We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Michael Gecan’s strong brief for bottom-up mobilization—among the bracing commentaries, the toughest in tone—laments that I place so much emphasis on the representative process. He is right to read my essay this way. I value democratic representation not because I lack other commitments—including to a vibrant civil society—but because, as Ian Shapiro says in The State of Democratic Theory (2003), it offers “the best available system for managing power relations among people who disagree about the nature of the common good” by “institutionalizing argument rather than agreement.”
When such a system operates well, it is permeable to a wide array of interests and preferences. “No one can be certain that their interests will ultimately triumph,” as Adam Przeworski has written, and no nonrepresentative force—the military, a party, a leader, or a movement—can intrude to reverse decisions even when they are strongly unfavorable to its interests. A healthy liberal democracy does not marginalize or exclude citizens or fail to engage the big questions of the day.
A healthy democracy does not marginalize citizens or fail to engage the big questions of the day.
If political representation—the hinge between state and society—does not meet these conditions, democracy cannot remain legitimate. My essay thus focuses on “the troubling incapacity of national legislatures to make effective policy,” and on the distortion of political participation by “unequal access and influence,” which lead many to believe, as Richard Trumka emphasizes, that politics does not include them.
Setting current developments in context, I show that widespread doubts about democratic legislatures in the interwar period presaged contemporary anxieties, and I insist, following Nadia Urbinati, that various forms of populism and decisions by referenda, as well as deliberative processes that bypass the system of representation, do not—indeed, must not—serve as total alternatives. Democracy cannot work well or renew its stock of legitimacy through civil society alone.
As an adversarial process in a world of uneven power, representation is often rough, certainly messy, never wholly satisfying. Mobilization by social movements, including the labor movement, can only partially compensate for distorted distributions of material and cultural resources. Moreover, patterns of representation always contain prospects for bad decisions, purchased distortions, and discriminatory exclusions.
Yet especially in troubled times, there are no substitutes for representation. It is certainly true, as Gecan emphasizes, that great political achievements are often propelled by civic associations. Think of how Jim Crow was ended. But as Mark Schmitt wisely reminds us in his tribute to the Americans with Disabilities Act, such efforts are not alternatives to, but rather integral parts of, a system of representation that culminates in lawmaking.
When representation fails, so does democracy. When representation loses legitimacy, or when elections, parties, and parliaments are passed over for less mediated forms, political democracy is eroded and made vulnerable to Peronist alternatives. I agree with Hélène Landemore that it is not democracy as such but its representative form, in particular, that is in trouble. About that, we should lose sleep, especially as her suggestions—returning to ancient pre-electoral models or replacing elections with lotteries—hardly seem viable options today.
She and I agree, however, about the insufficiency of “modest tweaking.” While I do think campaign finance reform is necessary, and while I agree with Larry Kramer about the importance of strengthening political parties, I seek to place representative democracy’s predicaments in a context broader than discrete remedies but less apocalyptic than Kramer’s vague warning that representative democracy may be going the way of feudalism. Surely we can turn our political imagination to making representative democracy more effective and legitimate, even as we carry out particular reforms.
In the United States, David Kennedy reminds us, representative institutions must navigate a hard-wired constitutional system that deliberately constrains power. Critics, he observes, have long thought it an inherently “sclerotic political contraption.” But notwithstanding Kennedy’s generous comparison of my views to those of Woodrow Wilson, I do not think, as he does, that crises of representation are endemic to America, or to any other democracy. As my work on the New Deal has stressed, vigorous representation can go hand in hand with accomplished statecraft and policy invention, even in times of emergency. Knowing that institutional resilience is possible, however, hardly provides sufficiently reassuring guarantees. Hope and historical reminders are not substitutes for sober assessments, persuasive accounts of causes, or quests for remedies.
Because representation is constituted by a complex array of institutions and practices, no one should be surprised that the participants in this forum have identified a wide range of concerns. Several highlight deformations of the social bases of politics, underlining the deepening and often grotesque inequalities in our new Gilded Age (Trumka and Melissa Williams) as well as ugly and persistent racism (Michael Dawson). Others focus on distortions of the political process itself: the lack of electoral competition for most congressional seats and the decline of participation at the state level (Mohammad Fadel); the assault on voting rights and asymmetrical ideological polarization promoted by biased media (Rick Perlstein); the delegitimation of active government, and the doleful effects of southern politics (Schmitt); the decay of effective mass political parties (Alex Gourevitch and Kramer); and a profoundly undemocratic delegation of power to the national security state (Gourevitch).
I share these apprehensions, some of which I have written about at length. For example, it feels odd to be reminded by Dawson that New Deal policies generated racial inequality, as I have devoted two recent books to that subject. My goal, though, is not to create a comprehensive list of the sources of current political ill health. Rather I want to invite a conversation about the dilemmas of representation, the arena that both friends and enemies have long understood to constitute modern democracy’s heart.
Most of my remarks and those of my critics deal with the United States. But as Martin O’Neill reminds us, these issues are not confined to any single country. His response usefully, if implicitly, cautions that we not confuse the particularities of any one place with concerns that transcend national boundaries. It also directs us to recognize that causes often come in bundles rather than just one at a time.
As we imagine a better democratic future, as we craft better analyses of causes, and as we consider remedies, we would do well to recall that things can get worse. It would be good to combine sensibilities, linking the spirit of pragmatism with what John Rawls called realistic utopian thinking and what Judith Shklar designated a liberalism of fear—an orientation designed less to create more justice than to guard against human depredation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox