On Writing about Democratic Politics

            It seems fitting that I reflect on writing commentaries on democratic politics for this, the 100th iteration, of Soundings. When a colleague convinced me to begin this effort as an experiment in January 2010, I committed only to write this column periodically, as the muse moved me, as it were. I was already writing a quarterly commentary, Tidings, and I thought I could write another, slightly more frequent effort, without undue difficulty, but I was wary of committing to a set schedule. So, on that understanding, I began writing Soundings. In 2010 I wrote 17 columns and in 2011 I offered 12 more. By January 2012, however, I had decided I should write weekly so those interested could expect an essay on a known and timely basis, and I have published a commentary each week since.

            Gratifyingly, I have received many kind notes from individuals all over the world indicating they have found these columns insightful and thought provoking. But when I first began writing them, I was not sure what tenor my efforts would take. I knew that I admired several national columnists, including David Brooks, Timothy Egan, Paul Krugman and Bill Keller of the New York Times and Robert Reich of the University of California, but I also knew that I did not wish simply to imitate any of these individuals. I had an abiding sense that what I wished most to do was to connect today’s policy choices and controversies to deeper currents of democratic thought and governance, and to ground my writing in such theory and in research concerning it. I took this view because it seemed to me that all too often many who write and comment on U.S. politics report breathlessly on tactics and strategy—who is up and who is down in flash polling or among the supposed cognoscenti—and rarely reach the implications of those efforts for democratic self-governance. I also believed that such an approach made sense since I write as an intellectual at one of the nation’s leading research universities. It simply seemed appropriate to me to ground my thinking in what analysts had argued concerning freedom and democracy in the history of political thought.

            Despite this general disposition and a certain dissatisfaction with much of what often passes for political wisdom among the so-called “chattering class,” it was only in the regular practice of writing that I became comfortable with what I was undertaking and found my voice within it. And I have found that I often recur, directly or indirectly, to several fundamental trends shaping our politics now. None are strictly speaking completely new, although the present and very radical character of the GOP may be the exception to that rule.

            The first of these trends is that American politics has likely never been more complex or more opaque to the average citizen. That is partly deliberate and the result of mobilization strategies ever more adroitly practiced by the two main political parties, which aim to persuade and not to inform, and partially the product of the nation’s conflicted values about governance. The latter factor gave us neoliberalism in the late 1970s, an ideology that celebrates the role of the market in democratic capitalist societies and calls on public leaders to minimize the size and reach of governmental institutions and maximize the same for market choice making. The approach energized a U.S. political movement that not only lionized the market as a social and political decision mechanism superior to all others, but also led would-be elected leaders to attack the legitimacy of democratic institutions as compared to markets. Most famous among these declarations perhaps, was Ronald Reagan’s inaugural speech claim that democratic government constituted THE single greatest problem confronting the polity.

            More subtle than this ongoing trend of political leaders gaining office on arguments that delegitimate the institutions they are sworn to serve, but no less effective in obscuring accountability for public service delivery, was the turn by elected officials to governance forms that required that many national government goods and services be provided not only via states and often localities (our own very complex variant of federalism), but also through for-profit firms and nonprofit organizations. Political leaders variously declared these entities per se more legitimate and more efficient than public institutions established for the same purposes. The organizations were neither, but that mattered little on the campaign trail. And in practice, delivering services in this still more tortuous fashion turned out to be very difficult (and continues to be so) and to require new forms of accountability. It also raised a host of ethical issues. Notably, lawmakers rarely acknowledge either reality.

            But most basically, this system created public program implementation structures that defied easy or ready citizen understanding. And elected leaders were not shy about blaming whoever was ready to hand when matters went awry in these complicated administrative arrangements, rather than accepting responsibility for the Rube Goldberg delivery strategies they had adopted. This left citizens often in the position of not knowing whom to hold accountable or even who ultimately was responsible for their public services in many cases. The predictable result has been widespread dissatisfaction and confusion and a heightening of the natural human propensity to want a simple explanation for difficult issues. I suspect strongly this perennial state of confusion and complexity has increased many Americans’ willingness to believe the often-ludicrous paranoiac claims now on offer by candidates and would-be pundits alike about their government. Ironically, this state of perplexity is a product of citizens’ own beliefs and values and their too frequent election of individuals who pillory self-governance rather than seek to make it work, although that fact hardly makes the situation less difficult.

            A second major trend evident during the time I have been writing this column is the growing willingness of elected leaders to vilify groups and others who disagree with them, rather than to imagine that those individuals might legitimately hold views different than their own and to negotiate in good faith with them. Office holders from both parties have behaved in this way, certainly, but GOP legislators have appeared to specialize in it with a particular virulence. These officials, for example, have sought publicly and proudly to do all they can to stymie the President of the United States since his election in 2008, including refusing to consider his nominees for offices, doing so on the grounds that they do not support the agencies those individuals will lead and the laws they will enforce. Some Republican officials have outrageously and publicly questioned the President’s citizenship and his patriotism. Even providing these examples suggests how dangerous this trend is for the nation’s legitimacy and capacity for governance. And, of course, that same party has threatened the full faith and credit of the nation for partisan purposes and supported a standard bearer in 2012 who famously declared 47% of the nation’s population “dependent” and all but beside the point in governance terms. Also in 2012 the GOP attacked voting rights access in many states across the nation on grounds of empirically non-existent fraud in an effort to dissuade many citizens it feared would not vote for its ticket from voting at all. Meanwhile, the Republican Party particularly has disparaged the poor and vulnerable for being so, and many of its members in Congress have declared that any social assistance undermines the liberty of such individuals. The result has been an ongoing attack not only on these people, but also more deeply, on the idea of democratic society as a community.

            Finally, a third discomfiting trend afoot as I have been writing Soundings concerns the role of the media in reporting these major developments. While there is much excellent reporting and many fine journalists, one must look for their work. There are now channels, networks and Internet sites offering political news slanted to their viewers’ predilections. The same is true of much radio programming, when stations offer meaningful political coverage at all. There is also a great deal of reporting that countenances outrageous claims as valid points of view, according them credibility far beyond anything they deserve. And of course, there are the countless talk shows in which those supposedly “in the know” dramatically report on the plebiscitary portent of whatever the political drama du jour might be, while routinely ignoring its fundaments or implications.

            These trends suggest we are living through a particularly difficult period as a regime just now. Whether we can reverse this challenging scenario and develop the conditions for both a free society and a robustly self-governing one remains to be seen. I hope to continue to do my small part in commenting on our course in these columns, whatever may obtain.