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Is reforming democracy just a matter of fixing elections and Congress?

Democracy needs engaged citizens and social movements. But they can't substitute for a broken process of elections and representation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) speaks to reporters after lawmakers failed to move the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development appropriations bill forward before the summer recess.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) speaks to reporters after lawmakers failed to move the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development appropriations bill forward before the summer recess.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Boston Review is one of my favorite publications, in part because it is one of the few that combine both politics and culture (especially poetry) and do both well. Its trademark feature is a forum made up of a long, provocative essay supplemented by eight or 10 responses from a variety of perspectives and a final response by the first author. The current issue features a very big-picture essay by Columbia political scientist/historian Ira Katznelson on "Anxieties of Democracy," warning essentially that our dysfunctional process of governance risks the very survival of liberal democracy, and not only in the US.

In my short response, I limited myself deliberately to the US and, less deliberately, to the failure of legislatures, particularly Congress. I used the example of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the 25th anniversary of which passed little-noticed in July, along with other landmark legislation of 1990 to explore how it became inconceivable that Congress today, or at almost any point since 1990, could pass something so sweeping and with such broad consensus.

But some of the other responses left me worried that I was becoming a bit stodgy. Was I, along with Katznelson, too limited in my imagination, treating democracy as almost synonymous with representative legislative institutions? Are there other ways of engaging people, through deliberative forums or in community organizing, that are as valid as legislatures? I've always been interested in these other institutions, but saw them largely as adjuncts to the process of legislative and executive decision-making, or of elections. Advocacy groups, coalitions, or carefully designed deliberative processes could pressure legislatures to hear voices that were otherwise drowned out by money, or enable legislators to hear the deep structure of public opinion on an issue through the cacophony of loud or paid voices. But they were a means to an end, and the end lies in formal political institutions.

The most provocative challenges to this assumption, in the forum, come from academia but also from the very different realm of community organizing. Says Michael Gecan, a legendary organizer with the Saul Alinsky–founded Industrial Areas Foundation, "A robust civil society is prior to and at least as important as the representative process — in my view, more important. Ordinary people have proven time and again that they can ‘access and influence political life.'" Citing the civil rights movement, the movement for a living wage, health reform, and urban redevelopment, Gecan says, "All these changes were instigated and propelled, often against obstructionist local legislatures, by independent, voluntary, third-sector citizen organizations."

From academia, Yale political scientist Hélène Landemore suggests that we should question "the role of elections as the central selection mechanism for democratic representatives," and also "the idea that democracy is only a matter of political institutions." Answering the first question, she suggests random selection of representatives, such as in citizen juries and deliberative polls, or self-selection, as in experiments with participatory budgeting. On the second question, she proposes extending democracy into the workplace, an idea often identified with her late Yale colleague (and inspiration for this blog's name) Robert Dahl, in his Preface to Economic Democracy.

I'm enthusiastic about all of these ideas, particularly large-scale deliberation. I'm willing to believe that a series of large-scale deliberation efforts on health reform might have led to a deeper sense of consensus than the fragmented, angry, after-the-fact backlash to a policy that most citizens had not encountered or considered before it passed. As I argue in my response, a functioning legislature, such as Congress until about 1990 (which, perhaps just coincidence, is when I began working on Capitol Hill), not only makes decisions but confers legitimacy and broad acceptance on those decisions. Absent a working legislature, deliberation can do the same thing.

But can these processes, or the civic organizing Gecan celebrates, ever fully substitute for a functioning legislature? After all, at some point the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had to pass, and money has to be budgeted by a legislature. Without elections, how are these processes accountable?

We've also had plenty of tests of robust civil society without a responsive legislature. In North Carolina, for example, the Moral Mondays movement, along with the rich network of religious, civil rights, community, and advocacy organizations in the state create exactly the kind of "robust civil society" that Gecan celebrates, but the energy, passion, popular participation, and broad public support it has generated can't actually influence policy so long as the legislature is insulated — by redistricting, by money, by racialized voting patterns, and by sheer chutzpah from its demands.

In a way, this feels like a replay of the 2008 argument between then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton about the virtues of a movement versus electing a president and Congress that's on the right side. As Clinton said at the time, ultimately you needed LBJ (and Congress) to get civil rights legislation passed. In some ways that view has been vindicated, but at the same time we know that a vibrant mass movement for financial reform or labor organizing rights (an issue quickly forgotten in Obama's first year) might have made a significant difference in what was legislatively possible.

Perhaps one way to resolve the tension between Katznelson and the skeptics of his focus on legislative dysfunction is to deploy the instruments of civil society, movement building, and deliberation that Gecan and Landemore celebrate, toward the goal of broader reform of the electoral and legislative process, to ensure that it can actually respond to the electorate.