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August 20, 2004

More Politics

Dear Vanessa --

Hot diggity: here's more support for my election-season theme that the real battle isn't between Repubs and Dems, it's between our political class and the rest of us. It's a review of Downsizing Democracy by Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg; the book can be bought here. The reviewer's summary of the book's argument:

Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, the authors assert, policy elites became disengaged from the political public because a mass base was no longer needed for influencing and manipulating public policy. By documenting the evolving disregard for citizen judgment and influence in national policy circles, this book confirms that the creeping sense of political impotence spreading across the United States is not without foundation.

A passage from the book's jacket copy:

With citizens pushed to the periphery of political life, narrow special interest groups from across the political spectrum--largely composed of faceless members drawn from extended mailing lists--have come to dominate state and federal decision-making. In the closing decade of the last century, this trend only intensified as the federal government, taking a cue from business management practices, rethought its relationship to its citizens as one of a provider of goods and services to individual "customers."

And a few passages I've stitched together from the Amazon Reader Reviews (which are intelligent and worth reading):

Voter apathy in the present is the product of the public's marginalization by our political leaders, Crenson and Ginsberg maintain. Quite simply, ruling elites don't need and don't want broad-based voter consensus in putting their agendas into action anymore. They now rely more heavily on lobbying and litigation instead ...

In the place of high citizen involvement, New Politics introduced what Crensen and Ginsberg call "interest-group democracy." Public interest law firms, nonprofit think tanks and other advocacy groups (funded by foundation grants, private contributions and government contracts) trade on insider information and peddle influence within the Beltway on behalf of a plethora of constituencies, which may or may not exist in the national body politic ...

Citizens have allowed themselves to be side-lined, and by this excellent account from the authors, should they choose to re-engage, they will have very hard work in front of them as they seek to overturn a half-century of deliberate ventures all seeking to reduce citizenship, increase bureaucracy, and reward corporate patrons of individual politicians who choose not to act in the public interest, but only their own...

Here's a short excerpt from the book that the WashPost ran a few years ago:

The candidates seeking votes on Tuesday see us as something less: not a coherent public with a collective identity but a swarm of disconnected individuals out to satisfy our personal needs in the political marketplace. We see them, in turn, as boring commercials to be tuned out. It would be a mistake to conclude, as many commentators do, that Americans are apathetic citizens gone AWOL. But there's no question that the fundamental relationship between citizen and government has changed ...

The new channels of access to public decision-makers permit political and economic elites -- with the aid of the lobbyists and lawyers on K Street -- to get what they want from government without the nuisance of mobilizing a constituency of citizens to support them ...

These days, Washington is full of "citizen" groups whose membership is nothing more than a mailing list. A so-called "advocacy explosion" of the past 30 years has doubled or tripled the number of organizations with offices in Washington. But the percentage of Americans belonging to organizations has not increased, because today's citizen groups rarely mobilize citizens.

Here's a left-ish pan that calls the book "ridiculous," "disturbing," "rickety," and "creepy."

Sigh: now I may have read the damn book ...



posted by Michael at August 20, 2004


From the Amazon blurb:

In the nineteenth century, America was exceptional for the vitality of its democratic institutions, particularly political parties. When citizens wanted change, they mobilized as political groups to pressure their congressional representatives or they made their power felt at the ballot box.

Wow. These have to be the first people I've heard praising the political machines of the 18th century as being representative of the people .

In my mind, the main problem with politics today is/was media consolidation and the leftist lock on the media/universities/respectable opinion. THe internet is doing much more for increasing the political voice among individuals than these guys' recommendations (which will, I'm sure, carry much water for 60's style protests and government funded candidacies).

Posted by: gc on August 21, 2004 7:40 PM

the political machines of the 18th century

typo. 19th century - late 1800's to early 1900's, I mean (Tammany Hall & all that jazz).

Posted by: gc on August 21, 2004 7:45 PM

Interesting, though, isn't it that the major pan of the book comes from a leftie? It seems to be because the book's argument is that a lot of "progressive" electoral reform has backfired -- that, while intending to make politics more responsive to the public, resulted in politics being less responsive. And damn-the-consequences, intentions-are-all lefties don't like it when such arguments are made. As far as I can tell from the stuff that's online about the book, the authors argue that a lot of the electoral reform that they say has backfired was part of the same package that resulted in affirmative action, welfare-plus-perverse-incentives, urban renewal, etc -- all well-intended policies that sometimes seem to have led to worse results than we started with.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 21, 2004 8:39 PM

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