Saturday, April 10, 2004

Power to the people! But only when they're in favor of the same things we are

In response to criticism that "The Clash of Civilizations?" was simplistic, Samuel Huntington answered, "When people think seriously, they think abstractly; they conjure up simplified pictures of reality called concepts, theories, models, paradigms. Without such intellectual constructs, there is, William James said, only 'a bloomin' buzzin' confusion.'" I am reminded of that quote upon reading the following passage in his new article.

In many respects, [America] has become an unrepresentative democracy because on crucial issues--especially those involving national identity--its leaders pass laws and implement policies contrary to the views of the American people.
The left would agree with his characterization of an American government that defies the will of the American people in obedience to the interests and beliefs of elites, though they would take exception to his identification of those elites.
Apart from business and the military, contemporary American elites in categories such as the media, labor, religion, law and bureaucracy were almost twice to more than three times as liberal as the public as a whole, according to a 1980s survey. Another survey similarly found that on moral issues elites are "consistently more liberal" than rank-and-file Americans.14 Governmental, nonprofit and communications elites in particular are overwhelmingly liberal in their outlooks. So also are academics. The radical students of the 1960s have become tenured professors, particularly in elite institutions. As Stanley Rothman observes, "Social science faculties at elite universities are overwhelmingly liberal and cosmopolitan or on the Left. Almost any form of civic loyalty or patriotism is considered reactionary."15 Liberalism tends to go with irreligiosity as well. In a 1969 study by Lipset and Ladd, at least 71 percent of Jewish, Catholic and Protestant academics who identified themselves as liberal also identified themselves as being "basically opposed to religion."
Huntington attributes the rise of the referendum in recent decades to the failure of representative government to, well, represent. However, if government by referendum represents the public better than government by elected representatives, then why bother with elected representatives at all? The advantage of elected representatives over a never-ending succession of referenda is, literally, comparative. Elected representatives are skilled workers who specialize in political decision-making. Successful government by referendum demands that voters be informed to a greater degree than is practical. The voters therefore elect representatives, whose duty it is to make informed decisions.

Huntington notes that trust has declined in government and most major institutions both public and private, observing that "Only two non-elected institutions of government, the Supreme Court and the military, saw an increase in the public's confidence." These two as well as the Federal Reserve are examples of institutions deliberately insulated from the whims of electoral politics. Contrasted with the decline in trust in representative government, Huntington's implication that these non-elected institutions better reflect the views of the public is paradoxical. Wouldn't elected institutions, regularly held accountable to the public by elections, be more likely to reflect the views of the the public than non-elected institutions? How can this be explained?
  • In "The Future of Freedom," Huntington's former student Fareed Zakaria writes, "The more open a system becomes, the more easily it can be penetrated by money, lobbyists, and fanatics....Most Americans have neither the time, the interest, nor the inclination to monitor Congress on a day-to-day basis. But lobbyists and activists do."

  • A single elected official may reflect the views of his constituency. An institution of such officials with diverse constituencies will pursue policies that reflect a plausible consensus, which may or may not satisfy the public.
I myself have argued that US support for Israel is an example of elected officials' responsiveness to blue state Jews and red State fundamentalist Christians, both of whom tend to be pro-Israel. Palestinian advocates would doubtless emphasize the political activism of Jews, making insinuations of conspiracy while downplaying relatively meager numbers of Muslim voters. Only a Representative whose constituency had many more Muslims than both Jews and fundamentalist Christians or possibly a Senator from Michigan, both lacking in any ambition for higher office, would even consider siding with the Palestinians. The combined political clout of Jews and fundamentalist Christians is apparently more powerful than the influence of elites with postcolonial sympathies.

As far as I'm concerned, the one glaring weakness in Huntington's analysis is one of omission. The gap between public and elite Huntington describes bears an uncanny resemblance to what, in the context of the European Union, is called the "democracy deficit." But Huntington barely touches on Europe at all.
The failure of political leaders to "pander" to the public had predictable consequences. When government policies on many important issues deviate sharply from the views of the public, one would expect the public to lose trust in government, to reduce its interest and participation in politics, and to turn to alternative means of policymaking not controlled by political elites. All three happened in the late 20th century. All three undoubtedly had many causes, which social scientists have explored at length, and one trend--decline in trust--occurred in most industrialized democracies. Yet at least for the United States, it can be assumed that the growing gap between public preferences and government policies contributed to all three trends.
One can draw one of the following two conclusions from the failure of a reduction in political participation and the pursuit of alternative policymaking to accompany a decline in trust in other industrialized democracies.
  • The decline in trust correlates more strongly to the gap between public preferences and government policies than the other two.
  • Compulsory voting and structural obstacles to alternative means of policymaking preclude the other two.
Given Euroskeptic laments about the "democracy deficit," an application of Huntington's schema to the European Union would be most enlightening.

The following passage from a BBC News Q&A about the EU constitution conference could apply to any EU referendum.
Some countries will also hold referendums...If any country votes No, there may be a delay while a solution is found. One option would be to wait for the country to hold a repeat referendum, in the hope that it would vote Yes second time round.
The repeat referendum is not a hypothetical; over the course of European integration, it has occurred more often than one would expect. In 1992, Danish voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty, acceding the following year only after being allowed to opt out of the common currency (i.e. the euro), common defense, common citizenship and judicial cooperation. More recently, Irish passage of the Nice Treaty required two referenda. However, the repeat referendum seems to be an example of a piece of clothing that the emperor is not wearing. The only reason to hold a repeat referendum is the expectation or hope that the electorate will make a different decision the second time around. By repeating a referendum, the EU is behaving like nothing so much as a little boy repeatedly asking his parents to buy him a toy until they finally give in. As Kai Lemberg of the Danish Euroskeptic June Movement puts it,
Politicians did not accept the decision of the people - they said before the referendum in June 1992 that this is final, but then the people voted wrongly - they voted 'no' - so the politicians changed the question and said we must have another referendum, and this time you must vote 'yes'.
The European gap between public and elite, this time the media, is visible yet again in their response to Swedish voters' rejection of the single currency.
The Dagens Nyheter...feels life will be difficult for Sweden, because while Britain, Norway and Switzerland have financial centres and oil revenues to help them cope outside the eurozone, export-dependent Sweden has no such freedom....Germany's Die Welt warns of a missed opportunity and suspects "a certain provincial isolation" among Swedes [accusing] them of ignoring the fact that eurozone countries have enjoyed "significantly improved export opportunities". Austria's Der Standard agrees that the rejection of the euro was unwise [arguing] that the price Sweden will have to pay is that it won't carry much political weight in the debate about budgetary policies or in forthcoming negotiations on the EU constitution.
Rarely do we see the possibility considered that the results might actually be the electoral expression of thought-through positions.

Nor is this attitude limited to the issue of European integration. British Labour MP Stephen Pound agreed to present whatever bill to Parliament was chosen by the listeners of BBC Radio 4's Today program; they chose to permit homeowners the use of any means of defense against intruders. Mr. Pound's response?
[T]he winning proposal was denounced as a "ludicrous, brutal, unworkable blood-stained piece of legislation" - by Stephen Pound, the very MP whose job it is to try to push it through Parliament. Mr Pound's reaction was provoked by the news that the winner of Today's "Listeners' Law" poll was a plan to allow homeowners "to use any means to defend their home from intruders" - a prospect that could see householders free to kill burglars, without question. Having recovered his composure, Mr Pound told The Independent: "We are going to have to re-evaluate the listenership of Radio 4. I would have expected this result if there had been a poll in The Sun. Do we really want a law that says you can slaughter anyone who climbs in your window?" Journalists on Today are thought to have been taken aback by the choice of their listeners. Observers had assumed that the winning suggestion might be a little more light-hearted - and a little less illiberal....Mr Pound will go through the motions of presenting the Bill to Parliament but hoped he would fail. He said it was "the sort of idea somebody comes up with in a bar on a Saturday night between 'string 'em all up' and 'send 'em all all home'".
The admittedly non-EU Swiss press responded similarly to another expression of support for stern anti-crime measures, the electoral victory of a referendum in favor of life imprisonment for violent offenders.
Le Matin warns that Swiss people are no longer "on the same wavelength" as government and parliament, which opposed the plan. "A gulf has opened up. Let us make sure it does not become unbridgeable," the paper urges. Another paper, Le Temps, does not believe that what it calls the "emotional vote" explains the result. Rather, it sees the referendum as "a vote of mistrust" in the authorities. "It is the lack of visibility, the lack of political control and the power left to experts that the ballot boxes have punished," the paper says.
Whenever the public is found to be too far to the right of government, the European media usually places the burden of closing that gulf on the public. This contempt for the views of the public is nothing more than a vestigial Marxist-Leninist reflex, namely, the attribution of "false consciousness" to the masses by those who see themselves as a revolutionary vanguard whose calling it is to open the eyes of the people. (Libertarians have their own variation on this.) Though the vanguard can be likened to elected representatives in that they both make decisions on behalf of the public, it is not usually held accountable through regularly held, free and fair elections. At least the Europhiles' enthusiasm for democracy is sincere, if limited; they deserve credit for their willingness to let the electorate influence the pace of European integration, if not the ultimate direction. Given the good economic choices made by the authoritarian regimes of the nascent Asian tigers (cubs?), I don't preclude the possibility that a Brussels that fails to reflect the views of the European public may well pursue policies that in the end best satisfy that public.