Giving Citizens Control Over Government Will Revive It

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Next New Deal - Rediscovering Government

As part of the How We Value Government series, a call for going beyond electoral reforms to bring citizens directly into the governing process.

From the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, to the 2012 campaign trail and the Supreme Court's consideration of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the central clash in American politics today is over the role of government in the modern economy. If the Great Recession has taught us anything it is that, on the one hand, we need government more than ever as a force for the common good -- whether in combating the vicissitudes of the market or in holding private actors like too-big-to-fail firms accountable. But, on the other hand, our faith in government's ability to do so has been (rightly) shaken. Conservatives have used this distrust to deregulate and dismantle the welfare state. As Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick argues, one of the central challenges for progressive politics is to provide a constructive defense of the role and value of government.

One of the common responses to the declining faith in government is to appeal to individuals' civic virtue, which could revive government by pushing us to make good faith arguments as advocates, participate as voters, or promote the common good as policymakers. Yet Barack Obama's own appeal to bipartisanship and civic duty in 2008 now looks naïve in the context of the vitriolic political disputes over government policy in the Great Recession.

Yet Obama was on to something: citizenship does matter for restoring the effectiveness of and faith in government, but not in the way that it is commonly invoked. The deeper root cause of the questionable legitimacy of government today is not policymakers themselves; it is instead the sheer gap between we the people and those policymakers. The workings of government are too often seen as an outside force, driven by individuals who are not responsive or accountable to the people. Ultimately, reviving government requires expanding the opportunities for participation offered to citizens themselves. In other words, restoring government requires rethinking citizenship -- not by appealing to virtue but rather by thinking of it as an office, with its own powers and capacities to shape public policy.

When the ideal of citizenship is invoked, it is often as a corrective against narrow self-interested views of politics. Good citizenship, we are reminded, entails not only rights and benefits for the individual, but also shared obligations to one another. Good citizenship means giving reasons for one's political beliefs in public and arguing in good faith over what the common good requires. For elected and appointed officials, citizenship means governing with an eye toward the public, not the private or factional, interest -- while for voters citizenship means showing up on election day and choosing one's vote carefully.

But this "virtue-conception" of citizenship has remarkably little bite as a mode of political reform beyond exhortations to good behavior. Yes, a good citizen ought to take seriously his or her obligations to others and we ought to argue or govern in good faith. But this conception of citizenship by itself cannot generate the kind of shift in politics that we need. The exhortation to virtue is an aspiration, but not a reform strategy.

Indeed, many classical democratic theorists emphasized citizenship not as a virtue, but as an institutional configuration of political power. In this view, we need institutions to facilitate good government. But through participating in those institutions we as individuals can acquire civic virtues over time, learning through experience and being shaped by institutional powers and constraints to govern better. This "institutional view" sees citizenship as an office, a position in a democratic government. Like the other offices in a democracy such as the executive, the legislator, or the judge, this office has its own powers, responsibilities, and institutional forms -- structures that make possible the kinds of actions that we want from a "good citizen."

The problems of contemporary politics look very different from this view. The problem is not self-serving interest groups, callous politicians, or apathetic voters. Instead, the problem is that we have underinvested in the institutions that can make ordinary people effective officers in a democratic government.

Consider what one has to do to be a good citizen today. If we show up to vote, we have discharged our sole official duty. There are of course other avenues for more engaged citizens to participate in politics: people can learn about the issues through the media, and they can lobby policymakers through political associations and advocacy groups. But as an institutional matter, the powers of the citizen are minimal. Much of the task of governing is delegated: to executives, to representatives, to judges, to regulators. Our current institutions give so little space for citizens to govern themselves, it is little wonder that political officials seem unaccountable or citizens apathetic. What we need is to create spaces in which citizens can engage in meaningful political action. Direct experience with governing can help empower ordinary people, educate them on the issues, and ensure accountable and responsive government.

Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

Creating greater institutional spaces for citizens to share the powers and responsibilities of governing will not just enhance the accountability and responsiveness of government. It can also help foster a new generation of citizens who gain knowledge and insight into the moral and policy challenges of the day.

The first area where we can expand the office of citizenship is through reforms to our electoral process. Campaign finance reform would restore the political power of citizens vis-à-vis their representatives, offsetting the dependencies of elected officials on fundraisers and elites. Similarly, electoral processes themselves fall far short of basic fairness. A number of states have been systematically increasing barriers to voter registration and participation, threatening to disenfranchise millions of voters. The redrawing of representatives' districts continues to yield gerrymandered districts that make it difficult for citizens to actually engage with their representatives and have adequately contested elections. Finally, Election Day should be a holiday that enables citizens to actually discharge their duties seriously and easily.

Yet, even with these changes, elections by themselves are still insufficient. While they create opportunities for mobilization and debate, they offer little role for citizens after the moment of the election itself. To remedy this defect, we must also expand citizen participation in local governments and regulatory agencies.

Local government has long been celebrated as a way to provide citizens with an opportunity to engage in the political process more easily on issues most directly relevant to their lives. But for cities to serve as spaces for empowered participation, they first need broader authority to actually address complex policy issues. Currently many cities have highly constrained powers to tax, spend, and develop policy thanks to the constraints of state and federal law and judicial doctrine. Second, city governments can do much more to involve local citizens in the policymaking process, as recent efforts at participatory budgeting in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere suggest.

Finally, regulatory agencies can be reformed not just to allow citizen input but to also give citizens a more direct role in policy formation and implementation. While agencies already allow citizens to submit public comments on proposed regulations, the actual impact of these comments are often minimal. By contrast, agencies could involve citizens through more institutionalized consultations and procedures, giving stakeholders a direct voice in regulatory policymaking decisions. Indeed, it is telling that successors to the Occupy Wall Street protests have attempted to pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission to enact tougher financial regulations through detailed comments and protests -- laudable efforts, but unlikely to sway the SEC commissioners absent more institutionalized channels for citizen voice in regulatory policymaking.

These are only a few ideas on how citizens can be given greater power and voice in the actual project of governing. Until we reform the institutions of governance, citizenship will continue to have limited meaning in politics. But if we can create spaces in which citizens can be officers of the polity, shaping public policy and directly experiencing the challenges and rewards of government, then we can not only thicken the meaning of citizenship but also revive the efficacy and legitimacy of government itself.

It may be rightly argued that such civic participation may yield policies that we disagree with. Certainly it is true that participation does not necessarily mean that the best policies result. But the democratic faith is a faith in the people themselves, in their ability to develop their capacities of judgment through experience over time, and in their ability to learn from mistakes. For such learning and judgment to take place, citizens have to be given real power and real experience. This need not mean subordinating policies to public opinion. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of empirical studies into participation (see here, here, and here) is the degree to which ordinary citizens can exercise real political power in a nuanced way if provided with institutions that grant them the power, enable them to learn from experience over time, and place them in conversation with experts.

Democracy is the central animating value of American politics, on both the left and right. If we want to restore faith in government and overcome its political dysfunction, it is time to make democracy -- and citizenship -- more than a buzzword.

Sabeel Rahman is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Harvard University, and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.