In the most recent issue of "Perspectives on Politics," a publication of the American Political Association, I am a participant in a symposium of several scholars discussing a recent book by Carmen Sirianni entitled Investing in Democracy. By way of very basic summary, Siranni argues that there is a strong need for government intervention in, and sponsorship of, civic participation. In some senses I agree with Siranni that a properly constituted government will encourage a strong civic life; I disagree that this can be accomplished by means of the typical programs of a liberal state. Rather, my argument is that the liberal state is constitutionally designed to discourage civic participation, and that the required solution is far more radical than the one he proposes. Rather, his suggestions would likely only worsen the condition of an otherwise terminal patient.
My entire contribution follows.
Response to Carmen Sirianni’s Investing in Democracy
Patrick J. Deneen
Carmen Sirianni tackles a worrisome problem in his ambitious book, Investing in Democracy: what can be done to elevate levels of civic participation in the world’s oldest liberal democracy, and to inculcate in future generations a strong sense of civic obligation and concern for common weal? Nearly every political scientist not only knows, but in some form or another admires, Tocqueville’s classic analysis of modern mass democracy in which he commended an education in the “arts of association” and the presence of vibrant and active civic and political associations for the perpetuation of liberal democracy. Yet, studies continue to show declining levels of participation and membership in civil and political associations, and high levels of mistrust of and alienation from government. While agreeing on the needed cure of the ills of an apathetic citizenry, most political scientists are hard-pressed to recommend a means to improving the patient.
Siranni – a sociologist and professor of public policy at Brandeis University – takes the radical step of arguing on behalf of active government assistance toward the fostering of civic spiritedness. Not simply content to lament the decline of civic participation and call for amorphous increases in participation, he has examined several instances of government providing various incentives for, and even financial support toward, increasing civic participation in matters of local and national policy. Given how much of contemporary life – from market economics to centralization to mass-media distraction – makes the maintenance of such associations increasingly difficult, it stands to reason that it may require Government itself to redress the decline of civic participation in the workings of Government.
Yet, Tocqueville noted that Government itself would increasingly replace associations as the locus of our civic lives: “It is easy to foresee that the time is drawing near when man will be less and less able to produce, by himself alone, the commonest necessaries of life. The task of the governing power will therefore perpetually increase, and its very efforts will extend it every day. The more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other” (Democracy in America, II.ii.5). Sirianni, while noting a debt to Tocqueville, does not sufficiently heed Tocqueville’s caution that the Government of liberal democracy itself increasingly becomes the main obstacle to, and replacement for, the very participation he seeks to recommend.
Sirianni’s faith in the positive role to be played by government in fostering civic engagement blinds him to its inherent dangers. A case in point: early in Investing in Democracy, Sirianni approvingly quotes from former EPA Director William Ruckelshaus, who claimed that only when the Federal government engages in the education of the citizenry about the complexity of government would “the United States … be ready for self-government” (41). Sirianni responds, “No head of a federal agency, to my knowledge, has ever put it better.” In effect, only with the assistance of the Federal government itself, will the American citizenry be capable of self-government. I think many would find this idea a source of concern, and would decry his lack of curiosity about how we have arrived at a point at which leaders of a government constituted by the people adjudge that the citizenry may yet be capable of self-government. Sirainni’s celebration of this statement suggests that he wears a highly distorting set of blinders.
In fine, this book admirably attempts to grapple with the symptoms of civic apathy and even ignorance in advanced liberal democracies, but without concern for, or awareness of, the deeper systemic causes of that condition. Toward the conclusion of the book, Sirianni speaks of a “crisis of democracy” (239), but allows this phrase to substitute for serious reflection about the nature of that crisis. And without such reflection, the book has the feel of someone putting band-aids on a patient who has already lost most of his blood.
What we now call “liberal democracy” was not at it inception called “democracy.” Its main aim was to combine a theory of popular legitimation with a State structure that would provide political, economic, and military stability; protect individual rights; increase material prosperity; and winnow the ambitious and talented from disparate places and put them in service of the modern State and its larger ambitions for national greatness. Encouraging civic participation was not on its list of desiderata: indeed, for the Founders of the United States, a great fear was the sort of popular agitation that had manifested itself in Shay’s rebellion, the proximate cause of the Constitutional Convention. Madison concluded that “democracy” – by which he meant the ancient form defined by direct civic participation – always resulted in instability and stasis; the task for the Founders was to design a system that would elicit the occasional sanction of the citizenry but leave the machinery of government to those who could “refine and enlarge” the public opinion. Madison’s view of the inherent irrationality of gathered citizens was captured most expressively in Federalist 55, in which he wrote that even had “every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” The system that Madison designed aimed to suppress civic engagement by making government distant and complex and by creating a substantial and rewarding sphere for private activity that would leave only “speculative men” attracted to positions of political power and influence.
Tocqueville discerned early in the life of the Republic that modern democracy’s trajectory was toward individualism and withdrawal into private concerns. The public sphere was one of indignity and personal irrelevance, a place where one was subject to the faceless tyranny of an anonymous majority. As stated, many today (including Sirianni) admire Tocqueville’s warm praise for the central importance of the “arts of association” and civic and political associations in undergirding the health of democracy, but they tend to downplay or ignore the deeper misgivings expressed by Tocqueville about the prospects of maintaining those vibrant town-hall forms of direct civic engagement and governance given the logic of mass democracy. It is a measure of the distance we have travelled that we today regularly use the phrase “town hall meeting” to describe a televised event in which most viewers are passive and distant. Tocqueville, I suspect, would not be surprised by this degradation of our language, and of our concept of democracy.
Instead, Tocqueville described the ultimate (if ironic) path of modern democracy being one in which the very isolation and individualism of the citizenry would contribute to the rise to a “vast, tutelary State,” compensating for what had once had been the labors of an active citizenry. Tocqueville would not be surprised that a culminating sign of this trajectory would be the call for government to reconstitute civic engagement – thereby requiring further growth of government. But, being unconcerned about the base causes for what Sirianni calls the “default” neglect of citizens by government entities, and corresponding apathy of citizens toward public life, his otherwise admirable effort to think through practically what would be required to invigorate civic activity finally deals too much in symptoms rather than attending to root causes.
Most admirably, Sirianni recognizes that civic engagement is only realistically achieved in local settings. Two of his three case studies concentrate on local (urban) efforts to foster greater civic knowledge and activity (Seattle, WA and Hampton, VA), and his third case study of the EPA emphasizes the ways in which the EPA has sought to encourage local entities to bring local knowledge to local and regional environmental issues. Yet it’s at least puzzling that what should otherwise be the “default” for a democratic people – concern for, and engagement with, issues of local bearing – should now appear to require government efforts (and tax expenditures) to be revived. Sirianni speaks often of “empowering” citizens; but if so, then it is at least worth considering why they have presumably been “disempowered.” A reason that appears not to have occurred to him is that the administrative State itself – at various levels – has been and continues to be destructive of local forms of civic participation. Such a possibility at least raises an important reservation about Sirianni’s argument: if government in various ways has effectively suppressed local forms of participation, is it prudent or realistic to expect it to substantively reverse one of its basic purposes?
The very examples offered by Sirianni suggest otherwise – for instance, his discussion of efforts to increase local civic participation in education in Hampton, VA. In seeking to improve individual counseling by full-time in-school counselors in Hampton, VA, Sirianni notes that such counselors “did not have enough time to do adequate and timely counseling because they had become loaded down with responsibilities related to testing and the requirements of Virginia’s standards of learning” (141). These “SOLs” – instituted in response to the Federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation – drive not only the daily activity of guidance counselors, but all teachers and administrators in every public school in Virginia. Increasingly, professional incentives emphasize making the grade on “SOLs,” effectively depriving educators of the ability to address local concerns or even more personal needs of individual students. Even as Sirianni seeks to emphasize efforts by local schools to encourage local participation by students, it is acknowledged in passing that local control has been effectively removed by broader State and Federal requirements that force schools to ignore varying local circumstance (in this case, students) and to become increasingly homogeneous and identical in accordance with state and national standards.
Similarly, in discussing efforts by the EPA to foster activity and ability of local entities to contribute to the protection of local environments, Sirianni altogether ignores that the source of so much environmental degradation is the result of national economic policies, ones that effectively take out of the hands of local entities the ability to govern the use and disposal of resources and waste. Commerce clause legislation and jurisprudence, as well as the Federal administrative code, have almost wholly eviscerated state control of local economic circumstance, while State legislatures are often too willing to ignore the concerns of more local entities when tax revenues and campaign contributions are at stake. Yet – stunningly – when speaking of efforts by local groups in Seattle to exert local control over economic growth (i.e, the activity that produces the environmental degradation that the EPA is then charged with cleaning up), Sirianni approvingly notes that “antigrowth ‘NIMBYism’ (NIMBY: Not in my back yard)” was nipped in the bud by procedures that blocked local citizen participation “on the front end” (83). Civic involvement is only approved, it seems, when the basic outcome has already been ensured by the leaders and experts. If such is the case, then can it be any wonder that the “default” is civic apathy and a sense that participation can only finally affirm a pre-determined end?
Just this sort of substantive political and economic commitment that is evinced in passing is a problem that plagues Sirianni’s book – one that finally raises a question about its basic object. While often praising civic participation, Sirianni is everywhere clear that it is to be conceived as having a particular orientation and end: namely, to further advance a particular version of modern liberalism that is friendly to national and global markets and ideals of individual autonomy. He speaks often of “progressive” ends of participation, indicating that participation is to effect a determined end, rather than itself determining what that end might be. This orientation becomes clear in the last lines of the book, when Sirianni frankly acknowledges that the book is intended to assist President Obama’s political aims, and the dust jacket informs us that he served as “an adviser to the Obama ’08 campaign.” This information raises a basic question: is it possible to conceive of government “investment” that would foster civic participation that would strive to reduce the size, role, scope and power of government itself? Would government support local efforts that would seek to constrain higher level activities of government – such as the “Tea Party” movement? In short, doesn’t the recommendation of government assistance toward participation skew the sorts of causes that will be advanced by that participation, making this finally a form of substantive policy and even partisan subsidization?
Were Sirianni more fundamentally concerned with the civic life of citizens – rather than increasing their role in the legitimation of pre-approved outcomes – he would need to evince more concern for the true empowerment of local entities, and leave wide latitude for the local determination of political outcomes – even outcomes with which he might potentially disagree. One would have to begin by considering ways that the vast administrative State could be constrained, and local entities given true responsibility over their own fates (Sirianni states that “the administrative State is clearly here to stay” (239), in which case, so perhaps too is civic apathy. If one can devote a book tilted at the latter windmill, why not the former?). One could devote attention to ways that localities could increase their opportunities for self-governance, from local and regional economics, to education, to a host of forms of local legislation that now takes its cue from Washington, D.C. Such efforts would demonstrate a true commitment to fostering local self-governance without pre-judging what the outcomes of such governance would look like. It could open space where local civic participation is not a lifestyle choice, but a necessity.
A basic confusion lies at the heart of Sirianni’s book: namely, the grounds for recommending civic engagement. On the one hand there is praise for ground-level “local knowledge,” but simultaneously a valorization of specialized expertise and government guidance. Sirianni labors to wed the two, envisioning a citizenry devoted to “problem-solving” led by leaders in science and government. However, civic problems – and their solutions – that may be identified by the citizenry on the ground may differ from administrative or expert evaluation. For instance, by preemptively rejecting “NIMBYism” as a legitimate civic concern, Sirianni has already substantially circumscribed the range of civic activity, determining in advance the kind of local participation that “counts.” Might not Sirianni’s “NIMBYism” be a neighborhood or city’s or state’s effort to protect itself against the depredations of economic exploitation? Sirianni finally seems as nervous about the real possibility of democratic self-governance as were the Founders, and works throughout to limit what he regards as legitimate activity to proscribed ends – ends most often that legitimate an expansive administrative State. Only with such nervousness informing his worldview could Sirianni agree with a Federal administrator that American citizens may yet “be ready for self-government.” But perhaps it is finally not due to contributions that the administrative State might make to robust civic life, but the obstacles that it has long placed in its path, that true self-government yet remains in our future.