Monday, January 25, 2010

Stealth Democracy

This book makes the point I made last week but with evidence (namely, surveys and interviews).

The Futurist's blurb on this book:
Is greater citizen involvement the solution to society's problems? Not according to political science professors Hibbing and Theiss-Morse. Americans do not want to be involved in politics and are content to turn decision making over to others, provided they are non-self-interested. A compelling challenge to the prominent view that government participation leads to better government.

From the book's own abstract:
Contrary to the prevailing view that people want greater involvement in politics, most citizens do not care about most policies and therefore are content to turn over decision-making authority to someone else. People’s wish for the political system is that decision makers be empathetic and, especially, non-self-interested, not that they be responsive and accountable to the people’s largely nonexistent policy preferences or, even worse, that the people be obligated to participate directly in decision making.

This is of particular importance to the Wildrose Alliance, since if the research behind this Cambridge University Press publication is sound, then the party's current direction is fundamentally at odds with researchers' evidence.

Currently, the Wildrose Alliance is long on citizen involvement in the policy making process, which the citizenry doesn't actually want, and short on transparency, which the citizenry does want (since transparency is fundamentally incompatible with pursuing narrow, self-interested agendas). To be sure, the party isn't actually worse on transparency than the other parties, but at the same time it hasn't been a theme that the party has been championing. Who donated to the leadership campaigns? Are communications primarily controlled by a small group of insiders at the party's centre? Why not let the media in on everything the party does? Because that wouldn't be in the party's interest? See what this book has to say about partisanship. What ordinary people really want is political parties that work against their own self-interest and for the public interest instead.

It's not without reason that the global NGO leading the fight against corruption is called Transparency International. Transparency exposes self-interested behaviour by government officials and lawmakers and accordingly does more to ensure the better government that citizens want than getting more citizens involved in setting policy.


jay said...

Huh--I agree with you.

Martin said...

Very well put Brian. I've had a very similar outlook for years. I have noticed a movement towards transparency, at least here in the western world. If the Liberal ad campaign scam would have occurred 30 years ago, Joe Public would have never been the wiser.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'll bite. I buy the idea that grass-roots can quickly devolve into anarchy but how "transparent" do you want it to become.

Article last week (National Post Jan 24) disclosed a current distemper within Green Party over Elizabeth May's fiscal management style, noting the resignation of a number of staffers. In particular she suggests no other party allows members to "listen in" on Council deliberations. I hope you do not think this is something Wildrose should adopt.

My point is that there must be some arena where debate is fostered and opinions heard - if not caucus it will be somewhere else where other factors come into play that you can't control - lunch at the club, around the office "water cooler" (out of date but probably replaced by one's blackberry/twitter now) or "pillow talk". Part of the PC's problem has been they have cast out contrary opinion as "the devil they don't know" only to see it seeped out as frustration.

But keep the idea's coming - they are valid and we need to discuss them.

Brian Dell said...

Again, my main issue is consistency. What gets my goat is asking the Wildrose membership to vote for who serves on the provincial executive when the membership has no clue who these people are because everything they do is behind closed doors. If it needs to be opaque, then either don't ask the membership to vote or acknowledge that instructions are advisory and decisions are conditional.

Either people shouldn't be asked to approve what they can't see OR those in control do not pretend that they have much more of a mandate relative to the rest of us who are not elected under those circumstances.

What is needed is proportionality betweens transparency and the extent to which power is wielded over others, in other words. If one backs off the transparency, fine, but there should be a corresponding circumspection when it comes to throwing one's weight around.

Brian Dell said...

Having said that there is a flip side, and that's that people in positions of power are entitled to transparency about who their critics are. If known critics are persecuted, then both persecutor and persecuted are known to the public and when the public is informed re both sides of the story then the public can respond appropriately with respect to whether the persecution is just punishment and appropriate or not.

If disclosure would be unfair to someone, it would be because the expection or requirement of disclosure is being applied selectively instead of universally. If other political parties are not disclosing, then of course one shouldn't be a martyr. But measures that require more transparency from everyone should be advanced and supported at every opportunity.

As for that article about Elisabeth May and the Green Party, I don't really get how they are relevant here, unless one assumes that they have a communications problem. And they don't have a communications problem, they have a SUBSTANTIVE problem. By having it aired out in public it may actually get solved. By covering it up it won't get solved. Secrecy serves the interests of narrow agendas and the powers-that-be to a far greaer extent than outlawing elections.

If I wanted to be a dictator I'd take control over information and let the "people" have full control over the ballot box. I'll frame their choices for them on MY terms. If a US President asked for the powers that a Prime Minister in Canada has re his govt's agenda, the outrage at the seizure of power would be deafening. Yet no one in Canada is much outraged. It's all about the framing.

Should I as dictator lose control over information, would denying people a vote allow me to continue to lie, cheat and steal? I am not aware of a dictator in history who was able to maintain power despite overwhelming public disgust with his actions. It doesn't matter what the constitution says - either the country's leadership has popular support or it doesn't. If it doesn't, it's going down sooner or later one way or another. The real power lies in not allowing the public to get disgusted in the first place by finding out what one is really up to.

Brian Dell said...

Transparency is what is allowing Greens to figure out that they made a grave mistake going with Elisabeth May instead of David Chernushenko. Given that they could correct that problem, how is a system that exposes the problem in any way bad for the party?

Anonymous said...

What I want to see - citizen-initiated referenda. Isn't this a Wildrose policy?