Democracy: Since we can't stand the heat, we stay out of the kitchen

When Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work was published in 2002, it caused “quite a stir among people who work for civic and democratic reform,” according to reviewer Peter Levine. With the aid of a Gallup poll they commissioned, as well focus groups, the authors — political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse — shattered any illusions reformers and media myth-makers might entertain that Americans honor and cherish participatory democracy.

I’ve just picked up the book (and also have begun printing out refutations). But I wanted to share a few teaser quotes from the introduction before finishing Stealth Democracy and treating it to an in-depth evaluation. I considered highlighting with italics phrases that jumped out at me. However, since every third sentence is either startling or alarming, I decided to let the text stand on its own.

“The last thing people want is to be more involved in political decision making: They do not want to make political decisions themselves; they do not want to provide much input to those who are assigned to makes these decision; and they would rather not know all the details of the decision-making process. Most people have strong feelings on few if any of the issues the government needs to address and would much prefer to spend their time in nonpolitical pursuits.”

“The people as a whole tend to be quite indifferent to policies and therefore are not eager to hold government accountable for the policies it produces.”

“Participation in politics is low because people do not like politics even in the best of circumstances; in other words, they simply do not like the process of openly arriving at a decision in the face of diverse opinions.”

“We show that people want to distance themselves from government not because of a system defect but because many people are simply averse to political conflict and many others believe political conflict is unnecessary and an indication that something is wrong with governmental procedures.”

Apparently, the dialogue and accompanying bruised feelings that it takes to arrive at a consensus in legislation and democracy at large makes people uncomfortable. In other words, an early impression I have of the authors’ findings is that most Americans find democracy too unpleasant.

In a dissenting paper, which I have also yet to read in its entirety, sociologist Peter Muhlberger holds that “stealth democracy beliefs may be driven by socially problematic beliefs and orientations, including reverence for authority.”

It’s true that the first conclusion one is likely to draw from Stealth Democracy is that we’re ripe for fascism. But, as always, Americans defy pigeonholing.

“Although the people dislike a political system built on sustained public involvement, there is something they dislike even more: a political system in which decision-makers — for no reason other than the fact that are in a position to make decisions — accrue benefits at the expense of non-decision makers. . . . citizens are usually less concerned with obtaining a policy outcome than with preventing others from using the process to further their own nests.”

As I understand it, Americans just want to delegate to delegators, and be assured that they’re doing an honest day’s work (no matter to what effect) and not skimming anything off the top.

2 replies »

  1. I wonder if this is just laziness, confrontation avoidance, or just the way we view competition now. If it’s the latter, it’s only going to get worse. Are kids even allowed to win T-ball any more? Or is it a matter of information overload. There’s just so much you have to know nowadays to make decisions about, well, everything. Toss in a lack of trust for the media and government, and most people will just say “fuck it” and give up.

    But isn’t this what a lot of the Federalist Papers were about? That we needed a centralized government because a pure democracy couldn’t work? Because every day people can’t be expected to know all the details of an argument to make an informed decision?

    Of course, I think Jefferson also said that a democracy needed a revolution every now and then to keep the power structure honest…

  2. I’ve been thinking about this very issue a great deal of late. And while i understand that people just don’t want to deal with politics, i have to wonder what the reaction will be if politics really starts dealing with them.

    It isn’t hard to find comments on the internet about how our government has been “hijacked”, but has it? If we’re not participating can we claim that someone has usurped control?

    We tend to think that freedom and self-government are rights. Jefferson verbally enshrined them as such, so they’ve entered the national mythology that way. But neither are rights: they are privileges. My Momma always told me that privilege exists in direct proportion to responsibility.

    In other words, we may not like participating so much but it is our responsibility. And if we shirk our responsibility then we can expect our privileges to disappear.