Democratic Mobilization, Deliberation and Civic Health

At its best, democratic politics should be a continuing dialogue among citizens and their leaders (and would-be leaders) concerning the appropriate direction and steps necessary for the collective furtherance of their freedom and welfare. At its worst, that forum can descend into demagoguery and active efforts to deprive citizens of their rights. Such situations threaten freedom itself. And the mediating factors determining whether a democratic regime can move closer to an ideal or fall into degraded discourses that actively undermine civil rights and freedom, appear to be how deliberatively the citizenry behaves collectively, the beliefs (ideologies) and integrity of responsible officials and the forms those individuals employ to share their perspectives with voters. None of these factors is new. Indeed, the character of all of these is elemental to the creation and maintenance of self-governing institutions. I have lately been struck by a series of news accounts that together reveal the nation is now evidencing major difficulties with each of these critical components of self-rule. The result has been a presidential election season replete with leading candidates offering deliberate lies as their supposed “platforms;” appeals to the worst tendencies in the voting public, including invocations of racism and jingoism; evidence of widespread ignorance among large shares of the electorate; and a quest for power for its own sake among some would-be leaders, irrespective of the implications of their actions for the health of the body politic. A few examples from those stories may help to illustrate these tendencies.

The first account that caught my attention concerned Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who recently issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of of more than 200,000 ex-offenders in his state. It is easy to defend his actions as appropriate in principle, since these individuals had served their sentences for their crimes and returned to the general population. One either takes seriously the fact that they had undergone what the Commonwealth had declared appropriate punishment and now should be treated as any other citizen, or one risks treating whole cadres of Americans (also Virginians, in this case) as undeserving of their innate rights, no matter what price they may have paid society to compensate for their past behavior. Nevertheless, as Leonard Pitts pointed out in his nationally syndicated column, if McAuliffe enjoys the high ground in this situation, there is little doubt that the chief executive’s timing was carefully considered. A majority of those who will now be able to vote are African Americans, and while many will not exercise their new found franchise, those who do are likely to vote for the Democratic standard bearer in November. Virginia General Assembly speaker Dennis Howell (R),

… pronounced himself ‘stunned,’ by the governor’s action which he said was designed to deliver November votes to presumed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. ‘It is hard to describe how transparent the governor’s motives are. … The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe’s governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton President of the United States.’[1]

However silly this hyperbole might seem in light of the reality of the likely marginal actual electoral consequences of McAuliffe’s action, it demonstrates how threatening the governor’s step appears to a party that realizes its majority may be in jeopardy, as Virginia’s demographics continue to shift away from the GOP’s traditional base. Nonetheless, it also seems unlikely that McAuliffe took his bold step solely as an act of principle. As Pitts concluded, “This is no profile in courage. This is an act of political expedience. … You cannot applaud without holding your nose.” [2] Ultimately, this episode is more interesting for what it reveals about the Republican legislative majority in Virginia than it is for the complex motives that may have underpinned the governor’s action.

Meanwhile, a second recent news story reported that the GOP continues to demonstrate its willingness to manipulate voter registration and identification requirements in states where it enjoys a legislative majority on the basis of patently false posturing that onerous registration conditions are necessary to avoid widespread voter fraud.[3] Kansas is the latest case in point: More than 22,000 voters who sought to register in February remain in a kind of legal limbo as the state “assesses” their credibility as citizens. Kansas Republican leaders have insisted on ensuring exceptionally difficult registration requirements for these individuals, knowing that nearly 60 percent of them are young (18-29) and, on average, less likely to vote for the GOP in November. Since Kansas has successfully prosecuted only one instance of actual voter registration fraud in the last nine months, despite Republican arguments that deceit is rampant, it seems difficult to defend this stance as anything but a bald act of power to deny individuals their vote because those in positions of authority fear they might not support their party. This situation speaks for itself in its implications for democracy and civil rights, as does the fact that the Republican Party has employed this tactic in multiple states, in addition to Kansas.

That the GOP can embrace an outright fabrication such as the position its leaders have adopted concerning vote fraud in Kansas, despite the facts, suggests that those officials are confident they can play on voter attitudes and fears for support if they can frame the public conversation successfully. In fact, as noted, the GOP has unleashed a barrage of “concern” about voter registration fraud in Kansas. This reality points up the role of appeals to citizens’ ignorance and prejudices and the ability to do so via canalized channels that reinforce the beliefs of those already inclined to take specific positions. So it is that the GOP implies that the young people who have registered to vote in Kansas are somehow not “really” eligible to do so because they may lack one or another form of identification demanded. Implicitly that stance also suggests that those thousands of would-be voters are trying deliberately to mislead the state¾a stance for which there is no empirical evidence, but one that is surely emotionally inflammatory for other voters.

Likewise, the Republican Party has argued, again without offering any principle to support its claim, that those who have otherwise paid retribution for their crimes by serving their sentences nevertheless do not merit being treated as citizens. In so doing, those leaders have laid aside the tenet of punishment followed by reconciliation in favor of appeals to citizen prejudice and fears. Howell’s comments in response to McAuliffe’s action underscored this conclusion. The Speaker highlighted what he took to be the implications of the governor’s actions for his party’s electoral calculus (and that of the Democrats, to be sure) rather than offer an in-principle contention for his position that these individuals should continue to be denied their civil rights. In truth, he has never offered such an argument. Nevertheless, by appealing to fear and prejudice of “criminals” as well as whipping up partisan outrage, Howell was surely reinforcing the views of members of his party and giving them reasons to be angry about this alleged assault on their birthright. In this sense, his remarks were thoughtfully calculated to undermine deliberation, rather than to encourage it among voters. It appears that like Kansas’ GOP leaders, Howell was most interested in securing/maintaining political power for himself and his party and was more than willing to press intentionally misleading claims and exploit voter prejudices to do so.

The third news account I noticed concerned President Obama, who recently undertook an extended interview concerning his economic legacy with New York Times correspondent Andrew Sorkin.[4] One question Sorkin asked was why so many Americans were so uninformed about the state of the nation’s economy and the President offered an empirically accurate and frank assessment:

He quickly returned to the topic of public perception. ‘If you ask the average person on the streets, “Have deficits gone down or up under Obama?” probably 70 percent would say they’ve gone up,’ Obama said, with some justifiable exasperation—the deficit has in fact declined (by roughly three-quarters) since he took office, and polls do show that a large majority of Americans believe the opposite. Obama is animated by a sense that, looking at the world around him, the U.S. economy is in much better shape than the public appreciates, especially when measured against the depths of the financial crisis and the possibility—now rarely even considered—that things could have been much, much worse. Over a series of conversations in the Oval Office, on Air Force One and in Florida, Obama analyzed, sometimes with startling frankness, nearly every element of his economic agenda since he came into office. His economy has certainly come further than most people recognize. The private sector has added jobs for 73 consecutive months—some 14.4 million new jobs in all—the longest period of sustained job growth on record. Unemployment, which peaked at 10 percent the year Obama took office, the highest it had been since 1983, under Ronald Reagan, is now 5 percent, lower than when Reagan left office. The budget deficit has fallen by roughly $1 trillion during his two terms. And overall U.S. economic growth has significantly outpaced that of every other advanced nation.[5]

The interview suggested that the broad public ignorance of these facts has most frustrated the President. Obama acknowledged the swathe of Americans who have left the labor force completely and highlighted, too, those he has sought to assist who have not benefited from the sustained economic recovery that has occurred during his tenure. But, he also noted that his efforts to aid those displaced by globalization and its depressive effects on wages have been routinely stymied by unbridled GOP opposition. Overall:

‘How people feel about the economy,’ Obama told me, giving one part of his own theory, is influenced by ‘what they hear.’ He went on: ‘And if you have a political party —in this case, the Republicans—that denies any progress and is constantly channeling to their base, which is sizable, say, 40 percent of the population, that things are terrible all the time, then people will start absorbing that.’ [6]

Taken together, these three recent news accounts highlight several longer term trends in our politics that are disconcerting for our nation’s ability to engage in anything resembling prudential democratic politics:

  • Widespread public ignorance of what is occurring in the nation’s politics, both as a result of increasingly narrow and partisan communications outlets, and deliberate and elaborate attempts to mislead and obscure those facts in the name of securing power for one or another political party;
  • The ill effects of the Republican Party’s absolutist anti-government ideology and embrace of a form of economic thinking that does not support deliberative or prudent government management of the nation’s economy;
  • The impact for the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens of the GOP’s ideology-driven refusal to assist those displaced by globalization—including many of that Party’s supporters—but a willingness, instead, to blame them personally for the conditions they confront;
  • An apparently growing inclination among some party officials to deny Americans their civil rights if doing so will obtain sufficient support to allow them to gain or maintain power.

The implications of a continuation and deepening of these trends, for self-governance and freedom, should such occur, are clear and imply a possible descent into demagoguery or worse, as those seeking power become ever more adroit at manipulating a public often unaware of the realities they confront. Alternatively, the citizenry could rebel against exploitation by elites seeking power and wealth, and demand electoral and campaign finance reforms as well as different forms of information so as to avoid the condition in which many now find themselves. While I sketch these possibilities, there are surely many others that would prevent the wholesale temporary or permanent usurpation of self-governance. Some options might find the electorate choosing to reject the dominant neoliberal public philosophy that has hollowed out the country’s public institutions for several decades and deeply eroded their popular legitimacy. Such a turn might prove the most salutary of all.

 

Notes

[1] Pitts, Leonard. “McAuliffe does Right thing for Wrong Reason,” April 28, 2016, http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article74099102.html Accessed April 28, 2016.

[2] Pitts, April 28, 2016. http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article74099102.html Accessed April 28, 2016.

[3] Editorial board, New York Times, “Voting Gets Harder in Kansas,” April 30, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/01/opinion/sunday/voting-gets-harder-in-kansas.html?emc=edit_th_20160501&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40087534 Accessed April 30, 2016.

[4] Sorkin, Andrew, “President Obama Weighs his Economic Legacy,” The New York Times, April 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/01/magazine/president-obama-weighs-his-economic-legacy.html?&moduleDetail=section-news-0&action=click&contentCollection=Magazine&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&pgtype=article Accessed April 28, 2016.

[5] Sorkin, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/01/magazine/president-obama-weighs-his-economic-legacy.html?&moduleDetail=section-news-0&action=click&contentCollection=Magazine&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&pgtype=article

[6] Sorkin, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/01/magazine/president-obama-weighs-his-economic-legacy.html?&moduleDetail=section-news-0&action=click&contentCollection=Magazine&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&pgtype=article