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Designing a ‘Democracy for Busy People’: An Interview With Political Scientist Kevin Elliott
‘[Politics] is not just about the people who have drawn the long daggers and are at each other’s throats’
Reimagining Liberty is a podcast of The UnPopulist and is hosted by Aaron Ross Powell. Today’s guest is Kevin J. Elliott, assistant professor of political science at Murray State University and author of the upcoming book Democracy for Busy People. The book is the jumping-off point for today’s conversation, which digs into what it means to be a good democratic citizen and what democracy demands of us.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: About eight months ago, I moved out of Washington, D.C., after living there for over a decade. In D.C., everyone cares about politics all of the time. You start conversations by asking opinions on appropriations bills, and moving out here to Denver, people don’t.
Most of my neighbors have lots of other things on their minds that are not what Congress or the president or the regulatory agencies are up to. Are they doing something wrong by not being as engaged in politics as those of us who lived inside the Beltway were?
Kevin J. Elliott: I don’t think so. One of the frameworks that I bring to thinking about democracy, and I think is very helpful for understanding political systems in large complex societies, is that there’s lots of different roles available within any given society. That also goes for politics.
I tend to think about a division of labor within democracy, different roles that people play. The role of an ordinary citizen is going to be shaped by the institutional arrangement that they find themselves in, the specifics of the democracy that they live in.
They’re going to have certain institutions that take their input in one way or other, and they aggregate that. They put it together with other inputs, and then it outputs eventually a set of decisions somewhere down the line.
Do citizens whose primary institutional obligations involve voting every couple of years, maybe every year, maybe a few times a year depending on the jurisdiction that you’re living in or the country that you’re living in for that matter?
It’s difficult to say that somebody who’s saying, “Look, have the parties changed fundamentally? Is there a new party on the field of political competition? No. Then I already know enough to make the kind of choice that I’m presented with in my democracy.”
If you find yourself in a different position, if you do find yourself working at a federal agency, if you find yourself on the staff of a congressperson, then you’re occupying a different kind of role. You have a lot of other levers that you can reach to influence politics, and then it might behoove you to have more sophisticated opinions about things that might otherwise seem quite abstruse to someone whose only institutional obligations are voting, in terms of their democratic participation.
Aaron: Voters often vote for bad stuff, stuff that is harmful in various ways, make poor choices, and so on. It seems maybe there are two ways that they can vote for something bad or two reasons one might vote for something bad. One is, we’ll call it moral badness. They want the state to do something that is morally wrong, is objectionable and so on.
But there’s also unintentional badness, in the sense that I want to end poverty, but I’m going to vote for this thing that is totally not going to end poverty and is in fact going to make it worse because I just have no idea what I’m doing.
It seems quite a lot of bad politics flows from both, but a lot of it flows from the latter. That does seem rectifying. That does seem to demand knowing what you’re doing, especially if you’re placing trust in the parties might be misplaced because the party leadership or the decision-making process is systematically leading to the wrong kinds of decisions and so on, but you don’t really know enough.
How do we square that with what you just said about not really having an obligation unless you’re working for the agency or there are specific circumstances to overcome that learning curve for doing this well?
Kevin: It’s actually extremely complicated. One of the things to think about when it comes to what do voters need to know is to understand, again, to focus on what are the choices that are put before them, and how much do they need to know in order to locate the better of the options that are put before them?
You could imagine citizens who are debating in ancient Athenian democracy, where you have literally the Assembly gets together, and they’re like, “What should we do about this water project?” Or, “Where should we build the new city wall?” Or something.
The debate can get complicated very quickly—”What kind of stone should we use?”—where the institutions of democracy are asking citizens to consider very detailed questions because the input that they’re going to be putting into the democratic process of decision-making is this detailed input. Then they need to know more, essentially.
I think that when voters are in a representative system, they are tasked with a fundamentally simpler task. Now, does that mean that they don’t make mistakes? Of course, they do make mistakes. I think that goes without saying.
I think the way that we can respond to these challenges if we think that voters are systematically making bad choices or something like that, one of the ways of thinking about it is in terms of what should voters be doing differently? How should they be conducting themselves, policing their beliefs or their information flows? That kind of stuff.
There’s also a question about what kinds of inputs are we asking from them? What kinds of institutions are they interfacing with? Can we change those? Can we make those better? Do we want to plug them into a process that feeds them information?
Some of these deliberative institutions that you see being experimented with all over the world, a lot of these processes involve very long learning periods. Citizens are put in the presence of experts and other kinds of information sources that then help them to later in the process reach more informed kinds of decisions. If you want to transfer more power to those kinds of institutions, then you might end up with a fundamentally different kind of expectation for citizens, essentially.
Just one other point I’d make about this. I think people often think about citizens’ needing to know all sorts of complicated, empirical knowledge and maybe social science knowledge in order to guide their decision-making when it comes to voting. Part of my response to that is to say, they’re not really given a huge menu of options. They’re usually given a very simple set of options.
The other thing is that precisely because many of them don’t pay a huge amount of attention to politics, when it comes to questions of method—you’re talking about how it’s not so much the goal, but the method that might be deeply flawed. Oftentimes issues of method, questions of procedure are very much left up to representatives.
Even if representatives say, “I’m going to cut your taxes in order to bring about economic growth” or something, a representative might get in there and say, “Look, the goal is economic growth, but it turns out that cutting taxes right now isn’t going to do that for whatever reason, but I’m going to do this other thing and I’m going to deliver the goal of economic growth.”
Are voters going to punish the representative for delivering on the ultimate thing because they used a different means? I don’t think so. Generally, the answer to that is no, in terms of what we know about public opinion and voter behavior.
The more important thing is that voters who don’t pay a lot of attention aren’t often paying attention to these questions of means. If representatives promise to do something that’s counterproductive and then do something else, voters not knowing about that is sort of fine because what they ultimately care about is the goal.
If the goal is demonstrably attained or moved closer to whatever, then voters aren’t going to punish someone for, well, “You promised me you were going to cut taxes in order to bring about economic growth, but you brought about economic growth this other way.” There’s a way in which citizens not paying attention actually helps to give representatives—
This is one of these classic arguments for representative democracy. It gives representatives the discretion and the freedom, essentially, to react to what they’re seeing, to information that’s harder to access, and make policies that might be more difficult to explain directly to people who aren’t in the policy weeds.
Aaron: If part of the answer then to why voters don’t need to become the weirdo policy wonks in the D.C. think tank scene or something is that they have a constrained menu of choices to pick from, that seems to assume that among those choices are good ones. We can think of situations—
The classic is if you’ve got the two parties to pick from and both of them can look pretty bad.
Aaron: Do voters then, in addition to having an obligation to pick among the available choices, do they have an obligation to demand better choices? Unless you have that bigger-picture understanding of everything, how do you know that the choices are bad, such that you now need to demand better ones?
Kevin: It’s a great question. I think there’s a couple of things going on here. One of the things is, what should voters do when the options are all bad, or equally bad, let’s be very clear, which is very difficult. You might think that that’s actually a null set. There’s actually no cases where they’re perfectly equally bad, but let’s say that that’s the case.
There are some democratic theorists who think that having equally bad options actually transforms the decision situation of a voter, where they might think voters have some kind of obligation to participate, to vote or whatever, but when they’re all equally bad, all those obligations dissolve.
If everything is truly equally bad, then there’s no point in you participating at all—in part because then you would be complicit in some complicated way. You’d be complicit in the evil that would be done by one of those choices.
Then one of the responses to that would be to say, “Well, sure, but how do you know that that badness is persisting through time?” One of my concerns, and one of the things that I emphasize, is that things change over time—election to election, day to day, year to year. Even if the options are equally bad in one election, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to be equally bad in the next one.
One of my concerns, and one of the things that I emphasize, is that things change over time—election to election, day to day, year to year. Even if the options are equally bad in one election, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to be equally bad in the next one.
One of the things, it seems to me, that citizens need to do is that they need to keep tabs, essentially, on what’s going on in politics, what’s going on with the choices that they will be faced with in the next election.
There’s some thinkers or some philosophers who make arguments like: “Well, you know what? It might actually be better for people to ignore politics because they might be able to make better use of their time in a way that helps other people more efficiently, more efficaciously, if they take the time that they’re attending to politics and actually direct it elsewhere.”
The issue with that argument is actually an epistemological one, which is that how do you know that your choices in politics are not going to do more good than the choices you might make for doing philanthropic activity or something?
The only way you can know that is by attending to politics, and the choices that you might be faced [with] in politics, and the consequences of what those choices might be. It seems to me that democratic citizens always have an obligation to surveil politics, to keep tabs on politics, precisely to get the awareness of the quality of the choices that they face. So there’s that.
Another part of the question was that should they be demanding better choices? I think that’s a great question because that is precisely the kind of thinking that moves us to think about institutions.
Why do we only have two choices in the United States? I do this with my students when I teach them American politics, American government. I talk about two-party systems versus multi-party systems. I talk about electoral rules because these kinds of things are very wonky and can be very difficult for people who are not accustomed to thinking in terms of institutions to understand.
What’s my ballot look like? What do you mean there’s multiple representatives in a district? These kinds of questions actually culminate in a ballot that gives you choices that are different.
Should citizens demand better choices? I think the answer is yes. Do they need to know a lot in order to know to demand those better choices? I think that’s a good question, and one of the ways of thinking about an answer is to think about it again in terms of a division of labor.
If you do have citizens who are engaged, who look at their choices and think these are bad, I think it is a sign of what they should be doing, that they should then follow up and try to figure out why do I only have these bad choices? Then that leads them into this institutional design space, where they begin to learn about ranked choice voting and multimember districts and this type of comparative politics stuff.
If you do have citizens who are engaged, who look at their choices and think these are bad, I think it is a sign of what they should be doing, that they should then follow up and try to figure out why do I only have these bad choices? Then that leads them into this institutional design space, where they begin to learn about ranked choice voting and multimember districts and this type of comparative politics stuff.
Do most people do that? No. Do most people think that the choices that they’re facing are equally bad? I don’t think so actually. Are most people happy with the choices? I don’t know about that either, but I do think there has been an increasing awareness among ordinary people that we should be demanding better choices.
And the movements that we’ve seen in states like Alaska and several others that have moved towards ranked choice voting—Maine, right?—these are partly fueled by people precisely doing what it sounds like you want them to do: demand better choices and then following that demand through to, well, what does that mean? It means, among other things, messing around with how we do elections, the machinery of elections.
Aaron: On the epistemic issues, though, if a voter looking out at a set of choices thinks that they are maybe not equally bad, but he’s like, I’m sure that there could be a better choice out there than the ones that have been offered to me—even if one of them looks marginally better than the other—that’s a signal to the voter, okay, I should look into this more so that I know what to demand.
That seems to bring further epistemic complications in the sense of how do you go about figuring out where to go for that information, given that there could be conflicting—
I’m thinking of, by way of example, years and years ago when I was at the Cato Institute, I had a colleague who worked on climate change issues, and he was a Ph.D. climatologist—credentialed, all of that—but his view of the severity of global warming, the causes and so on, was very different from other climatologists out there.
The question I asked him in the break room was, when I look at, say, the evolution-creationism debate, there are Ph.D. biologists who argue for young Earth creationism, and there are Ph.D. biologists who argue for evolution. And almost all of us say, well, obviously, the people who argue for evolution are correct, even if we’re not ourselves scientists, right? We can just know because there’s this.
So how am I, as a nonclimatologist, to evaluate the fact that almost everybody who is as credentialed as you are disagrees with you? How should I in my mind distinguish you from the young Earth creationist, effectively?
The answer that he gave was not satisfying. It was, “Well, because the data supports my side,” which is what everybody who has a side argues. No one says the data doesn’t support my side. But I think it speaks to this question of if I’m going to demand better choices, I have to have a way to evaluate.
Either I can develop a high degree of expertise myself so that I can look at all the available data and come to a reasonable conclusion, but that doesn’t work in almost all cases because we can’t be experts at that level in everything. Instead, we have to basically lean on proxies, but the proxies disagree with each other.
If you said, I don’t think that the choices in front of me for solving this particular issue are good, and you go to the experts at one think tank, who all look like very smart people with lots of education, they’re going to say one thing. You go to the other think tank, they’re going to say another thing.
How does a voter answer that because it seems like we’ve just pushed the expertise question just down the road a bit?
Kevin: I think that’s right, but one of the things is you’re pushing it down the road but you’re also reducing the number of people who are engaging in the inquiry. What do I mean by that?
Part of what’s happening here when we begin to talk about better choices and so forth and reform, one of the things we’re talking about is specialization, which is to say that some citizens will take it upon themselves that in their economy of attention and the kinds of things that concern them in politics, as we’ve been discussing, some of them will say, don’t like my options, would like to learn more about what different options I could have.
That could, should by hypothesis, lead them to specialize, in the sense that they will begin to move themselves into this debate space, where there’s people from Cato and there’s people from whatever other think tanks that are all doing work on whatever topic it is, let’s say democratic reform, New America, I suppose, and other places like that. Then they will begin to read the contrasting opinions that they see. There will be at that point conflicting claims from different kinds of experts.
One of the most important determinants of where people get their information, and you were alluding to this I think, is trust. There are some people that we trust. That’s actually where we get most of our information. There are some people, some sources, that we trust, and those are the ones that we end up endorsing. Their views are the ones that we update our own information about.
One of the things that happens all the time in civic society is that citizens are specializing in different issue areas that they find interesting—and not everybody does this, but some people do. The ones who do will end up accumulating a bit more knowledge, a bit more expertise, but in a very, very light sense of expertise. They’re experts relative to somebody who has never given any of these questions any thought.
Someone who has read a series of articles by Lee Drutman, for instance, somebody who’s written quite a lot about electoral reform. The structure of Drutman’s writing about this is he is engaging in debates, in arguments, that other people are making who oppose the kind of reform package that he has in mind.
Maybe you begin to read what he’s saying, and you’re like, this doesn’t sound right to me, or this sounds un-American or something, or whatever it is. Maybe he’ll convince you and maybe he won’t, but in reading this Vox article or whatever that he has written, maybe he’ll mention somebody that you’re like, “Oh, who is that?”
You search for their name, and this is the process, and then you look them up, and it turns out that they’re more congenial to you. They’re an advocate of two-party systems, and they give you all sorts of reasons why they’re excellent.
In this process of exploration, you come to have a much better understanding of this question that you started out with, and also of the state of play among people who pay very close attention to it—people who know a lot more about it than you do. I do think you end up with a specialization in the mass public that then helps inform reform efforts.
Politicians who are interested in this area of reform, they come to understand that the people who are invested in this area of reform have these kinds of opinions. Not all of one piece, because people disagree, but in general, people in the reform community, people are interested in, let’s say, better choices. There’s been a herding towards, for instance, ranked choice voting as something that many people are very, very interested in.
There’s one other thing about this particular question. Other things won’t work quite the same way. Maybe climate change wouldn’t work quite the same way. There’s a difference between activists, for people who are very committed to one particular reform, and this can almost get to the point of come hell or high water this is what I’ve hitched my wagon to. And then there are people who are more disinterested and approach things in an engineer kind of approach.
People in my field in political science tend to think about political institutions in this way, electoral institutions in this way. If somebody comes to you and says, “All right, how do we fix this democracy? What’s the best electoral system?” Something like that. A political scientist will be like, “Well, look, there’s no answer to that question. What is the problem that you’re trying to fix because all there are, are trade-offs? All there are, are imperfect solutions. There’s no best system.” And an activist will tell you, it’s my preferred reform—that’s the best one.
I think you can come to note the difference between these in the public debate about, in particular, political reform, when you see people who are like, my preferred reform is the solution for all of these problems. It’s the silver bullet for everything.
When somebody makes claims like that, at some point it’s like, is it really going to fix everything? Is it really the solution to all of the problems that beset us? Probably not.
Here’s this other person who’s saying, look, it’ll solve these problems. Maybe it’ll make this slightly better. Then you’re like, that person actually sounds more plausible, more believable. There you can develop that trust relationship on the basis of something like that. Just like this person’s making wild categorical claims and this person’s making more sensible claims.
Aaron: Let me flip to the other side of it because we’ve been talking about the relative lack of expertise of most voters. Not just lack of expertise, but often just lack of interest in all of the political stuff.
But then there are obviously people who are absolute politics geeks, love this stuff, obsess over it, it’s all they want to talk about, and so on. Those tend to be the people running the institutions. You don’t decide to make a career out of something unless you’re into it.
The career politicians, the career bureaucrats, and so on are the people who are pretty into it. Or I guess one thing that can happen when you’re really into something is you can overestimate the salience of it. Is it a problem that basically our politics and political institutions are being run by people who are perhaps so into politics that they have expertise, but they also overestimate the applicability of politics to basically every problem that they come across?
Kevin: I take this dominance of politics by the politically interested—it’s funny because this very common rhetorical trope among elected officials will be, well, I’m not a politician. You’ll see this move where politicians precisely try to disclaim exactly the type of very deep, bone-deep, oh man, I love politics. Anyone who said that on the campaign trail, it’s like, nope. Just turn off half the electorate instantly.
I think you’re absolutely right that many people—and this wouldn’t only go for the political class, but the class of extraordinarily interested citizens as well—overestimate the salience of little minor things.
Many Americans would’ve looked at pictures—we’re recording this right after the State of the Union, and there were some pictures of members of Congress holding a white balloon. This is a reference to the Chinese spy balloon, which was recently in the headlines.
But if you’re not following politics all that closely, and you see a picture of a member of Congress holding a balloon in the Capitol, what’s going on here? I don’t know what this is about because you have to be paying attention to understand what’s being communicated with this symbol.
I think it absolutely does happen where people who are very much inside the bubble will tend to overestimate: “Oh my gosh, did you see this story in Politico? It’s so dastardly.”
One of the brilliant elements of the satire of the show Veep—I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Veep—but the brilliance of the satire of that show is often playing off of precisely this element, where these West Wing people are constantly like, oh my gosh, everything’s on fire because somebody said something to a reporter.A minor comment is blown very, very far out of proportion for the people inside the administration.
I mostly think this is mostly harmless. This kind of overestimation of salience is for the most part kind of filling the time of the political class, and maybe you’d think they could spend their time in better ways. That might be. It could be. But the fact of the matter is that these matters do not actually reach the ears, as it were, of these members of the public who don’t pay as much attention to politics.
They’re more focused on, look, what are my taxes at? What is inflation at? Am I getting a better deal at work than I have been lately? Why is my company giving me a good raise right now? Why is that happening? It’s like, well, they can look at the unemployment rate, and they know that if they lose you, they’re going to have a heck of a time replacing you.
I should say that I am worried about politics geeks in general. I am concerned about them because there is a way in which people who are very, very concerned about politics can become myopic.
I think maybe this is in the background of your question, that they can overestimate the importance of politics, the salience of politics, maybe, and, you might think, politicize things that are not or shouldn’t be, just put very simply. I do think that’s a very real concern.
I should say that I am worried about politics geeks in general. I am concerned about them because there is a way in which people who are very, very concerned about politics can become myopic. … They can overestimate the importance of politics, the salience of politics, maybe, and, you might think, politicize things that are not or shouldn’t be.
From the perspective that I endorse, this is, I think, one of the genius design elements of representative democracy as opposed to more participatory or direct forms of democratic institutional arrangements, precisely because people who want political power have to resort at some interval to people who are not paying as much attention to things.
This creates an enormous amount of pressure on them to not lose touch, to not allow themselves to become so tied up with palace intrigue—the “palace intrigue” that we’ll sometimes talk about when it comes to inside-the-White-House-type stories. “Palace intrigue” comes from the monarchical past, when you have kings who can completely disregard what is happening in the streets, because there’s no institutional mechanism of feedback that’s forcing them to pay attention to what the hungry Parisians care about.
In representative democracy, the political class cannot get too lost in its own navel-gazing, structurally, because those who do that will not be able to communicate in persuasive ways with voters, essentially. Again, there are better and worse ways of doing that. There are better and worse ways of forging that kind of connection between representatives and voters, citizens, ordinary citizens. I’m not saying that we’ve got this figured out at all: I’m just saying that this particular problem is a real one, but the nature of accountability via the electorate is a very powerful structural way to prevent that type of overestimation, navel-gazing or inward turn among the political class from getting out of hand.
That being said, there is one other issue with this, which I think speaks to your concern about over-politicization, and that’s that representatives are also in a position to communicate directly with voters. So if they can convince voters that this issue that the voters thought initially was not political, and they make a case that is, voters might be persuaded of that and then support them for using the state or whatever to address some issue that we might think wouldn’t be well treated by politics.
Aaron: Yes, and I think that’s the crux of my concern: that politics and political institutions and the application of political force are tools for accomplishing ends in the world—we identify a problem, and then it might be that that can be solved through state intervention, a new program, some sort of application of political influence, but it might also be there are alternate ways we could be addressing this particular concern. So housing is really expensive. Well, we could set rent controls through state intervention, or we could just kind of let people build more housing. Those are both alternate ways. We can argue about whether one works better than the other, but they’re different tools to use to address an articulated problem.
My worry is that the more that the political tool is being controlled by people who are obsessive about politics, and the more that we center politics in the perception of the general citizenry as something that they should be paying attention to, something they should be engaged in, the more we maybe just implicitly tell people that among tools, politics is privileged as a way to solve this. That then encourages, potentially, overuse, which then spirals, because the more it’s used, the more people are incentivized to pay attention to it, and the more people who are really into it think they can do with it. So that’s my ultimate concern—that if we overemphasize it, then we can end up in this cascade, where we essentially crowd out the use of other tools that might work better.
Kevin: Yes, that’s a really important point, I think. When I think of politics and when I talk about politics, I do mean it quite expansively. I don’t think of it as solely related to the state. I do think about it also in terms of community engagement and, “What are the problems in the place where I live?” That, for many people, immediately cues up, “Well, what can I do about this problem in my church or in my club or whatever?”
I do think that’s actually a really important part of politics. There’s this wonderful book that I think deserves more attention—the book is called something like “Close to Home”: The Work of Avoiding Politics, by Nina Eliasoph. She’s a sociologist. She does this fantastic study of, basically, Americans. She’s interested in the way that what politics is and what politics isn’t is constructed. It’s like a constructed thing. She interviews this civically engaged group of women in Virginia. It is fascinating. They ask them, “Hey, what kinds of issues are you concerned about? What do you think about these ‘political issues’ and what do you think about these other issues?”
These women have organized a grassroots civic society club, I suppose, to address something like drug abuse in their community. Then they ask them basically, “What about pollution from the naval base that’s literally near your home?” They’re like: “That’s not close to home. That’s not an issue I can do anything about.” For them, what seems they can get their hands around are local issues. Then if you ask them, “Are you doing politics by doing collective action to address a collective concern?” They will say, “No, we’re not doing politics.”
But it seems that you could just as well call that politics—as you say, a nonstate response to a collective action problem. You could conceive of that as politics. It’s not obviously not politics. But anyway, Eliasoph does this wonderful job of showing how we develop these rhetorical tricks and tropes of putting some things into politics in order to make them things we cannot get our hands around, things that are beyond our agency, things that we can safely ignore even, because they’re far away, and so by definition are just not of our concern, as opposed to issues that are “close to home,” which we can get our hands around, that we can do something about, even if this involves contacting elected officials, right? If you’re talking to local city councilors or something about, “We need a sidewalk in our neighborhood” or something, somebody might not think that what they’re doing is politics, because what they’re doing is, like, “Oh, I’m just trying to make my neighborhood better.” Something like that.
I think that’s a real part of the concern that you’re articulating in terms of how politics can grow too far; I think it can often be a verbal disagreement. It’s like, “What do we mean by politics?” If we include all kinds of collective action, maybe you think that’s over-inclusive—that’s fine. [Laughs.] That’s okay. If we want to say, well, it’s only about the state, I’m like, okay, then I am not saying that people need to pay attention to the state. I think that if people are concerned with their role as democratic citizens—and what that entails, among other things, is either being a voter or being a citizen in some other way—I think that there’s lots of ways of being a good citizen. I do think you need to be paying attention to electoral politics. We can get into that if you like, but it’s a bit of a longer point.
Aaron: Let me ask, then, about electoral politics, because looking around at the American political landscape right now, few of us, I think, would label it healthy. We are in, often, pretty scary times, with particularly what we’re seeing with the Republican Party and the drift that it has had away from the kind of—when you talk about the role of legislators, they’re not what I think you mean in terms of how they’re approaching their role and the direction they want the country and all of that.
One of the things that has happened in our political culture—and I think it’s incentivized by the way that elections function—is just extreme polarization, and a sense that the people on one side are being told by the leadership on the other side that those guys over there are enemies—are not citizens that we’re sharing a common project with, even if we disagree on how best to achieve these shared ends. Rather they are more dangerous than any of these foreign invaders we might be worried about or something.
All of our elections are built around that negative partisanship and so on. How do you pay attention to elections in an environment like that, where it seems like everything that you would be paying attention to, unless you are just reading political science journals, is designed to make all of these problems worse by entrenching the very things that seem to be causing the issues that are, potentially, tearing the country apart.
Kevin: Yes. Let me just say that I think I’m professionally obligated to say everybody should be reading more political science journals. [Laughs.] Yes, this is a problem of the information environment: the structure of the information environment in terms of things like ownership, in terms of the rules of moderation, the affordances of online architecture. There’s a wonderful book by Jennifer Forestal on this question of online architectures that are conducive to democracy and ones that aren’t. I would highly recommend her work.
This kind of stuff—this is where we’re at. Trying to grapple with these issues is where we are as people concerned with democracy and healthy democratic processes.
The rise that we’ve seen in American politics in particular of independents—independents today are something like 40% or more. Between 40% and 45% of Americans now identify as independents. There’s been some really great work by some other political scientists—
Here I am: political scientist. I’m going to cite a bunch of political scientists, because I think that they’re starting to get to many of the issues that are at the core of what’s going on here.
There’s this great book called The Other Divide, which emphasizes something that’s been in the background of our conversation, but here’s a good place to make it explicit. We often talk about, “The main political divide is between Democrats and Republicans, left and right.” Right? We’re all familiar with that. That’s what you’re alluding to in terms of polarization. But there is at the same time this other divide between people who are very invested in politics—people who are geeks, they make it their lives—and the people who just don’t: the people who are just very often either very politically disengaged or only sporadically so.
One of the really interesting things is that the further away you get from that very invested core of politically interested people, the cooler all of the heat of politics gets. They’re just not as invested in the fights. They’re not as concerned. The heat of partisan conflict just seems very alien, very strange. They don’t quite get it, because they’re not invested in the same way.
I think one of the things that’s really important is if we either as citizens or—the locus of where to do this is tricky—but basically, I think we would do well to bear in mind that there are these fundamentally different kinds of ways that people are oriented towards politics. People being less committed to it doesn’t make their concerns and their interests any less significant. They’re dealing with high inflation and unaffordable health care and all these kinds of things just like everybody else, but they tend not to vote as often, and they tend not to be involved in these deeper forms of political participation.
One of the things we should be thinking about when we think about democratic reform are ways that will essentially empower people who are less invested in the partisan warfare. That will help to turn the temperature down, because you have this more inclusive vision of who politics is about. It’s not just about the people who have drawn the long daggers and are at each other’s throats. It’s also these people who are like, “Yeah, I don’t really care about these conflicts. What are you doing about the price of whatever? What are you doing to help me out?” I think that’s very helpful, and I think that’s very healthy, I should say.
One of the things we should be thinking about when we think about democratic reform are ways that will essentially empower people who are less invested in the partisan warfare. That will help to turn the temperature down, because you have this more inclusive vision of who politics is about. It’s not just about the people who have drawn the long daggers and are at each other’s throats.
There are structural elements of our politics right now that are militating against that. I do think one of the places to look is information flows and the structure of the ownership of media sources and these types of things. They end up having a lot of downstream effects. The concentration of ownership of radios and television stations and things like this has reduced the diversity of perspectives that we’ll see articulated in public. It helps to consolidate the stories that are told about our collective life, and I think that that’s a problem. Once you get this polarized train rolling, it is genuinely quite difficult to unpick that development.
For my money, I think the most straightforward way of addressing that particular problem would be introducing reforms that would enable the formation of third parties essentially, of multiple parties, because if you want to address the problem in the Republican Party in particular, I think what you need to do is enable that party to split into a more moderate faction and a more extreme faction. I think you want those factions to be separate parties. They can agree on all sorts of policies in the House, in the legislature, issue to issue.
But if voters were able to have a choice between what would be the America First Party and the old-line Republican Party or whatever, the Center-Right Party, that would provide voters with a real choice on the right. I think you would find that that Center-Right Party would often have enough support to be pivotal in deciding what kinds of policies are actually made.
But that requires the reforms that we’ve been discussing earlier. This is going to require diversifying the choices that voters face. This is going to require changing how we organize our elections.
These are not changes that we know nothing about. Lots of other countries do things differently. I think one of the big challenges for American democracy is, How can we set aside our very strong sense of American exceptionalism—that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world? How can we set that aside in order to learn what we can learn from other countries’ experience and say, look, what can we do here, how can we change things in a way that will provide us the opportunity to do things better, basically?
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you enjoy the show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple Podcasts. You can also join our Discord listener community and book club by following this link. ReImagining Liberty is a project of The UnPopulist and is produced by Landry Ayres.