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Social Forces 82.3 (2004) 1207-1209

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Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public. By Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. 294 pp.

In his 1960 classic, The Semisovereign People, E.E. Schattschneider provided a trenchant critique of pluralist theory. He famously observes, the "flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent." In contrast to the pressure system lionized by pluralists, the system of party competition is more likely to address the interests of the many, especially those who occupy the lower rungs of society's ladder. This is because electoral competition gives parties incentives to convert nonvoters into voters, thus triggering a "socialization of conflict."

If Schattschneider indicts interest-group politics as elitist, Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg in Downsizing Democracy indict both interest-group and electoral politics as increasingly elite affairs. This follows from their main thesis that ours has become a "personal democracy." Where popular democracy required elites to mobilize nonelites in order to prevail in political conflict, our current personal democracy does not. Instead, due to the proliferation of opportunities for individual access to government, elites have few incentives to mobilize nonelites at all.

The first half of the book deals with changes in party politics. It discusses how state building has historically depended upon an expansion of citizenship. What government elites found was that in order to expand their powers, they required not only the consent of the governed, but also their active cooperation. In particular, elites needed soldiers to wage war, tax revenues to fund state activities, and a loyal corps of administrators who could secure public compliance. What developed was a tacit exchange of service for benefits: for voluntary compliance with respect to paying taxes, serving in the military, and following government policy generally, government elites expanded suffrage, proffered benefits, and distributed patronage.

The problem is that elites now have less need of the active cooperation of citizens. Taxation has become automatic through payroll deduction, citizen [End Page 1207] soldiers have become professionalized, and civil service has eliminated most patronage jobs and benefits. As a result, party elites make little effort to mobilize the 50% of the American electorate that doesn't vote in presidential elections. Furthermore, both parties suffer "elite apprehensions" about expanding the electorate. While Republicans fear an influx of the poor, who would likely side with the opposition, Democratic officeholders fear that these new voters would support alternative party leadership. Instead of voter mobilization, we have parties concentrated on activating their loyal voters.

Building upon the work of Ginsberg and Martin Shefter in their important book Politics by Other Means, Crenson and Ginsberg argue that political parties have developed an alternative approach to political conflict that relies less on electoral struggle. This they label "institutional mobilization," which, instead of directly involving the electorate, engages each party's network of "interest groups, think tanks, news media, public agencies, nonprofits, and other private institutions" — the sites of each party's "new patronage." Federal social welfare and regulatory agencies, along with nonprofits, serve as centers of influence for the Democratic party. The Pentagon, defense contractors, and private contractors generally serve in the same capacity for the Republican party. Institutional combat may include defunding the left when Republicans are in power and cutting defense budgets when Democrats are in power. It also involves efforts to criminalize policy disputes with the tactics of "revelation, investigation, and prosecution (RIP)."

The second half of the book shows how interest-group politics, with its built-in elite bias, has evolved in ways that are even less likely to benefit nonelites, and much less likely to require their mobilization. Much of the advocacy explosion of the past 25 years has involved a proliferation of groups dealing with postmaterial issues, like consumer safety and environmental protection. Combined with a decline in unions, little of this new advocacy involves issues of economic security. Furthermore, not only do many of these groups have nothing more than mailing list memberships, some have private...


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