationship between progressivism and regulation, this has been an issue since the Progressive Era. (I wrote at some length about its origins in my book entitled The New Progressive Era.) But it isn't a total dilemma. We have a large toolkit of ideas now for public participation in government: deliberative forums, citizens' juries, decentralization to neighborhood schools or police beats, community development corporations, online rulemaking, etc, etc. My complaint is that none of this is on the national agenda.

November 14, 2006 6:59 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Peter Levine

Point taken, although with the education example there's an obvious correlation/causation issue--it's not crazy to think that people who vote and trust are also people who do positive things like read to their kids or help with homework. More broadly, though, I wouldn't argue that greater public involvement is bad for policy outcomes; rather, that it doesn't really affect the quality of outcomes one way or another, precisely because the implementation of policy is (necessarily) complicated and difficult. In short, you can't rely on the public to vet your prescription drug program or your pre-emptive war; you basically have to trust the people doing it, or at least give them incentives not to screw the public over.

November 15, 2006 1:07 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Meelar

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