Three Myths about Participation

Over the years since America’s founding, and especially in recent decades, Americans in the millions have joined support, service, affinity, and advocacy groups of every kind, not just to recoup a sense of community lost after generations of guardian rule and an anonymous consumer culture, but to find meaning and coherence in their daily lives. Research by Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow shows that such groups arise mainly because the individuals involved felt “the desire to grow as a person”–to achieve those final steps toward full adulthood that promotes autonomy within community.46

This “off-the-books” (outside formal political and employment channels) approach to citizenship brings with it several problems. Although it allows people to deal directly with each other in small-scale, community matters, it also reinforces three very powerful–and very false–myths about direct participation that are happily promoted by most guardians.

The first myth is the belief that any sort of direct political or economic participation requires face-to-face interaction. This means that the demos, or voting population involved with the issue at hand, must be small enough to permit personal interaction among all participants. This belief is owed largely to our experience growing up in families, interacting in classrooms, and earning a living in small work groups. It also matches our experience with committees, clubs, professional associations, and other ad hoc groups where “things get done.” It’s consistent, too, with the practices of the ancient Greek city-state, whose demos met in the agora, or public square, and the Roman Republic, whose citizens assembled in either the Forum or the Field of Mars outside the city gates. It is also the model of participation held up to us by modern guardians because that’s the way they supposedly do business: on the floor of Congress and in state legislatures, during Presidential cabinet meetings and in corporate boardrooms. Why, then, is this time-honored and widespread experience a myth?

First, real communication within these groups–the detailed interaction that sets agendas, defines problems, crafts alternatives, frames decisions, and makes deals–actually takes place through many other channels, virtually none of them “in the agora.” Only the voting itself occurs with all members present, and even then most communications are procedural, ceremonial, or intended for outside consumption, such as remarks “read into the record” to document dissent or please constituents. As a result, most voting participants have already made up their minds about the issues involved–in other words, they have already deliberated–before the assembly is convened. Although records of stirring public debates and dramatic (even violent) elections abound, this practice was as true in antiquity as it is in modern parliaments and legislatures, where political deals are routinely hammered out in committee, on the phone, through e-mail, or by power brokers working behind closed doors.

This myth was alive and well at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Anti-federalists thought direct self-governance by Americans was desirable but impractical due to the country’s great size, as indeed it had been even at the state level before the revolution. Still, numerous delegates sounded dire warnings about the dangers of representation. New York’s governor George Clinton warned his delegation to avoid any system that installed representatives who, “possessed of all the powers of government, and who, from their remoteness from their constituents, and necessary permanency of office, could not be supposed to be uniformly actuated by an attention to their welfare and happiness...”47 Two members of the South Carolina delegation were even more critical of national guardianism, predicting that, “...everything would be managed in future by great men, and great men everybody knew were incapable of acting under influence of mistake or that if at any future period we should smart under laws which bore hard upon us...the answer would be–Go, you are totally incapable of managing for yourselves with public concerns–mind your business–48

Federalists, on the other hand, were adamant about keeping real power in guardian hands “to the exclusion of the people in their collective capacity,” as James Madison so bluntly put it.49 Thus, applying to public issues the skills, insights, and problem-solving methods the vast majority of us use every day in private life was reserved from the beginning for “our betters” simply because, every once in a while, they could all fit into one room.

Today, most people (including guardians) will admit after reflection that a face-to-face encounter–especially in the presence of strangers–is often the worst way to achieve high-quality communication, let alone an understanding of complex issues or to examine alternatives and make reasoned choices. This is why face-to-face encounter is advocated mostly by the people who do it best: those skilled in oral communication, adept at advocacy, and psychologically motivated to dominate any group–in short, natural guardians. Such people have an advantage in face-to-face encounters, which is one reason they run for office, volunteer for committees, and seek opportunities for public speaking. When a group gets much bigger than the number of people who can comfortably sit around a kitchen table, dialog too often becomes diatribe, and personality takes over from polity. Views aren’t just presented, they become positions that are defended ferociously out of a fear of losing face. Just as bad, less-skilled communicators often clam-up defensively or go out of their way to conform to group norms, regardless of their real feelings, just to avoid embarrassment or socially awkward conflict. This is one reason the city of Berkeley, California–long known for its contentious public hearings–established a virtual town hall on the Internet, specifically to draw less-vocal citizens into public debate.50

This myth is also where the “tyranny of the mob” originates. Nazi brownshirts smashing windows on Kristallnacht; plebeians storming Rome’s granaries; youth gangs burning stores in South Central Los Angeles; night riders lynching blacks in the American south–all these began with “people publicly assembled,” but not with an inclusionary, participative, democratic intent. They were an assembly, to be sure, but they were not the demos. There may have been voters among them, but their intention was not to vote. Their goal was to keep something for themselves–access to resources, political suffrage, a way of life–by denying it to someone else: the very definition of guardianism. There can be no rabble without rabble-rousers; and the demagogues who rouse them know only too well the power of factions. Citizens quietly considering, or even debating, ballot initiatives in living rooms, at computer keyboards, in office buildings, or in coffee shops are not motivated to destroy the societies they seek to improve. Being a self-governing citizen means doing one’s homework: gathering information as part of the deliberation process, testing one’s views, and being willing to change one’s mind–a little or a lot–over time. This is difficult or impossible to do after one has already taken a strong position in front of other people.

This “myth of the agora” has also been exploded through a century’s worth of successful citizen initiatives held in a number of populous states. It has also dispelled a corollary notion that representative government can, in any meaningful or lasting way, unite the demos. This is because representation is inherently a process of division. It separates voters into districts, creating an “us versus them” mentality. It encourages gerrymandering and promotes pork-barrel traffic. At minimum, it creates a two-tier citizenship: one class for elected guardians, who enjoy the full rights and prerogatives of direct participation; and a second, lesser class for their dependents, who do not.

Political parties, invented for the convenience of guardians, further divide and polarize people. They emphasize differences, not shared goals and values. They best reward guardians most skilled at exploiting such differences–those who mobilize interest groups and demonize their opponents while penalizing more flexible candidates who emphasize consensus.

This divisive aspect of guardianism, made worse by our irrational insistence on face-to-face interactions and one-time, win-lose, majority-rule contests as the acid-test for democracy, has caused untold damage throughout history. All republics thrive on establishing and maintaining mutually antagonistic groups, each with the goal to protect their own interests by keeping certain guardians in power (and certain preferred groups on top) while denying the apparatus of power to their opponents. Coalitions among these antagonists may form from time to time, but they seldom last and are still aimed at keeping guardians in power, not increasing public participation.

Obviously, this sort of unity is a sham. Indeed, it’s been said that representative elections suppress popular will better than martial law, since elections flatter voters by making them feel essential to the governing process and not at its margins. Tocqueville saw through this charade as soon as he touched American soil, noting that in our youthful republic, government power increased the more our people perceived it to be responsive. “What citizens initially believe to be reins,” he said, “...become the ends of their own chains”51

The second great myth about direct citizen participation is that it is capable of handling only small, easily managed problems while only guardians can address big issues.

This view is based partly on guardians’ belief in their own press releases. A very small representative body called the U.S. Congress–preoccupied as most guardians lawmakers are, with short-sighted legislation designed to benefit one preferred group over another–routinely tackles problems of enormous scale. Occasionally their programs benefit the entire demos, though these outcomes may often be attributed to factors beyond guardian control, including random chance. When guardians’ big schemes fail or produce unintended consequences, they blame political opponents or an uncooperative public. Despite this spotty track record, they insist that the citizens who challenge these mistakes and miscalculations are incapable of doing better. Obviously, there are some conceptual and historical problems with this argument.

First, representatives are drawn from the same population they represent. Other than general requirements about age, residency, citizenship, and the like, there are no special qualifications for elected guardians–nothing, at least in the eyes of the law, that makes this “elite” so elite: they become so only after election. Even then, the skills they develop as legislators come from the democratic education they receive while practicing the legislator’s art. They also receive a lot of help from government and private-sector advisors, and there is no reason to suppose that, given the same mandate and assistance, citizens themselves could not do as well–and, as we’ll see shortly, many reasons to suppose they would do better.

Second, also defying logic, the representative system requires guardians to be elected by the same population it judges, after election, to be incapable of making political decisions, no matter what the scale. While some representatives may be highly qualified in one or a few areas, no person (guardian or not), can be omniscient. Said another way, if the world is too complex to be understood by the entire demos, which comprises 100 percent of the electorate, how can a representative body drawn from it be more competent than the whole?

As it turns out, candidates for representative office do tend to be overqualified in two key areas: their desire to dominate others and their dissatisfaction with the “ordinary” (that is, undemocratic or dependent) way of life. They are also under qualified in what should really be the key component in a democratic personality: a passionate belief in the people. Just as the seeds of “mob tyranny” are sewn by factionalization and opportunistic guardians, so are the seeds of guardian abuses planted in the mechanics of a system that attracts fundamentally anti-democratic people to high office.

In a debate with Alexander Hamilton during New York state’s Constitutional Ratification Convention, Melancton Smith, a fervent anti-federalist, foresaw nothing but problems with a government built around elected representatives. “I am convinced,” he said, “that this Government is so constituted, that the representatives will generally be composed of the first class in the community...and if the government is so constituted as to admit but few to exercise the powers of it, it will, according to the natural course of things, be in their hands...the stile [sic] in which the members live will probably be high–circumstances of this kind, will render the place of a representative not a desirable one to sensible, substantial men who have been used to walk in the plain and frugal paths of life.”52

These great men, Smith added, would combine to help one another secure election and other benefits, while ordinary people, preoccupied with the stuff of daily life, would find such conspiracies difficult and unnatural: “...their divisions will be promoted by the others. There will be scarcely a chance of their uniting, in any other but some great man, unless in some popular demagogue, who will probably be destitute of principle. ...the government will fall into the hands of the few and the great. This will be a government of oppression.”

Smith went on to point out that average citizens (“those in middling circumstances”), being used to living within their means and “setting bounds to their passions and appetites,” would be disposed more to moderation than excess and be “of better morals and less ambition than the great.” Great guardians, he warned, lack true empathy for the average person and, although sharing many of their foibles and weaknesses, still feel themselves above their constituents–as indeed they are, given their monopoly on state power. In the end, he said, “...If this government becomes oppressive it will be by degrees: it will aim at its end by disseminating sentiments of government opposite to republicanism; and proceed from step to step in depriving the public of a share in the government.”

In his book, The United States of Ambition, Alan Ehrenhalt confirms that most career politicians become power junkies because the system–the very mechanism Smith warned us about–demands it.53 To get the contacts they need among political gatekeepers, a guardian’s “public service” often begins at an early age, frequently on the staff of other career politicians. By the time they have the resources and connections to run a successful race, they have little on life’s resume beyond a history of attending the right schools and joining the right organizations, political toadying and personal “gofer-ing,” image polishing and issue manipulation, spin doctoring and media management. For them, winning is everything–not because they have an overriding sense of social mission, but because they simply have no plow to go back to. Most find natural allies in the career bureaucracy and think nothing of using public resources to further their interests or the interests of preferred individuals or groups, or of mobilizing taxpayer resources to sway specific elections.54 Through the odious and clubby practices of “add-on” voting, “ghost-voting,” and after-the-fact vote switching, many representatives do not even deliberate or cast votes on the bills they’ve been empowered to decide.55

University of Maryland professor James Glass studied the psychology of professional politicians and compared it to the inmates of a Maryland psychiatric hospital. He concluded that “the raw, primitive, archaic quality of the schizophrenic experience demonstrates how power works.”56

An impulse to tyranny begins when individuals with psychotic tendencies try to insulate themselves from threats. They justify their arbitrary decisions and self-dealing as self-defense, though those acts are done made mainly to placate their inner demons. While he doesn’t claim all politicians and their followers are psychotic, their collective actions can lead to a kind of mass psychosis, wherein entire societies, or substantial segments of it–such as Nazi Germany–behave as if they were. Presumably, less dysfunctional guardians would lead a nation into a slightly less crazy condition, but the difference is only one of degree. This is not the promise made to us by our constitution or by the guardians who want to rule us.

In a way, the modern electoral process is enough to drive any guardian crazy. Candidates must first obtain the blessing of party gatekeepers, whose primary motive is perpetuating the party and increasing its power, not determining the common good and achieving the general will. After that, approved candidates must abase themselves before the same public they distrust and that they hope, after election, to rise above. Often in such campaigns, it’s easier to lower one’s opponent than to elevate one’s self, so electoral contests become increasingly adversarial, ignoble, and sensationalistic. A few candidates may finish the process feeling, in some twisted but righteous way, entitled to abuse or loot the office it has cost them so much to win. They become not the benign philosopher-kings envisioned by Plato, but sociological gangsters adept at brokering deals among factions, intimidating opponents, and extorting favors–hardball politics by any other name.

This is not a new problem. It has plagued every republic in history. Mill suggested that constituents might resolve the situation not by throwing the rascals out, but by instructing their representatives on how to be a delegate and not a despot–turning them into a mouthpiece for local beliefs about the common good and general will.57 Still, Mill acknowledged that as long as representatives are allowed to vote as they please, that’s exactly what they’ll do. Indeed, Roger Sherman successfully argued against putting the “right to instruct” a representative into the Constitution, since it would effectively cancel the new Congress’s power to act as guardians.

In any event, the term-limits movement of the early 1990s–a band-wagon onto which many guardians themselves eventually hopped–was, perhaps, the first public acknowledgment by officials that guardian exceptionalism was a myth. Many states felt that representation had inappropriately become a lifelong profession and set limits on how many times its “most knowledgeable” guardians could be re-elected. Still, to most career politicians, killing time between different elective offices meant a temporary stint as an appointed official, campaign advisor, or lobbyist. Hardy as rats and roaches, even unemployed guardians are as tenacious in their claims to superior rights as the old French aristocrats were in theirs.

The idea that a handful of people can ever be better than all of us at handling society’s problems, large or small, reveals two fundamental failures in guardian reasoning. First, by limiting our choices to candidates who, because of their distaste for private life, need to dominate others and willingness to collaborate with an inherently anti-democratic process, we consistently select the worst possible people to be our guardians. Second, by limiting true democratic participation to a tiny fraction of the legitimate demos, we deny ourselves the problem-solving resources and collective life experience of our own great numbers. Guardians who argue that the best people generally do run for office overlook the fact that these same capable people would not be excluded from participating in a more broadly based, direct democracy–in fact, their contributions and leadership would be sought, valued, and welcomed; they would simply be prevented from denying that same participation to others.

This raises the collateral question of “expertise.” Are we better off consigning complicated problems to guardians who represent themselves as, or are acknowledged to be, experts in a certain field, or should we handle these problems ourselves using the total resources of the demos, which includes the advice of experts? Here, too, logic and experience provide the answer.

By devoting a large chunk of their lives to mastering one field, experts necessarily forego comparable experience in others. They become less knowledgeable about many things while seeing a few things as disproportionately important. Even when consulted about matters in their field, they tend to take the world view of one profession, and their “solutions” have an uncanny way of depending on, and increasing, the power and centrality of that perspective. What’s worse, research suggests that “incompetent experts” are more common that we suspect. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, professors David A. Dunning and Justin Kruger discovered that the hallmark of incompetent people appears to be blissful self-assurance. “Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices,” Kruger says, “but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”58 Remember that the next time your favorite representative campaigns on the slogan that he or she is “the best person for the job.”

It’s no wonder then that the source of much of the vaunted complexity in our political economy comes from the myopic, solution-specific way these experts frame the questions our laws must answer. In reality, most social problems encompass many factors, and the wider the range of experiences we bring to bear on them, the better our solutions will be.

The final myth involves the way guardians have conditioned the demos to view itself. While making minute distinctions among competing candidates, guardians and their boosters try to lump all voters together, assuming conveniently that the lowest common denominator is the most relevant voter statistic. Since public opinion often follows a bell-shaped curve, guardians claim that the “highly informed” votes of the educated elite fall at one tail of the curve only to be canceled out by the votes of dullards and dropouts at the other, leaving most decisions to the great, mediocre middle. They forget that voting is a voluntary act, and that ignorant, apathetic, and alienated people generally don’t go to the polls at all, making that “mediocre middle” a bit more knowledgeable and involved than guardians pretend.59

The tails of the curve in this case represent not “good” versus “bad” citizens, but opposing, extreme positions–and those do indeed tend to cancel each other out, which is not such a bad idea in a democracy.

It takes all kinds to make a world–and a demos–and the various personalities, styles of thinking, and experiences  possessed by constituents really do complement each other, giving society more resources and choices than it could ever obtain from a limited number of guardians. After all, who knows better what constitutes the common good and general will–the raw materials of a good life, widely shared–than the people who have done, and will do, the living.

  1. 46. Wuthnow, Robert. Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community. New York: The Free Press. 1994.
  2. 47. Bailyn, Bernard Ed. The Debate on the Constitution, Part 2. New York: The Library of America. 1993. 4-5.
  3. 48. Ibid.
  4. 49. The Federalist, Number 63.
  5. 50. Holtz, Debra Levi. “Berkeley Residents Can Take Action on Internet,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 22, 2000.
  6. 51. Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Captive Public: How Mass Opinion Promotes State Power. New York: Basic Books. 1986.: a yoke of obedience guardians have always been eager to place around our necks whether face-to-face or at a distance.
  7. 52. Bailyn. The Debate on the Constitution, Part 2. 760-761, 764.
  8. 53. Ehrenhalt, Alan. The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the Pursuit of Office. New York: Times Books/Random House. 1991.
  9. 54. Examples of this abound in the “B section” of big-city newspapers, including: “Lame Duck Mayor Turns Bank Robber,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 29, 1997; Williams, Lance, “Mayor’s Aides tapped tenants for 49er votes,” San Francisco Examiner, December 28, 1997; Sahagun, Louis, “Arizona Governor Convicted: He leaves office today, faces years in prison for fraud,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 4, 1997; Asimov, Nanette, “School Board Chief Lags in Child Support: SF official, a parental responsibility advocate, owes $5,000,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 12, 1997; Associated Press, “House GOP Official Admits a Mistake: He handed out PAC checks on the floor,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 1997.
  10. 55. Lucas, Greg. “Not All Votes Are Created Equal,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 9, 1999.
  11. 56. Glass, James M. Psychosis and Power: Threats to Democracy in the Self and the Group. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  12. 57. Mill, John Stuart. Three Essays: On Liberty, Representative Government, The Subjection of Women. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1975.
  13. 58. Goode, Erica. New York Times. “Incompetent People Really Have No Clue, Studies Find,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 18, 2000.
  14. 59. Even experts have backed away from the notion that super-smart guardians make better public policy decisions than average citizens. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes that “Psychologists have proven that people can and do perform very wisely in certain real-life situations, regardless of their scores on IQ tests”; and that multifaceted “general intelligence,” which defies conventional measurement and includes dimensions like social cooperation as well as perception, memory, attention, and categorization appears to be a widespread human trait. (Eliot. What’s Going On in There? 394.)

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