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Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public Hardcover – August 26, 2002
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"A welcome corrective to what has been a stampede in recent years toward blaming citizens... How we act is affected by how our government treats us, the processes for influencing decision-making that are available to us and the societal structures that provide us with more or less time, resources, incentive and opportunity to venture into the public sphere... But I don't think this book lets citizens off the hook... Crenson and Ginsberg have taken an important step in identifying and describing that relationship [between formal democracy and everyday democracy], and their work calls us to pay attention to whether institutional processes today support or undermine everyday democracy." -- Palma J. Strand, The Nation
"A thoughtful and useful analysis of present-day democratic decline." -- Kerry Lauerman, Washington Post Book World
"Downsizing Democracy has the marks of a book that will be remembered. It applies a master thesis to many different facets of American political life, inviting the reader to see a vast array of previously familiar material as if for the first time and as a whole. In the authors' view, we have come to the end of a centuries-long epoch during which government and political elites needed publicly engaged citizenry... The authors prosecute their thesis... with admirable insight and persuasiveness." -- Hugh Heclo, Political Science Quarterly
"This fascinating book surveys the changing relationship between the U.S. government and the populace that constitutes its whole... Highly recommended." -- Choice
"Downsizing Democracy offers a sweeping and unsparing portrait of democratic decline in America. Crenson and Ginsberg refute accounts that blame ordinary citizens for our listless democracy. Instead they show how institutional changes have freed elites from mass constituencies and encouraged the substitution of personal action for political mobilization." -- Margaret Weir, University of California, Berkeley
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The authors discuss and document ten points in each of ten chapters:
1) The tyranny of the minorities has reached its ultimate peversion--single individuals, well-educated, well-off, get what they want, and the poor masses lose the power that came from groups with diverse backgrounds.
2) Citizenship has lost its meaning--taxation is automatic, and the US can be said to be back in a situation where the broad masses are experiencing "taxation without representation."
3) Elections now feature only the intensely loyal minority from each of the two major parties--the bulk of the voters have dropped out and elections are thus not representative of the wishes of the larger community.
4) Patronage has changed, with corporations rather than citizens getting to feed at the public trough, and the focus being on influencing policy after election, never mind who the people elected. The authors also do an excellent job of discussing polling and the manner in which it misrepresents the actual concerns and beliefs of the people.
5) Three chapters--one called "Disunited We Stand", a second called "From Masses to Mailing Lists, and a third called "Movements without Members" all make more or less the same point, but in different ways: political mobilization--people actually joining, doing, writing, demanding--are out, and instead we have micro groups, sometimes actually limited to the employed staff of an advocacy group, that raise funds, take stands, and get what they want, without ever having actually mobilized people to come together in a political manner.
6) A very thoughtful chapter covers the manner in which law suits and the judiciary have become a new battleground, a means of overturning laws and regulations made by the legislative and executive branches. While the authors do not go into the recent scams where a "nature conservation" non-profit sells prime environmental land to rich people below cost, and then accepts their tax-deductible contributions, they might also have explored how the law is being used to subvert the public interest, often with the help of the very "advocacy groups" that are nominally representing the public interest.
7) The authors do an excellent job of discussing how the out-sourcing of government functions to private enterprises undermines accountability and lead to severe abuse. Similarly, non-profits, including notional churches and other tax dodges, can enjoy enormous public subsidization in the way of tax breaks, while giving less than they should to the public treasury.
8) The author's end by asking "Does Anyone Need Citizens?" and the last two words in the book are "Who cares?" Today, the Administration's answer would clearly be "no", we don't need citizens. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the US public is both uninformed, and unengaged. 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.
This contrasts to the government of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which relied on the active participation of the public. For decades after the nation's founding, there was no professional civil service. The federal government was staffed through the spoils system while many local jurisdictions used volunteers. Putting together large blocs of voters was the bedrock of political legitimacy. National turnout for presidential elections in the late 1800s, for example, averaged a whopping 80% of eligible voters compared to less than 50% today.
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. Negative advertising and other smear tactics of recent electoral campaigns are designed to discourage voting by members of the opposition, not rally the support of believers.
The roots of this dilemma date back more than 100 years. In an attempt to rescue government from cronyism and corruption, the Progressives created the civil service system (based on merit rather than patronage) and established regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve Board to oversee commerce and the economy. These moves were supposed to put government under the authority of politically neutral technicians who would act in the public interest rather than by party loyalty. Yet they had the perhaps unintended effect of disengaging the state from its democratic foundation. (If nothing else, old-time machine politics tied leaders directly to their support base, however venal the relationship.)
Further aiding the professionalization of the government bureaucracy were the Revenue Act of 1942 and the Current Tax Payment Act of 1943, which enabled government to expand without direct citizen participation. The first piece of legislation broadened the nation's tax base, doubling the number of eligible taxpayers. The second provided for withholding income tax payments in advance of year-end filing, providing for a more predictable, steady cash flow. Prior to their passage, government relied on revenues raised through various use taxes and debt issues, augmented by the voluntary support of primarily affluent individual taxpayers.
Mobilizing larger voter masses under the New Deal, in response to the economic crisis of the 1930s, also only went so far. Franklin Roosevelt courted blue-collar workers in the North, but he did not challenge the feudalist system in the South. Agricultural labor was exempted from minimum wage laws and New Deal management was delegated to the state level (allowing public funds to be kept away from blacks) to appease the landed aristocracy of the former Confederacy.
When Great Society liberals sought to expand the New Deal coalition by embracing civil rights, the stage was set for the "New Politics" of today. Mobilizing the black vote pushed many Southerners, including Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, out of the Democratic Party and alienated northern working-class whites. This broke up the left's constituency and shifted the electorate rightward.
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. The judiciary and executive branches of government are the primary battlegrounds of these much less public skirmishes. And within the more discreet corridors of power, partisan politics are still being waged.
The government bureaucracy tends to be staffed ideologically according to function. Departments devoted to social welfare (health, education, housing, urban development, the environment, etc.) tend to attract career employees with more liberal leanings. Departments involved with commerce, security, and the military tend to attract more conservative ones. Recent efforts to reduce "entitlements" and their governmental infrastructures have had the bonus effect of solidifying power for conservatives within the government bureaucracy, Crensen and Ginsberg claim.
Another area where partisanship is still at play is in judicial and executive appointments. With more and more policy decisions being made through litigation and lobbying, controlling judges, department heads, regulators, etc. has become all the more important. Approving nominees for these positions has broad implications on the direction of government for a public that for all intents and purposes is being left out of the loop. In the case of the Federal judicial bench, for example, this includes the power to set case law and influence legal decisions for years to come.
What's to be done about this dysfunctional situation? Unfortunately, Crensen and Ginsberg don't give much cause for optimism. The withdrawal of the average citizen from politics cannot be easily reversed. "If citizens are to be roused from apathy to action," they write in the conclusion, "someone in a position to arouse them must have an interest in doing so." But there isn't really anyone in power today whose interests would be served by doing that. The best they can offer is to lift the guilt laid on by moralists that the decline of mass democracy is simply the result of the couch-potato solipsism the nation has supposedly slipped into during the age of Beavis and Butthead.
Still, Downsizing Democracy is an important book. One that anyone wanting to understand the sorry state of the nation these days will want, even if all you can do is read it and weep.