Ersatz Democracy

The surge in Iraq is working, we’re told. There is less violence; there is an elected government. Never mind that the Iraqi police include thugs, torturers, and murderers. The United States’ FBI is working on it, helping train a special unit to fight corruption and to develop respect for the rule of law. Good luck.

Democracy isn’t about election booths and the rule of law — though of course these are ultimately necessary. It is about finding ways for people to rule themselves, creating spaces for collective self-reflection and civic relationships among people with different views and backgrounds. As Randa Slim has noted in discussing “democratization” in Iraq, the voting booth can increase partisan division. Emerging democracies (as well as established ones) need spaces for people of different orientations to build relationships.

One of the leaders of the Iranian Revolution, now a dissident intellectual, is Ibrahim Yazdi. Today’s New York Times ran a feature on him and his views about democracy, which echo William James’s pluralism as well as John Dewey’s call to focus on democracy and not just the mechanisms of government:

Unexpectedly, Mr. Yazdi finds himself today aligned with some of those hostage takers, like Abbas Abdi, who, like Mr. Yazdi, now want to reform the system, and, like Mr. Yazdi, have been marginalized for their views.

“We thought we knew a lot of things back then,” Mr. Abdi said. “Everything was simplified. We thought, if only the shah goes, everything will be solved and finished. But the revolution was right, there was no alternative, no solution.”

Mr. Yazdi says he is a fundamentalist, but what he means is that he is a Muslim intellectual, traditional in his adherence to ritual and teachings. But he is a staunch democrat who defines democracy not by the mechanics of governance, not by elections and institutions, but by ideas.

“We recognize tolerance as a basic component of democracy,” he said. “God has not created all of us alike — we are different — human society is a pluralistic society. In the Koran, God is telling us that man is created to be free. So we are free to think, and think different. So the aim of democracy is to recognize the pluralistic nature of human society. The second item is tolerance, I have to tolerate my opponent. With tolerance comes compromise; without compromise democracy doesn’t exist.”

So, real democracy involves space for engaging ideas, other people, and other views and it involves creating bridges and not just electoral enclaves. These are lessons community organizers—from the back of the yards in Chicago to the jirgas in Pakistan—have long known. It would be nice if our own elected leaders, present and future, learned them as well.

What Kind of Democrats are Obama and Clinton?

Robert Gooding-Williams has an interesting post on the new Gender, Race, and Philosophy blog. He makes a good case that candidate Clinton is a democrat in the old elite style, while candidate Obama is a deliberative democratic. I’d love it if the latter were true. Whether it is so will be seen in practice, by how truly interested he is in cultivating and incorporating reflective public will. I don’t need any persuasion to agree that Hillary Clinton’s style is anything but participatory or deliberative. Recall her 1994 health care initiative: it was crafted behind tightly locked closed doors. No public input or oversight was welcome. Perhaps she thought this would be better somehow, but the results were predictable: the proposals that emerged were roundly dashed and never got off the ground. The same thing had happened in 1988 when AARP met behind closed doors with members of Congress to hammer out a catastrophic health care plan. The bill was enacted shortly before winter recess. Members of Congress returned home to find seniors up in arms over the new bill. It called for sacrifices that those subject to the bill had had no hand in shaping. They hadn’t had the chance to work through (in the Freudian sense, and the sense that Dan Yankelovich discusses) the costs and trade-offs. So when Congress recovened, one of the first things it did was rescind the new law.

Yankelovich once told me in an interview, “Any public policy that is not built on public will is built on sand.” Sand is what met the AARP bill and the HRC proposal. But I doubt that either learned that lesson. Obama seems to know instinctively that politics calls for drawing on public wisdom, not trying to manufacture public support after policy has been crafted.

When in despair…

…read Rich’s blog. Rich Harwood is a real voice for civic and democratic change. I’ve known him for more years than I care to admit, first simply as someone with a good ear and knack for focus group research, someone able to hear what regular folks are saying about their condition and their concerns about public life. In the past several years he’s taken these experiences along with his own sense of things to be a beacon for democratic change. Hats off to Rich.

Diversifying Media Ownership

A coalition of citizens’ groups, including the National Organization for Women and Consumers Union, is asking people to write to their members of Congress in a campaign to “stop big media.”  I know leaders of many of these organizations and can attest that they’re doing good work. Their draft letter is as follows:

I am writing to urge you to support S 2332, the “The Media Ownership Act of 2007.” This legislation will ensure that the Federal Communications Commission addresses the dismal state of female and minority ownership before changing any rules to unleash more media concentration.

Nearly 99 percent of the public comments received by the FCC oppose changing the nation’s media ownership rules to allow a handful of large conglomerates to swallow up more local media outlets. Congress rejected the same changes to the rules in 2003. Yet the FCC is still pushing a plan to overhaul the rules by the end of the year.

This legislation would mandate that the FCC give the public 90 days’ notice before holding a vote on new rules to ensure a full public accounting of the impact of media consolidation before changing the ownership limits. These steps are necessary to preserve diverse local media that meets the needs of our communities.

Diversity is the cornerstone of a democratic media system. Yet research by Free Press found that that while minorities make up 33 percent of the U.S. population, they own less than 8 percent of radio stations and 3 percent of TV stations.

This legislation would create an independent task force to address the crisis in minority media ownership.

Our democracy requires the free flow of local information from diverse voices. Please support the “The Media Ownership Act of 2007.”

For more information and a way to send your own version of the letter electronically, go to

Democracy and Higher Ed

Just back from a very intense three-day meeting on higher ed and democracy.  We — theorists and convenors of deliberative democracy — were brainstorming a network that would focus the academy’s attention on deliberative democracy.  To turn a phrase of the Kettering Foundation, “What kind of higher education does a public need in order for democracy to flourish?”  By democracy most everyone meant more than the apparatus of voting; we meant the kinds of participation in which members of a political community could have a hand in shaping their common world.  It is so easy to get absorbed in the usual way in which politics is conceived — as a matter of what governments do, not what publics do — that it’s easy to think of democracy as something “over there,” not right here in the ways in which we are always already involved in making our common world.

Deliberation & Social Justice

I’m in Portsmouth, NH, for a few days, meeting with a group convened by the University of New Hampshire. Among us are professors, theorists, and practitioners of deliberative democracy. Most everyone here is also deeply concerned about diversity, inclusiveness, and social justice. I sense a bit of tension between concern for democracy and concern for social justice, the very same tension I’ve seen at philosophy meetings where paper-givers have worried over the “opportunity conditions” for deliberative democracy. In short, the issue is whethere deliberative forums are truly democratic if full, democratic participation isn’t assured. Jürgen Habermas used to write about the “ideal speech situation,” a situation in which everyone was free to participate, free from any kind of coercion, and likely to be taken as seriously as anyone else. Such a situation is ideal, not necessarily realizable, because in the real world some of us are more advantaged than others. In a world that lacks full social justice, some people may have fewer opportunities to participate and to articulate their views as persuasively as others. Some people won’t be taken seriously simply because of gender, race, and social status. The outcome of such deliberations will likely not reflect the views of those marginalized from the discussion. Social justice seems to be a precondition for deliberative democracy.

But at the same time, I’d argue that deliberation shouldn’t wait for perfect social justice. Somehow even the least-advantaged people in a room can be the most powerful speakers. Such was the case in the first nationwide deliberative poll I observed, in Great Britain, where a woman with learning disabilities called the Tory leader on the carpet for his attempt to get rid of the “right to silence” (which is like our fifth amendment), saying that this would be dangerous for people like herself who might accidentally incriminate themselves. The Tory leader tried to placate her but the hundreds of other participants in the room kept yelling out, “answer her question.” Even with her halting words, she had used a deliberative democratic setting to call for social justice. So deliberative democracy shouldn’t wait for its own ideal conditions. The ideal of deliberation itself brings with it a way to help realize it.

Paris Hilton Starts Jail Time and other news…

Well, I know it must be important that Paris starts jail time, but I’m more caught up in less topical news: like, what’s happening to the reputation of democracy since the United States’ war in Iraq.

My cabbie yesterday morning, a philosopher named Chris from Ghana who drives a cab for a living, noted that not too long ago Africans looked up to American democracy, but now they don’t. He said this in exasperation after hearing a news report about “democratization” in Africa.

Democratization generally involves importing ballot boxes. But democracy happens prior to any ballot boxes. It happens in public spaces where people of different temperaments come together to talk.  Ballot boxes, as my friend Randa Slim notes, can exacerbate conflict in divided communities.  What such communities need are public spaces for building relationships.  Relationships don’t happen in private polling booths.

Does policy need democracy?

A friend told me this morning that when he was in graduate school in public policy he mentioned to his advisor that he might opt for the concentration in public policy and democracy. His advisor advised him: “Don’t bother.”

“Is that because the school’s offerings in democracy were lame?” I asked. “Or because the idea he thought the idea was lame?”

The latter. Seems the adivsor didn’t see what democracy could possibly have to do with public policy.

This may be true in practice — but certainly not in theory (to turn a phrase of Kant’s).

If we want to take seriously democracy as a regulative idea — and I certainly do — then public policy should be grounded in an idea of democracy, at least if policy is not just for a public but in some way by a public.

Okay, maybe I am naive, the same way I was naive back when I enrolled in policy school, thinking that public policy might be something that actually has democratic, public aspirations. I was quickly disappointed, but my mission ever since has been to set this wrongheaded attitude right. Take that, Walter Lippmann.

Vanishing Neo-Liberals?

David Brooks is stealing my material — kind of. In a column titled, The Vanishing Neoliberal, Brooks argues that the good old days of the sharp-thinking neoliberal are vanishing in return for the bad old days of old liberalism. Oh, woe the demise of the neoliberals who, Brooks writes, “were liberal but not too liberal. They rejected interest-group politics and were suspcious of brain-dead unions. They tended to be hawkish on foreign policy, positive about capitalism,” and “reformist when it came to the welfare state.”* Yes, I remember those days, but I could have sworn neo-liberals were conservatives. Well, actually, I was always dumbfounded how “neo-liberals” were any kind of liberals at all.

I said Brooks was stealing my material. Two days ago at a philosophy meeting in South Carolina, I started off my talk as follows:


Have you noticed that lately democracy is back in fashion? I mean, since the end of the Cold War? Prior to this new democratic era, the focus of theoretical and political debate was on things like socialism versus capitalism, free markets versus planned economies, negative versus positive liberty. Radicals were Marxists, liberals were progressives, progressives were communitarians, and conservatives were laissez-faire neo-liberals. The political spaces that seemed most important were governments and the economy. The idea of civil society was a throwback to Hegel, a quaint inconsequential idea of an inconsequential space.
But when the Wall fell, so too did the focus on government as the site where politics happens, for the curious thing about the end of the Cold War was that its seeds were in civil society, in organizations with names like “civic forum” in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Of course, it helped that the Soviet Union was crumbling and had pulled its tanks out of Eastern Europe. But it was now obvious that the “legitimation crisis” that Habermas and others had warned about capitalism was a much more severe crisis in communism such that a “people’s” government could fall simply with a civic association calling its bluff.
Now we are all democrats. But not all democrats under anything like one flag. Marxists became radical democrats, some progressives became liberal democrats, others, along with some communitarians, became deliberative democrats, and neo-liberals became patriots, who now in our time so love democracy that they are willing to invade and tear apart foreign countries in order to “democratize” them.


So now I’m thinking, never mind what kind of liberal you are, what kind of democrat are you?


*For the flow of my argument I cut out the Brooks’ phrase in his lament for the good old neo-liberal days. To wit: when they were “urbane but not militant on feminism and other social issues.” That’s right, we hate to see liberals in combat boots.