Sabeel Rahman

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Sabeel Rahman

  • Giving Citizens Control Over Government Will Revive It

    Apr 4, 2012Sabeel Rahman

    As part of the How We Value Government series, a call for going beyond electoral reforms to bring citizens directly into the governing process.

    As part of the How We Value Government series, a call for going beyond electoral reforms to bring citizens directly into the governing process.

    From the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, to the 2012 campaign trail and the Supreme Court's consideration of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the central clash in American politics today is over the role of government in the modern economy. If the Great Recession has taught us anything it is that, on the one hand, we need government more than ever as a force for the common good -- whether in combating the vicissitudes of the market or in holding private actors like too-big-to-fail firms accountable. But, on the other hand, our faith in government's ability to do so has been (rightly) shaken. Conservatives have used this distrust to deregulate and dismantle the welfare state. As Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick argues, one of the central challenges for progressive politics is to provide a constructive defense of the role and value of government.

    One of the common responses to the declining faith in government is to appeal to individuals' civic virtue, which could revive government by pushing us to make good faith arguments as advocates, participate as voters, or promote the common good as policymakers. Yet Barack Obama's own appeal to bipartisanship and civic duty in 2008 now looks naïve in the context of the vitriolic political disputes over government policy in the Great Recession.

    Yet Obama was on to something: citizenship does matter for restoring the effectiveness of and faith in government, but not in the way that it is commonly invoked. The deeper root cause of the questionable legitimacy of government today is not policymakers themselves; it is instead the sheer gap between we the people and those policymakers. The workings of government are too often seen as an outside force, driven by individuals who are not responsive or accountable to the people. Ultimately, reviving government requires expanding the opportunities for participation offered to citizens themselves. In other words, restoring government requires rethinking citizenship -- not by appealing to virtue but rather by thinking of it as an office, with its own powers and capacities to shape public policy.

    When the ideal of citizenship is invoked, it is often as a corrective against narrow self-interested views of politics. Good citizenship, we are reminded, entails not only rights and benefits for the individual, but also shared obligations to one another. Good citizenship means giving reasons for one's political beliefs in public and arguing in good faith over what the common good requires. For elected and appointed officials, citizenship means governing with an eye toward the public, not the private or factional, interest -- while for voters citizenship means showing up on election day and choosing one's vote carefully.

    But this "virtue-conception" of citizenship has remarkably little bite as a mode of political reform beyond exhortations to good behavior. Yes, a good citizen ought to take seriously his or her obligations to others and we ought to argue or govern in good faith. But this conception of citizenship by itself cannot generate the kind of shift in politics that we need. The exhortation to virtue is an aspiration, but not a reform strategy.

    Indeed, many classical democratic theorists emphasized citizenship not as a virtue, but as an institutional configuration of political power. In this view, we need institutions to facilitate good government. But through participating in those institutions we as individuals can acquire civic virtues over time, learning through experience and being shaped by institutional powers and constraints to govern better. This "institutional view" sees citizenship as an office, a position in a democratic government. Like the other offices in a democracy such as the executive, the legislator, or the judge, this office has its own powers, responsibilities, and institutional forms -- structures that make possible the kinds of actions that we want from a "good citizen."

    The problems of contemporary politics look very different from this view. The problem is not self-serving interest groups, callous politicians, or apathetic voters. Instead, the problem is that we have underinvested in the institutions that can make ordinary people effective officers in a democratic government.

    Consider what one has to do to be a good citizen today. If we show up to vote, we have discharged our sole official duty. There are of course other avenues for more engaged citizens to participate in politics: people can learn about the issues through the media, and they can lobby policymakers through political associations and advocacy groups. But as an institutional matter, the powers of the citizen are minimal. Much of the task of governing is delegated: to executives, to representatives, to judges, to regulators. Our current institutions give so little space for citizens to govern themselves, it is little wonder that political officials seem unaccountable or citizens apathetic. What we need is to create spaces in which citizens can engage in meaningful political action. Direct experience with governing can help empower ordinary people, educate them on the issues, and ensure accountable and responsive government.

    Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

    Creating greater institutional spaces for citizens to share the powers and responsibilities of governing will not just enhance the accountability and responsiveness of government. It can also help foster a new generation of citizens who gain knowledge and insight into the moral and policy challenges of the day.

    The first area where we can expand the office of citizenship is through reforms to our electoral process. Campaign finance reform would restore the political power of citizens vis-à-vis their representatives, offsetting the dependencies of elected officials on fundraisers and elites. Similarly, electoral processes themselves fall far short of basic fairness. A number of states have been systematically increasing barriers to voter registration and participation, threatening to disenfranchise millions of voters. The redrawing of representatives' districts continues to yield gerrymandered districts that make it difficult for citizens to actually engage with their representatives and have adequately contested elections. Finally, Election Day should be a holiday that enables citizens to actually discharge their duties seriously and easily.

    Yet, even with these changes, elections by themselves are still insufficient. While they create opportunities for mobilization and debate, they offer little role for citizens after the moment of the election itself. To remedy this defect, we must also expand citizen participation in local governments and regulatory agencies.

    Local government has long been celebrated as a way to provide citizens with an opportunity to engage in the political process more easily on issues most directly relevant to their lives. But for cities to serve as spaces for empowered participation, they first need broader authority to actually address complex policy issues. Currently many cities have highly constrained powers to tax, spend, and develop policy thanks to the constraints of state and federal law and judicial doctrine. Second, city governments can do much more to involve local citizens in the policymaking process, as recent efforts at participatory budgeting in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere suggest.

    Finally, regulatory agencies can be reformed not just to allow citizen input but to also give citizens a more direct role in policy formation and implementation. While agencies already allow citizens to submit public comments on proposed regulations, the actual impact of these comments are often minimal. By contrast, agencies could involve citizens through more institutionalized consultations and procedures, giving stakeholders a direct voice in regulatory policymaking decisions. Indeed, it is telling that successors to the Occupy Wall Street protests have attempted to pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission to enact tougher financial regulations through detailed comments and protests -- laudable efforts, but unlikely to sway the SEC commissioners absent more institutionalized channels for citizen voice in regulatory policymaking.

    These are only a few ideas on how citizens can be given greater power and voice in the actual project of governing. Until we reform the institutions of governance, citizenship will continue to have limited meaning in politics. But if we can create spaces in which citizens can be officers of the polity, shaping public policy and directly experiencing the challenges and rewards of government, then we can not only thicken the meaning of citizenship but also revive the efficacy and legitimacy of government itself.

    It may be rightly argued that such civic participation may yield policies that we disagree with. Certainly it is true that participation does not necessarily mean that the best policies result. But the democratic faith is a faith in the people themselves, in their ability to develop their capacities of judgment through experience over time, and in their ability to learn from mistakes. For such learning and judgment to take place, citizens have to be given real power and real experience. This need not mean subordinating policies to public opinion. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of empirical studies into participation (see here, here, and here) is the degree to which ordinary citizens can exercise real political power in a nuanced way if provided with institutions that grant them the power, enable them to learn from experience over time, and place them in conversation with experts.

    Democracy is the central animating value of American politics, on both the left and right. If we want to restore faith in government and overcome its political dysfunction, it is time to make democracy -- and citizenship -- more than a buzzword.

    Sabeel Rahman is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Harvard University, and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.

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  • Brandeis's Key Components of Citizenship: From Turnout to Time Off

    Jan 31, 2012Sabeel Rahman

    Louis Brandeis's vision of what it takes to create an engaged citizenry went far beyond voting rights, touching on leisure, regulation, and the welfare state.

    Louis Brandeis's vision of what it takes to create an engaged citizenry went far beyond voting rights, touching on leisure, regulation, and the welfare state.

    During the Independence Day celebrations of 1915, Louis Brandeis was invited to give the prestigious Fourth of July Oration at Boston's Faneuil Hall. Brandeis was already a towering figure in the progressive movement, driving minimum wage reforms as a practicing lawyer, pioneering the use of social science research in legal advocacy, and serving as the chief intellectual architect of the 1912 "New Freedom" campaign by Woodrow Wilson (who would later appoint Brandeis to the Supreme Court). In this famous speech, which Brandeis called "True Americanism" (full text here), he provided a compelling vision of democracy, freedom, and pluralism, outlining themes that continue to resonate with core progressive values. The speech revolved around two key elements. He portrayed citizenship as more than just voting or civility. Rather, he said, it is fundamentally about sharing in the project of governance -- a view of citizenship that requires policies and institutions to thrive. He also emphasized the economic dimensions of citizenship: both as a right of all individuals to a level of economic wellbeing, and as an obligation for each of us to make public policies that provide those economic necessities.

    Brandeis opened his speech by noting the diversity of American citizenship: America, unlike other countries, welcomed the inclusion of immigrants and thrived on diversity. This uniquely "inclusive brotherhood" recognized equality regardless of race, gender, or country of origin, and saw such equality "as an essential of full human liberty and true brotherhood, and...[as] a complement of democracy." America's greatness, for Brandeis, stemmed in part from its commitment to the belief that "in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress." This was the central foundation of democracy: the belief that "all men are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the "conviction that such equal opportunity will most advance civilization." This democratic faith sought progress in diversity and the drive of ordinary people rather than relying on an aristocratic faith in the "principle of the superman."

    But Americanism for Brandeis also meant accepting a substantive view of human freedom. This ideal of freedom served two purposes: it offered a set of values that knit together an otherwise diverse populace, and it implied a particular vision of the good society that was built to expand and foster the capacities of citizens themselves, thereby ensuring the very progress that Brandeis saw possible in a diverse democratic society. American ideals, then, meant "the development of the individual for his own and the common good" through the promotion of "democracy and social justice." Freedom thus meant more than just the negative freedom from interference by the state. It also meant freedom "in things industrial as well as political" and the fostering of opportunities for meaningful participation in the political, social, and economic life of the country. On this view of freedom, self-fulfillment could come "only through the full development and utilization of one's faculties."

    This view of freedom and fulfillment thus implied a particular configuration of social, political, and economic arrangements designed to foster each individual to make full use of his or her abilities. In particular, Brandeis outlined several elements required to realize this vision.

    First, he defended the importance of an inclusive franchise, giving individuals the opportunity to partake in the central political issues facing the country. But the franchise was only one of the necessary elements.

    The second element was a robust welfare state. "In order that men may live and not merely exist," argued Brandies, they must have education, regular employment yielding "reasonable income," and health care: "the essentials of American citizenship are not satisfied by supplying merely the material needs or wants of every worker." Further, citizens needed insulation from "sickness, accident, invalidity, superannuation, unemployment," or "financial losses" -- thus "the standard worthy to be called American implies some system of social insurance."

    Click here to buy Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch’s new book on the epic health care reform battle, Fighting for Our Health.

    Third, citizenship required leisure. In stark contrast to the anxieties around contemporary defenses of the welfare state, Brandeis argued that leisure was essential to human fulfillment and was a worthy goal for the welfare state. "But leisure," he warned, "does not imply idleness. It means the ability to work...at some thing besides breadwinning. Leisure, so defined, is an essential of successful democracy."

    Fourth, citizenship required the extensive regulation of concentrated private power. Citizens in a successful democracy must be free, and they could not be free so long as they were "dependent industrially upon the arbitrary will of another." Thus, "some curb must be placed on overweening industrial power," in particular on the threats posed by the vast economic and financial power of trusts. These constraints on private power required both external government regulation and internal empowerment of workers themselves as co-participants in the governance of these private firms: "control and cooperation are both essential to industrial liberty."

    In this brief account of American citizenship, Brandeis outlined a vision that offers significant lessons for progressives today. This is not to say that Brandeis or his contemporaries had all the answers. Indeed, Progressive Era reformers of the early twentieth century were notorious for their Victorian sensibilities, often favoring the interests of white, middle-class, male Americans over others. Nevertheless, the thinking and rhetoric of key Progressive Era intellectuals like Brandeis paints a picture of progressive politics and of American citizenshp more broadly than ours. In many ways it is more compelling and more substantive than much of contemporary political rhetoric.

    Inclusion is central to citizenship, but it requires more than formal inclusion in the franchise. Inclusion was not just a value in the abstract for Brandeis; it was also a central driver of progress. It rested on a commitment to progress through the empowerment of all individuals, rather than through an "aristocratic" faith in superhuman individuals. By contrast, too much of contemporary discourse speaks of inclusion and opportunity, but valorizes the particular unique genius and capabilities of a few select individuals -- from Steve Jobs to Alan Greenspan or even to Barack Obama. Rather than seeking such heroic ideals in business, expertise, or political leadership, progressives should focus on unleashing of every individual's talents and capacities.

    This unleashing of individual capacities -- and in turn the larger social progress that arises from it -- requires a sustained and coherent set of reforms across all policy areas designed to protect individuals and unleash their capacities to innovate, to create, and ultimately to lead fulfilling lives. These reforms would expand the ability of individuals to participate in both political and economic decision-making. They would also expand the scope for individual leisure, giving people the space to engage in fulfilling activities in both the public and private arenas. They would constrain the ability of private actors to interfere with these individual capacities. This approach makes citizenship more than a mere exhortation to civility or virtue; it is instead something that has to be fostered and sustained through extensive political, social, and economic reform.

    Brandeis's vision of citizenship is ultimately shaped by a sense of active humility, rather than passive exceptionalism. While the values he articulated are powerful and important, they are aspirational, demanding extensive action to make them a reality. In the final moments of his speech, he alluded to the great conflict in World War I Europe, calling for a universal commitment to this vision of democracy and economic wellbeing as a route to world peace. But he also warned his audience that America did not possess a monopoly on rightness, but rather must work to promote these ideals through its own example.

    Sabeel Rahman is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Harvard University, and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.

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  • What Do Obama, the Tea Party, and Occupy Have in Common? Citizenship.

    Jan 30, 2012Sabeel Rahman

    A new series to look at how to meaningfully engage Americans in a political system run amok.

    A new series to look at how to meaningfully engage Americans in a political system run amok.

    In last week's State of the Union address, President Obama repeatedly appealed to the civic virtue of both voters and representatives, calling for all Americans to work together to overcome the central challenges of a struggling economy and declining social mobility. This call to civic engagement and collaboration has been central to Obama's most compelling moments as a public figure, going back to his remarkable campaign. The most memorable moments of 2008 stemmed from Obama's evocation of the ideal of American citizenship -- the ability of citizens to work together, to get involved, and, through politics, to remake their world.

    While the resonance of that appeal has varied over the course of Obama's presidency, the theme is one that lies behind the other defining episodes of political discourse over the last few years. Although neither was as much of a mass movement as it purported to be, both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement tapped into a similar set of anxieties and aspirations. They channeled anxieties that the scale of contemporary social challenges exceed our capacity to manage them, whether they be from the economy, the environment, corporate power, or government regulation; and aspirations to expand the collective political power of "we the people." While both movements diagnosed the problems and defined "the people" in vastly different ways, the root of their appeal was in some sense a result of this shared notion that ordinary citizens are not as empowered, not as capable as they ought to be in a well-functioning democracy and a good society.

    Click here to buy Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch’s new book on the epic health care reform battle, Fighting for Our Health.

    Both the power and transience of each of these experiences -- Obama's campaign, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement -- point to a deeper structural problem in American politics that lies beneath specific policy debates or electoral rhetoric. This problem is fundamentally one of the nature of modern American citizenship: that despite formal inclusion in the franchise and the political process, we as citizens continue to lack the capacities to meaningfully engage in the practice of politics. On top of that, the mechanisms we do have are inadequate for the scale of the challenges the country faces and the defects in the political process itself.

    In the coming months, I will explore this problem through a series of posts about democratic citizenship, what it means, and what it requires. But appeals to citizenship cannot simply be appeals to "bipartisanship," or the obligation to vote, or the individual virtue of elected officials. These are often empty appeals, lacking in definitive substantive content, and thus unable to really shape our thinking or response in an effective way. Instead, a coherent vision of citizenship necessarily requires a set of substantive commitments about what freedom means, about how an economy should be structured, about what democracy requires in practice. Thus this series focuses in particular on progressive citizenship. In other words, these posts will try to explore what is a distinctly progressive view of citizenship. What are the core ideals that animate progressive citizenship? What are its implications for substantive policy debates on issues such as economic revival? What does it imply for the reform of governmental institutions?

    Sabeel Rahman is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Harvard University, and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.

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