« Dewey's lost chance | Main | inequality in youth participation »

February 27, 2008

levers of democracy

(On an airplane over Ohio) Let's assume that you want to increase the quantity, equality, impact, and quality of political participation. Which institutions would give you the most leverage? Put another way, by reforming or enlisting which of the following institutions would you have the most impact?



the pros


the cons


electoral politics One-person-one-vote enhances equality. Voting holds political leaders accoutantable. A campaign is a prompt for discussion and deliberation. The vote is a crude instrument for communication. Choices on the ballot are inevitably limited. Accountability is sporadic. Each vote counts for little. Money and campaign tactics influence outcomes.
government Capable of shaping society through laws and taxation. Mechanisms are available to promote deliberation and partnerships. Some civil servants are eager for public participation. Bureaucracy; hierarchy; the "iron law of oligarchy." Technical expertise suppresses ethical issues. Vulnerability to special interests.
higher education Trains all professionals. Gateway to the middle class. Influences other institutions, such as the professions and k-12 schools. Quasi-autonomous, with a civic mission and heritage. Not-for-profit. Physically connected to communities (unable to flee). Educates only half the population. "Ivory Tower" ethos. Fierce competition for students, who seek skills and prestige. Insulated from democratic pressure (partly for good reasons). Physically isolated by walls and grounds.
k-12 education Influences everyone at a malleable age. Civic mission and heritage. Devoted to discussion and analysis, but also capable of promoting action. Located in all communities. Democratically governed and decentralized. Deeply segregated by race and class. Locally--thus, inequally-- funded. Burdened with other purposes: economic development, health, social control. Bureaucratic and technocratic. Separates the young from adult life.
the news media Source of information for all ages. Quality can be high because of professionalism. Makes a direct connection to politics and government, which are subjects of coverage. Privately owned and run. Sensationalism pays. Only a few professionals (reporters and editors) can speak. Coverage does not automatically generate action.
the "new media" (blogs, etc.) Open, cheap, flexible, interactive. "Cyberbalkanization" (people seek information and ideas they already know they like). Unreliable information. Link to offline action is unclear; information alone does not promote civic capacities or identities.
nonprofits Autonomous, diverse, plural. Capable of reflecting diverse values, e.g., religious ones, without coercion. Increasingly powerful as employers and investors. A small portion of the economy, without regulatory power, and dominated by donors, who tend to be wealthy.
arts Presenting or enacting values, imagining the future, and memorializing the past are political acts. Also, the arts are pluralistic, and the avant-garde stimulates deliberation. The avant-garde lacks influence. Community-based cultural groups are small and marginal compared to mass media.
community organizing Broad-based or open-ended community organizing promotes deliberation and has tangible impact (building houses, passing laws) Most sectors of American society haven't been touched by such organizing. Prevailing cultural values are opposed to it.
the learned professions Legal monopoly to practice (e.g., law or medicine) is granted in return for a public duty. Traditions of idealism and public engagement. Economic interests with considerable advantages. Technical expertise can make them arrogant. Members increasingly identify with the profession, not with a community.
organized labor Brings democratic principles into the workplace. Influences government. Has an incentive to recruit new members and teach civic skills and identities. Shrinking because of changes in the economy. Subject to hierarchy, bureaucracy, and corruption. Interests can conflict with those of outsiders (e.g., unionized teachers versus students).

February 27, 2008 9:09 PM | category: none


Good list.

You mentioned higher education. But why not lower education?

If elementary education was better and more evenly done, like between rich an poor, I think you would have a better shot at achieving the critical mass for having the best possible prospects for democracy. From there people can really discover choices for the future, an element that will in turn enhance democracy.

That's what democracy is or should be about, equal education at its fundamental level. It is the best chance at democracy and at grounding it.

February 28, 2008 12:18 PM | Comments (4) | posted by airth10

Also, elementary education is most important in order to start the 'critical thinking' that a well oiled democracy functions on. It should be seen as critical for having the best possible democracy.

February 28, 2008 3:38 PM | Comments (4) | posted by airth10

David, In US parlance, "k-12 education" means elementary and secondary education. Sorry about my parochial vocabulary, but see row 4 in the table.

March 3, 2008 9:05 AM | Comments (4) | posted by Peter Levine

Thanks Peter. I should have paid closer attention, Nevertheless I got to say my bit and think I made a little contribution.

March 3, 2008 12:45 PM | Comments (4) | posted by airth10

Site Meter