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  • National Deliberative Democracy
  • Adrian Tirtanadi (bio)

"Democracy is a distinct and limited ideal. It should not be confused with other social aspirations. But by ensuring reason-giving, by increasing exposure to diverse views, and by prohibiting second-class citizenship, a democratic constitution goes a long way towards promoting a wide range of social goals, emphatically including Justice itself."

—Cass Sunstein, Designing Democracy (2001)

The Failure of Representative Democracy

In the United States, in most presidential elections, fewer than 50 percent of the eligible U.S. population votes; in non-presidential and off-year elections, turnout routinely falls to 25 or 30 percent.1 Voting is, however, the tip of the iceberg. Even if people did vote, it is unlikely that they would be able to vote intelligently as current levels of civic education are abysmal by any standard. In the 1989 political education survey only 29 percent of Americans could name their representative in Congress, only 25 percent could name their state's senators, only 34 percent correctly identified which branch of government declares war, only 24 percent correctly identified the state as the chief benefactor of education, only 12 percent correctly identified the percentage of black people in the country, and only 10 percent correctly identified the year of women's suffrage.2 This does not only apply to general political knowledge, but also current national politics. In 1989 only 3 percent of respondents could correctly identify Bush Senior's Attorney General. In 1977 only 3 percent of respondents could correctly identify Carter's secretary of the treasury. In 1989 only 9 percent of respondents could correctly identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The list goes on and on.3 To form intelligent opinions on even moderately complex issues requires more information than this.

Why are people this ignorant and apathetic in the face of hoards of readily available information? Anthony Downs offers the most convincing argument. He proposes that people suffer from a rational ignorance, that the costs of getting informed: to do the legislative tracking, to learn all of the relevant politicians, to learn all the issues, etc., is enormous. Yet the benefits of learning this information are miniscule, practically nonexistent. The effect that a single vote can have on an election is basically, zero; in a national election Downs compares it to voting on whether the sun will come up tomorrow, no matter what you pick, it will not affect the answer.4 As Joseph Schumpeter says, who incidentally is one of the main defenders of liberalism, "without the initiative that comes from immediate responsibility, ignorance will persist in the face of masses of information however complete and accurate."5

Downs and Schumpeter implicitly state that in order to change this level of apathy and ignorance, in order to create a more knowledgeable citizenry, one must change the underlying power structures that produce this ignorance. By making each person essentially individually powerless, we also encourage them to rational ignorance. In order to make them "rationally knowledgeable" we need to give the individual person the power to influence policy.

Paralleling the decline in knowledge, community and community organizations have been on the decline since around 1950 in the United States. Between 1973 and 1994 the number of men and women who took any leadership role in any local organization was cut by more than 50 percent. In 1975, 64 percent of Americans attended at least one club meeting, by 1999 that figure had fallen to 38 percent. Membership may be dropping, but the number of active members is dropping even faster. Increasingly organizations just want your money, not your time, and do not foster the feelings of community once felt.6 Once again, a systematic explanation has to be at the heart of this problem.

Maybe, however, the lack of civic knowledge and loss of community by the public can be somehow made up by elected representatives. Maybe this implicit tradeoff is worth it if we could show that representatives can create such great policies that the public does not need to be informed. The problem is we cannot show that; in fact, we can show quite the opposite. Congress routinely passes what can only...


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pp. 41-46
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