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What if “more public participation” can’t save American democracy?

It’s time to make peace with reality and develop a new plan.

Pro-Trump Rally Attracts Anti-Trump Demonstrators In Berkeley, California Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

American democracy is in a downward spiral. Well, really two downward spirals.

The first is the downward spiral of bipolar partisanship, in which both sides increasingly demonize each other as the enemy, and refuse to compromise and cooperate — an escalating arms race that is now going beyond mere gridlock and threatening basic democratic norms.

The second is the downward spiral of distrust between citizens and elites, in which citizens treat “corrupt” and “establishment” as interchangeable terms. The public consensus is that politicians are self-serving, not to be trusted. In this logic, only more public participation can make politicians serve the people.

These two downward spirals are related. The less we trust politicians, the more we try to hold them “accountable.” But the more we try to hold them “accountable” the more we get intractable partisanship, because the “we” who are trying to hold politicians accountable are the same “we” who always do the most participating. The most engaged citizens, political scientists have known for years, are almost always the most partisan citizens, and/or those who have the most narrow and high-stakes interests in policy outcomes.

But to say we should participate less, and give politicians more freedom to operate without constant public input, seems off. It cuts against our well-developed, pro-democracy reflexes.

Waiting for the “average citizen” to save us

It also cuts against the conventional wisdom narrative we’ve heard for years: The reason that politics has gone batty is because the average citizen has no say. The average citizen is moderate, reasonable, civic-minded. The average citizen wants politicians to stop fighting with each other, and stop serving the interests of wealthy elites, and “do what’s right.” If only the average citizen got better informed, participated more, and had more power, politicians would stop fighting, and start serving “the people” instead of “the interests.” Therefore, we need to find more ways to empower this average citizen.

We’ve been waiting for this mythical average citizen to show up and claim her rightful place in our politics for quite a long time now. But like Godot, she never seems to arrive. As our politics drowns in a flood of bipolar partisan passion, it makes us all look like the proverbial statistician who drowned in a river that was, on average, 3 feet deep.

Slowly though, a new understanding is starting to emerge, that no matter how much we put our faith in public participation, this average citizen will not save us, and worse, that all our attempts to give “power to the people” may have distracted us from doing the things that might have made our democracy function better — paying attention to the rules of our institutions and the role of political leadership.

The growing case against “more participation” as an end in itself

The latest salvo in this reckoning is a new Brookings Institution paper from Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, “More professionalism, less populism: How voting makes us stupid, and what to do about it.”

Rauch and Wittes bemoan that, for decades, “the overwhelming trend has been … disintermediation — reducing the role of parties, professionals, and experts.” For the authors, “the movement to push aside intermediaries, such as the smoke-filled rooms where party elders brokered nominations and the closed committee meetings where members of Congress dickered, has not produced greater public confidence in the government’s effectiveness or representativeness.” Instead, it has made it harder for government institutions to function.

Efforts to open up the political process may come from a good place. But those who take advantage are almost always the wealthier, better organized, and most partisan — not exactly the mythical average citizen reformers always envision taking advantage. As voters, we all make irrational, emotional choices (based on the groups which we belong to). We are myopic. We don’t do trade-off well. We are all flawed humans.

Rauch and Wittes are building on some important recent political science work. Most prominently, they draw on Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’s widely discussed 2016 book Democracy for Realists, which marshaled impressive and almost irrefutable evidence that the “folk theory of democracy” — that citizens hold politicians accountable through elections — was based on a set of feel-good fantasies about citizen competence that just don’t hold up under extensive scrutiny.

They also build on Bruce Cain’s equally important but less widely discussed 2015 book, Democracy More or Less, which thinks harder about what to do about the fact that “average citizens” are not and never will be either motivated or equipped to do all the things we expect of them. So whereas Achen and Bartels’s concluding point is mostly to shrug their shoulders and say well, maybe we just need to accept that all politics is identity and group politics and build new normative theories of democracy, Cain moves much closer toward actual framework for doing just that — what he calls the “pluralist approach.”

The case for pluralism and “intermediation”

In Cain’s telling, this pluralist approach “accepts the reality that there are empirical limits to citizen interest and knowledge and that interested individuals and organizations must inevitably carry out some representation. It prioritizes aggregation, consensus, and fluid coalitions as means of good democratic governance. It recognizes that good political design incorporates the informal patterns of governance as well as the formal processes of government.” Moreover, “it relies on democratic contestation between interest groups and political parties to foster accountability.” (I advocate a similar approach in my 2016 paper, “Political Dynamism”.)

Rauch and Wittes also lean in this direction. They do not want to cut citizens out entirely. Participation, they write is a “vital good to the political system that is not replaceable by other means: It provides the consent of the governed and the renewal of that consent on a regular basis … Voters are not policymakers, but they are the force that gives authority to policymakers. Persistently low rates of voter turnout erode that authority.”

I’d also call forth here an important and related 2016 Brookings Institution paper from Philip Wallach, “The administrative state’s legitimacy crisis.” It makes eloquent points about the need to balance public legitimacy with institutional expertise, advocating a middle ground that is neither populist nor technocratic.

Like Wallach, Rauch and Wittes also are also not willing to put complete faith in an insulated technocracy or political expert class. They note that “better decisions” come when specialist and professional judgment occurs “in combination with public judgment” (their italics).

This leads to the following conclusion: “Who, then, should be in charge: the voters, or the professionals? The answer, of course, is both. In a hybrid system, they are forced to consult each other, providing distinct but complimentary screens.”

But this poses an obvious problem: How can both be in charge? Rauch and Wittes, along with Cain and Wallach, point us toward the right direction: better intermediaries. But where are the models of “better intermediaries”?

What does “good intermediation” look like?

In theory, better intermediaries (politicians, parties, interest groups) are capable of helping citizens collectively realize their interests in ways that they wouldn’t be able to do individually.

But in practice, intermediaries may be just as likely to manipulate individuals for their own power, without necessarily helping them to realize their interests any better. In particular, Rauch and Wittes’s assertion that “the leaders of political parties and congressional committees … worry about the long-term health of their institutions, and so they often take a longer view” seems at odds with considerable recent evidence. Certainly, in an ideal world, they would. But they haven’t for a long time.

Would the Republican Party be more moderate and problem-solving if only Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan had more freedom to wheel and deal behind the scenes, and more money to lord over more extreme members of their party, and more earmarks to win their complicity? I have a hard time imagining this. All I see is them pushing an extreme agenda themselves, while finding new and creative ways to defend a president who is blatantly unfit for office, and then attacking Democrats.

Did American democracy really go insane because of “too much” participation?

Perhaps we have a particularly pusillanimous and cynical set of leaders now because politics became too participatory and too transparent. But I’d challenge Rauch and Wittes to offer a counter-factual political history, in which the parties don’t polarize to their current extremes because there were fewer opportunities for citizen participation (while also accounting for the same underlying demographics and economic conditions, and the same campaign finance laws). Moreover, given the rise of post-materialist values that put a premium on self-expression everywhere in advanced industrial democracies West, I wonder if this would have even been possible.

Perhaps parties should take greater control of their nominating processes (a common argument these days). But keep in mind that in 1964, it was Republican delegates, not Republican primary voters, who chose Barry Goldwater, an extremist candidate. That was before parties made their public primaries binding, starting in 1972. Had Republican delegates, not primary voters, been in charge in 2016, it’s not clear who they would have chosen, since the party itself was quite internally split.

Most of the major American democratizing reforms happened in the early 20th century, not the late 20th century. Yet it wasn’t until recent decades, when polarization and inequality both started to increase, that American politics went steadily downhill. And the past several decades have not exactly been a time of civic flourishing in America.

In short, while I agree that “expanding citizen participation” will not save American democracy, for many of the reasons Rauch and Wittes (and others) discuss, I’m equally skeptical that previous efforts to expand citizen participation somehow caused American politics to go insane, as Rauch argued in a widely discussed Atlantic article.

Time to make peace with reality: “more participation” won’t save us

Where do we go from here? Especially at a time when a new wave of citizen energy and participation are getting many excited.

First, it’s important to acknowledge the new citizen engagement for what it is: the familiar response of out-party partisans feeling threatened after losing an election. As left-leaning opponents of Trump, we might welcome this because finally, our side is getting energized. But let’s not pretend this is the solution to our democracy in decline. This is still not the long-awaited coming of independent, rational, average citizens exercising independent, rational, judgment to save our democracy, nor will it ever be.

Second, let’s come to terms with what political science has known for decades, some of which my colleague Chayenne Polimédio has written about here. Citizens as individuals have limited capacity. For democracy to work, they need intermediaries — politicians, parties, interest groups — to help them achieve power and representation. All politics is group politics, because we are all by nature group animals. It would be weird and unnatural if politics were otherwise. The idea of the individual, rational citizen is a myth.

Third, and this is the key point: We need to think harder about what good intermediation looks like. What are the conditions under which intermediaries help citizens collectively achieve meaningful representation? And what are the conditions under which intermediaries just exploit citizens for their own power? What are the conditions under which intermediaries work together to achieve compromise and consensus and legitimacy? And what are the conditions under which intermediaries tear each other apart and take down institutions with them? History is replete with examples across these spectra.

Absent good answers to the intermediation dilemma, the current downward spiral will continue. Politicians are not going to get along with each other and “do the right thing” when everything in the political system pushes them into zero-sum, bipolar competition for power. And “making it easier for citizens to participate in their democracy” as an end in itself is not going to do any good without more thought given to the all-important question of “How?”

My current view is that nature of the two-party system, which is quite unique to America among advanced industrial democracies, deserves much more blame than it has received. American parties have always been institutionally weak by comparative standards, because the two-party system forces parties to be large big-tent coalitions.

In our current politics, party leaders have compensated for this by turning up the negative partisanship, tearing down the other side to just be the “lesser of two evils.” Multi-party systems generally produce stronger parties, because parties are freer to more directly represent different groups in society. In a multi-party system, parties can’t survive simply by being the “lesser of two evils.”

But here’s the bottom line: We’ve collectively spent decades trying to call forth this mythical average citizen and empower her to save our democracy. We’ve made no Plan B for the possibility that she is indeed a myth. We’re now realizing she is indeed a myth. It’s now time to come up with that Plan B, and fast.