"Revitalizing Democracy": Some Caveats

By Fried, Charles | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

"Revitalizing Democracy": Some Caveats


Fried, Charles, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


Talk about revitalizing democracy makes me nervous, and I want to assume that the function of this roundtable is to allay my nervousness. It makes me nervous because I firmly believe in those two adages: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and "Be careful what you wish for; you might get it."

First, is it broke? Now I think, in many respects, American democracy is less broke than it has ever been in the sense that people are certainly more able to vote than they have ever been. The great success of the voting rights acts and the greater ease of voter registration mean that if people want to vote, they can. The question is, why do they not want to vote in greater numbers.

But democracy, of course, is not just voting. And the assumption that somehow we have a terrible democracy deficit is questionable, at best, and needs examination. Robert Putnam, in a footnote to his book Bowling Alone, has the following statement:

    In the mid-1970s Americans were about twice as likely to take an active
    role in political campaigns as were citizens in Britain, Germany, Austria
    and the Netherlands.... Nearly twenty years later, Americans tied for
    third place among forty democracies (old and new) in the frequency with
    which we sign petitions, though Americans ranked twentieth out of forty in
    the frequency with which we discuss politics with our friends....(1)

So it's not entirely clear just how broke it is.

I'm impressed by the fact that the calls for the revitalization of democracy by and large -- not always; for instance, my friend Richard Parker is a striking exception -- take the form, "If only we'd revitalize democracy, then we would outlaw cigarettes, then we would outlaw guns, then we would have single-payer health insurance, then we would have animal rights legislation." This leaves the impression that the call for the revitalization of democracy comes from persons who have somehow failed to capture the nation's attention and have certainly failed to gather a national consensus, not as revealed by telephone polls, but as revealed by a willingness to actually make an effort, such as the effort of voting. And having failed to have that effect, they cannot bring themselves to believe that the reason for their failure is the intrinsic lack of appeal of their propositions -- of what they have to sell -- rather than that somehow the marketplace is inhospitably rigged against their nostrums.

It is quite interesting that the countries to which we are often asked to compare ourselves, as we are wringing our hands about the impotence of American democracy, really are not in a much better case. Take France and Germany, for instance. Their intractable problem relates to how to adjust their very generous social safety nets and regulatory strangleholds in order that their societies should become more productive and competitive. It is very striking that their unemployment rates are two, three times the size of the American unemployment rate.(2)

Everybody in those countries understands there is a problem. The head of the Bundesbank says that they must do something, the French government says that something must be done about pensions, and so on.(3) But there is utter and total paralysis. Now, are people calling for revitalization of democracy there? The voting rates are much higher in those countries than they are here, but I don't think that proves as much as it is supposed to.(4)

So my sense of it is that the call for the revitalization of democracy is very much a call -- a cri de coeur, in fact -- for the solution of sometimes insoluble problems. And the usual instinct is to lay a failure of substance at the door of process.

Now, that's the "Is it broke?" part of it. Then there is the "Be careful what you wish for .

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