Friday, January 29, 2010

An informed citizenry, a nation of dodos or a system too complex to understand

An informed citizenry is necessary for democracy to thrive. However, as pointed out here earlier, the public perception of the health care proposals before Congress doesn’t match what they are. Now there is a Pew Poll revealing that only 26% of Americans do not know that it now requires sixty votes to pass legislation in the United States Senate rather than a simple majority.

Matthew Yglesias considers the finding and its meaning:
… It’s also worth pointing out that one of the major failings of most political journalism is a perennial tendency to overstate the American people’s level of knowledge about politics. You never hear the impact of public ignorance about the filibuster discussed as a factor in the president’s fortunes. But I’d say the fact that people don’t understand how this works is an important element of what makes it so effective. To a small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is a heroic stand. To another small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is an undemocratic disaster. But to the majority of Americans it’s completely invisible and all they see is a Democratic Party that can’t get things done.
Joe Klein was blunter in his assessment of public ignorance of the stimulus package revealed in a CNN poll:
It is very difficult to have a democracy without citizens. It is impossible to be a citizen if you don't make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government. It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you're a nation of dodos.
Certainly public officials are obligated to educate the public as much as possible about what they are doing and the public, in turn, is obligated to educate themselves about the issues of the day. However, there may be another factor at play and that may be sheer complexity of the American system of governance. For example, there is our national government with split executive and legislative branches; a legislative branch that itself is split in two; one legislative branch that is not democratic in its makeup or rules; a federal system that splits power between the national government and fifty state governments; overlapping but different relationships between national, state and local governments; and, of course, there is the number of elected officials who represent us. Yglesias looks at how hard it is to keep track of your elected representatives and hold them accountable when there are so many of them:
…If you live in Toronto, you vote for a member of the Toronto City Council, you vote for a member of the Ontario Parliament, and you vote for a member of the Canadian Parliament. That’s one large Anglophone city in North America.

What happens in New York City? Well, you’ve got a city council member, a borough president, a mayor, a public advocate, a comptroller, and a district attorney. You’ve also got a state assembly member, a state senator, an attorney-general, a state comptroller, and a governor. Then at the federal level, there’s a member of congress, two senators, and the president. That’s sixteen legislative and elected officials rather than Toronto’s three. New Yorkers don’t have three times as much time in their day to monitor the performance of elected officials. Instead, New Yorker elected officials simply aren’t monitored as closely. That creates more scope for corruption. What’s more since campaign money has diminishing marginal returns, the proliferation of elected makes money matter more than it otherwise would.

A big country like the United States is never going to have public officials who are as well-monitored as the ones in a place like Denmark. But we make the situation much, much worse by proliferating the quantity of elected officials to the point where most people have no idea what’s happening. How many people can name their state senator? How many people know what things their school board has authority over and what things their mayor decides? And this is all without considering the absolutely insane practice of electing judges.
If the system is complex beyond easily understood and agreed upon principles the public will become disenchanted with politics as a whole. Once they become disenchanted they will come to believe they have no stake in the outcome or any say-so in the process of governance. They may lose interest in the issues before their communities and nation or become susceptible to simplistic and sometimes extreme ideologies. It is a downward spiral we need to watch out for.

You can read Matthew Yglesias’ posts here and here and Joe Klein here.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

There is something about American individualism that makes us want to have levels and hierarchies for no good reason, under the theory that more complication is a good thing.