50 Years Later, What JFK Can Teach Us About Expertise in Government

Jun 14, 2012Mark Schmitt

Kennedy Democrats put too much faith in the "liberal consensus," but today's policymakers place far too little in the value of experts.

Kennedy Democrats put too much faith in the "liberal consensus," but today's policymakers place far too little in the value of experts.

This is a year of big 50th anniversaries: 1962 was a big year for jazz albums and children's books, but also for several of the great documents of the tortured history of modern liberalism. Michael Harrington's The Other America: Poverty in the United States was published 50 years ago, and the Port Huron Statement appeared the same year.

There's a third document that surely won't receive the same level of Boomer-nostalgia attention, but is far more relevant to the political history that followed. That's John F. Kennedy's Yale Commencement speech of June 11, 1962. In that speech, which was drafted and edited by all the famous brains of Camelot – Arthur Schlesinger Jr., McGeorge Bundy, Theodore Sorenson, John Kenneth Galbraith – Kennedy declared, “What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies... but the practical management of a modern economy." The economic problems of the 1960s, Kennedy said, are "subtle challenges for which technical answers, not political answers, must be provided."

This was surely the most profound error of the era of “liberal consensus.” Kennedy and the men around him had persuaded themselves that “ideology” (by which they meant the great 20th Century clashes among fascism, Marxian socialism, democratic socialism, and democratic capitalism that had defined their own lives) was just a matter of “myths” and that all the real challenges that remained were just technical choices to be resolved by experts. Meanwhile, just beyond the shadows of the campus, an ideological showdown was building that was hardly mythical. It would pit the radically individualistic conservatism of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and their far more radical heirs against the moderate Democratic safety net capitalism that the men of the New Frontier took so much for granted that they couldn't even call it an ideology. Indeed, even today it's hard to define the viewpoint that stands in opposition to the dominant ideology of the right.

Liberalism was discredited in part because of the Kennedy men's faith in experts and their conviction that the choices were technical, not political. In the most narrow reading of the 1962 speech, JFK was embracing the view, held briefly by the American followers of John Maynard Keynes, though not Keynes himself, that “the practical management of a modern economy” involved “fine-tuning” fiscal and monetary policy, which would keep it on a steady path of growth. Keynesian fine-tuning failed dramatically, especially in the 1970s, leaving liberals essentially without economic tools and vulnerable to the alternative of supply-side economics. Excess faith in expertise is also held responsible for the Vietnam War (“The Best and the Brightest” were technocrats who could ask every question except whether the basic idea made sense) and failures of the community-based anti-poverty programs of the Johnson era. Above all, as critics of liberalism both sympathetic and hostile have argued ever since the late 1960s (most recently, Jonathan Haidt), the ideology of expertise-not-ideology put liberals far out of touch with the real stuff of life – morality, ethnicity, family, fear, tribal instincts. And to some extent it's true – a classic example is the idea of overcoming residential segregation through more aggressive desegregation of schools, that is, busing – which surely created more conflict and racial antagonism than it resolved, and not solely because of racism.

But 50 years is a long, long time (check this video clip of Kennedy's speech if you want a sense of how far away that era seems), and liberals have been apologizing for and backing off of their faith in dispassionate expertise for most of it while the contempt for expertise developed by the populist right has continued to build. When populist politicians like Sarah Palin denounce “elites,” we act mystified that she doesn't seem to mean the very rich. But the idea that the real elites are technocratic experts empowered by government is now very old – so old that it's not true. One of the first things conservatives have done consistently when they gain power is to cut the legs out from under any kind of independent source of evaluation – eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995, ending any independent analysis of the distributional effects of tax cuts in the Bush administration, challenging scientific consensus on climate change, and most recently, attempting to eliminate funding for the American Community Survey and the National Science Foundation's social science research program.

At the same time, we're actually a lot smarter than we were in 1962. Experts understand the limits of their own rational models (that's part of the breakthrough of behavioral economics), and our methods for evaluating government programs have evolved more than a little bit. David Bornstein, writing on the New York Times Opinionator blog, recently called in some detail for an age of “evidence-based policy making,” hailing, for example, an experiment that showed that simply making the standard application for student financial aid easier could increase the likelihood that a student would attend college for two or more years by 29 percent. As Bornstein notes, the Obama administration is attempting to quietly restore a role for evidence and evaluation, but it's hardly the stuff of presidential speeches.

That we don't base policy on such evidence isn't just because government is lazy or ignorant – although sometimes neither the believers in a policy nor its opponents really want to know whether it works. It's about politics and power, and it has been for 50 years. When everything, from climate change to whether economic austerity might lead to economic growth, is treated as an ideological question rather than a matter of evidence, then it's a battle of power, and the side with more power is likely to prevail. Restoring a place for dispassionate expertise, evaluation, and evidence is central to the promise of a just society – but we have to do it without the Kennedy men's clumsy blindness to how radical that idea is, how much it threatens powerful interests, and the fact that there is much of life where expertise is of no value.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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At Netroots Nation with a Panel Thursday

Jun 7, 2012Mike Konczal

I'll be at Netroots Nation for the next several days. If you are here and want to say hi, shoot me an email or a twitter message.
Today, Thursday at 4:30pm in room 552, I'll moderating a panel on progressives and the Federal Reserve with Matt Yglesias of Moneybox, Karl Smith of Modeled Behavior, and Lisa Donner of Americans for Financial Reform. If you are there you should check it out.
I believe it will stream online, so you can watch it even if you weren't able to make it. Hopefully it'll be viewable in the box below.

After the fact it should be viewable online. You can stream other panels at this webpage.

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Mike Konczal on “Fireside Chats”: Tough Times make Liberal Reform Tougher

Jun 5, 2012Danielle Bella Ellison

In the latest episode of “Fireside Chats,” Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal talks with David Frum, Daily Beast writer and author of the new novel Patriots. In the clip below, they take on why Democrats have had trouble gathering support for stimulus programs during the current recession. “We’ve gone from Speaker Pelosi and the new Obama presidency and the idea of this wave of progressive energy to really trying to fight between the center and the center right,” Konczal notes.

In the latest episode of “Fireside Chats,” Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal talks with David Frum, Daily Beast writer and author of the new novel Patriots. In the clip below, they take on why Democrats have had trouble gathering support for stimulus programs during the current recession. “We’ve gone from Speaker Pelosi and the new Obama presidency and the idea of this wave of progressive energy to really trying to fight between the center and the center right,” Konczal notes.

As Konczal explains, “The real New Deal that we think of – the core economic security and managing the business cycle and so on – occurred in ’35,” when the economy was expanding. Meanwhile, “the conservative agenda to roll back the Great Society and the New Deal” unfortunately becomes more feasible in tough economic times like ours. The public becomes more risk averse and prefers austerity policies to big and potentially risky spending programs. Major liberal reforms, however necessary and beneficial they may be, are just very hard to pass during bad economic times.

The current grim economic condition, as well as the increase in media culture and accelerating ethnic change, have caused a transformation of American politics. Watch the full conversation below in which Konczal and Frum discuss this transition, what a Romney budget would look like, and the future of Obamacare.

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New Deal Numerology: Working Holiday

May 3, 2012Tim Price

This week's numbers: 99.99 million; 80; 4; 147; 66

99.99 million... is a wide-ranging number. That was the difference in estimates offered by Occupy Wall Street, which pegged turnout for May Day protests between 10,000 and 100 million. Some would call that shoddy guesswork; Wall Street would just call it “accounting.” 

This week's numbers: 99.99 million; 80; 4; 147; 66

99.99 million... is a wide-ranging number. That was the difference in estimates offered by Occupy Wall Street, which pegged turnout for May Day protests between 10,000 and 100 million. Some would call that shoddy guesswork; Wall Street would just call it “accounting.” 

80... is a celebrated number. That’s how many countries recognize May 1st, or International Workers’ Day, as a national holiday. The U.S. never joined in due to fear that honoring “workers” would make us sound like socialists. Who else cares about them?

4... is a substitute number. That’s how many months separate May Day from America’s Labor Day. Making it a send-off to summer ensures a more relaxed atmosphere, so there’s less Bolshevik agitation and more focus on shoe color.

147... is an overworked number. That’s how many years ago the first American May Day protests took place as Chicagoans demanded an eight-hour workday. Many of today’s 1% carry that torch forward by maintaining a zero-hour workday.

66... is a stricken number. That’s how many years ago the last general strike took place, shutting down the city of Oakland. The May Day protests failed to break that streak, but to be fair, it’s much harder to go on strike when no one has a job.

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Mark Schmitt: Are Think Tanks Too Politicized?

May 3, 2012

In the latest episode of our weekly Bloggingheads series, "Fireside Chats," Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt sat down with Tevi Troy from the Hudson Institute to talk about the history of think tanks and whether or not they've become too politicized.

In the latest episode of our weekly Bloggingheads series, "Fireside Chats," Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt sat down with Tevi Troy from the Hudson Institute to talk about the history of think tanks and whether or not they've become too politicized. Tevi thinks they are, but Mark points out that there are different types of think tanks and not all are out to buttonhole politicians into switching their votes five minutes before they walk onto the floor of Congress. However, in the clip below, he argues that those that do intend to shape policy play an increasingly important role in our national debate.

Mark notes that the recent Cato Institute controversy has drawn attention to the politicization of think tanks, but how did they become politicized in the first place? Tevi points to 1984, when Democrats' loss to Ronald Reagan inspired the creation of the Progressive Policy Institute, which would eventually develop many of President Clinton's ideas and policies. Once the Democrats won in 1992, Republicans responded by creating their own think tank, Project for the Republican Future. Tevi calls this the "Lose an Election, Gain a Think Tank" pattern that has developed over the past 30 years. 

Are these politicized versions of think tanks healthy? While Tevi argues that we have gotten further and further away from the original non-partisan think tanks that value expertise over politics, Mark points out that there is a place for both the advocacy-focused think tank and the ones more involved with influencing policies, and that most are actually not involved with policy outcomes. Mark talks about his time on Capitol Hill and remembers that some think tanks were very open about the fact that they solely wanted to influence legislation. He saw firsthand that many Republican think tanks were incrediblly influential with politicians, which led progressives think tanks to decide that they needed to offer their own legislative response. Mark agrees with Tevi in the changing nature of think tanks that "part of it may be the simple polarization of American politics, but that for example, "in the founding of the Heritage foundation" they decided that they needed "something that's in the game." It's hard to not play the game if that is the only road to success.

The question remains, as Mark and Tevi discuss, how much of an effect the various sources of funding for each think tank shape the way the research is done and the final outcomes of proposed legislation. For more of this conversation, check out the full video:

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Keeping Them Honest: What Politicians Say vs. What We Make Them Do

Apr 25, 2012Tim Price

By dismissing politicians’ promises as meaningless, we let ourselves off the hook for making them take action.

By dismissing politicians’ promises as meaningless, we let ourselves off the hook for making them take action.

Politicians are big, fat liars. It’s a belief so deeply ingrained in American culture that we’re taught to revere George Washington as the one-of-a-kind exception who narced himself out for chopping down a cherry tree, and even that story is completely made up. Like many things we believe, it’s not necessarily true that politicians produce lies the way plants produce oxygen. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has noted, presidents do basically try to fulfill their campaign promises, but they make more headlines by breaking them. And the 40-year-long effort to discredit government, which Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick has highlighted, has also probably contributed to the belief that our politicians are up to no good. But our constant and perhaps justified skepticism poses some big problems during a presidential election, which is at least partly about whose story of America we find more convincing.

But what if we focused on a different story? One of the most oft-cited incidents from FDR’s presidency is a policy meeting he held with labor leaders shortly after his election, which he concluded by telling them “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Did Roosevelt ever actually say those words? Who knows? Like Washington and his cherry tree, what matters is why we tell the story and what it says about how we view the man in question. FDR understood that regardless of what he personally believed, change had to happen from the bottom up, not just from the top down. He was a bold leader who was never afraid to take on a fight as long as he had the American people on his side. If we stop assuming that politicians will simply deliver progress without our involvement or that the process of policymaking is out of our hands once our votes are cast, then we might start to see elections in a very different light.

This question of trusting what politicians say is a tricky one for both of the major presidential candidates this year. As Mitt Romney makes his 97th pivot from the primaries to the general election, he may try to recant or alter positions he took to please the right-wing base that would send moderates screaming for the hills. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed noted that “[a]ccording to a Romney adviser, his private view of immigration isn't as anti-immigrant as he often sounded” during the primaries. This prompted Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne to ask, “Does [that] mean Romney said things that he doesn’t really believe? …How many other ‘private’ positions does Romney hold that we don’t know about?” Romney has been plagued by such accusations of insincerity throughout the campaign, with opponents referring to the presumptive Republican nominee as a “well-oiled weather vane” and piling on an ill-judged remark comparing him to an Etch-A-Sketch.

Likewise, President Obama has come under fire from the left for promising “change you can believe in” and delivering only a handful of heavily compromised victories. Some progressives are especially frustrated because they believe Obama secretly agrees with their policy prescriptions but lacks the courage or political support to advocate for them. One such issue is gay marriage, where Obama claims his views are “evolving” in favor of legality despite the fact that he openly supported it 16 years ago and conveniently devolved just in time to run for higher office. Others see it as naïve to think that Obama has done anything other than what he wants to do. Roosevelt Institute Fellow Matt Stoller wrote that by blaming the president’s failures on management rather than ideology, “all the media boosters and center-left validators of Obama in 2008 let themselves off the hook for mistakes. Instead, they ask, ‘where did our inspiring Obama go?’”

Stoller’s point about the president’s critics letting themselves off the hook hints at the real answer to whether candidates tell us what they honestly believe or what they think we want to hear: We can’t know unless we read their minds, so we have to take them at face value, exercise our own best judgment, and either keep pushing them forward if we agree or stop them in their tracks if we don’t. Sure, all else being equal, it makes sense that progressives and conservatives alike want a man or woman of principle representing them in the White House. And obviously we don’t want chief executives so dishonest that they risk leaving office in handcuffs. But by focusing all our attention on the failings of our leaders, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for shaping and implementing the policies we want to see. Sometimes we’ll find a dream candidate, although more often we’ll have to settle for the closest match and work to move them in the right direction. But either way we need to go in with our eyes wide open, not simply trust that they’ll one day emerge from their campaign cocoons to become the beautiful butterflies we want them to be.

Elections are not, or at least should not be, a “fire-and-forget” affair in which we vote for our favorites and send them off to govern while we cross our fingers and hope for the best. As New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said at the launch conference for the Rediscovering Government initiative, “great strides in social justice don't come out because of politicians; they come out because of movements.” Even if Barack Obama’s views were far enough left to make Bernie Sanders look like a member of the John Birch Society, it would still be incumbent on progressives to keep the pressure on him and the members of Congress to make sure real change was made.

If we were to get over our learned helplessness and take charge of our political process, what would that look like? Ideally, as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Sabeel Rahman wrote recently, it would involve thinking of citizenship not simply as a chore we’re reminded of every two to four Novembers but as a kind of office with duties that extend far beyond the ballot box. It would also involve engaging in dialogue with people we do and don’t agree with and getting our message out as broadly as possible and through as many channels as we can, I say as I write this blog post.

Perhaps most importantly, it would involve good old-fashioned organizing. When Barack Obama implemented spending policies that conservatives didn’t like, they donned their finest colonial period costumes, took to the streets, and helped derail most of his domestic policy agenda. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gutted the rights of public workers, union members and activists rallied against him and gathered support for a recall election. And when Americans from all walks of life got fed up with our leaders ignoring the deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots, they sparked a worldwide movement that has put inequality front and center in our political debate. By taking on these and other big fights, ordinary Americans can prove that governing is what happens while politicians are making other plans.

None of this is easy. Faced with billionaire-funded Super PACs trying to bludgeon their ideological opponents into submission, political institutions so polarized and paralyzed as to be functionally useless, and an entrenched two-party system that often boils down to a choice between right and really far right, it’s very tempting to just give in to cynicism and retreat. But regardless of how much our leaders’ rich buddies chip in for their next campaign, dollars aren’t votes (at least until the Roberts Court says otherwise), and the nice part about being part of the 99% is that we outnumber them. By working together, we have the power to set the agenda and make sure our policymakers don’t keep their jobs unless they keep their promises. In other words, it’s on us to make them do it. This story might seem more implausible than the one where we’re all long-suffering martyrs who are constantly deceived and betrayed by cunning politicians, but it’s almost guaranteed to have a much better ending.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal.

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The Path to a Stronger Democracy Lies in Strengthening Community

Apr 24, 2012Jeff Madrick

Two new books examine how putting capitalism before community has distorted the economy and put democracy at risk.

Two new books examine how putting capitalism before community has distorted the economy and put democracy at risk.

I participated in a panel discussion last week to help launch The Occupy Handbookin which I and about 60 others made contributions. It was mostly composed of economists and mainstream journalists, and the focus was income inequality. One wouldn’t expect anything much different from a discussion of Occupy Wall Street, which after all made “the 1 percent” a household tag line for what is unfair about the American economy.

But OWS is actually raising broader issues than that, and my sense in talking to a few early organizers is that they can’t seem to find answers to their questions. Granted, most of these questions are not entirely well formed as yet, but the economists’ view, it must be admitted, is a rather narrow one. Correcting inequality a bit and regulating Wall Street some are flimsy palliatives in the organizers' minds, I suspect. Even infrastructure investment sounds like a weak corrective to them. Do we never question the intense idealism of the Anglo-American economic model?

The Occupy Handbook is actually a fine, diverse, and sometimes contradictory set of contributions put together with remarkable speed by editor Janet Byrne. For example, it includes a couple of pieces by well informed anarchists and others by those to the right of center who believe America’s answer is better education (and that’s about it). Many concede OWS's contribution to the nation is awareness. There is no sound in American politics unless Washington is listening, I wrote. OWS got them to listen.

But there is another small book out just today that does propose rather serious alternative to the individualist/materialist American model of economics. It is called The Path to Hope, and it is written by two former French Resistance veterans who are now in their 90s. Stephane Hessel wrote Time for Outrage! a couple of years ago, a pamphlet of political anger—a cri de coeur—that called for public protest. It swept the world, selling millions, and was said to have a profound influence on the Spanish indignados and the Arab Spring. Now he has teamed up with the eminent sociologist, Edgar Morin, to put a little more meat on the bones of their rage.

I proudly wrote the prologue to the book -- proudly because, if highly rhetorical and abstract, their brief piece talks about much that is forgotten in the governance of nations and the true interactive meaning of democracy. I usually draw two circles in the air when I speak about these issues. One is the circle of free markets, defined by Milton Friedman, who basically argued in Capitalism and Freedom that left to themselves, markets can produce social goods more fairly and cheaply than government—from retirement security to highways to health care.

The other circle is community, which has long been the source of social goods in which people care for each other. Friedman’s circle is individualist. This circle is the circle of Hessel and Morin. It is the circle of compassion and community. Being American, I suppose, I tend to believe the circles should be of equal size. Since the 1970s, our potential tragedy is that the Friedman circle has gotten immense while the community circle has shrunk.

Hessel and Morin would argue that the community circle should be far larger than the Friedman circle. They are not pure anti-capitalists; they hold a significant place for business. But they say enough is enough. We have seen the power of finance capitalism to distort and undermine productive growth and equal opportunity. We are also witnessing the rise in Europe of ethnic bigotry again. This, they demand, must change.

In writing the prologue to The Path to Hope, I acknowledge that I don’t agree with all that Hessel and Morin write. They offer but an outline of high ideals of community and fellowship. But they are on the right track. They saw the rise of pure totalitarianism and they worry that if the fortunes of the rich are again threatened, they may side with those who would plunder democracy. I don’t think we are nearly there yet, but democracy in America is threatened and warped by financial power these days. We do care too little about each other, I fear. The Path to Hope is on sale now.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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A Platform to Build a New Deal for the 21st Century

Apr 13, 2012Felicia Wong

We're excited to announce the relaunch of our blog and continue the conversation about how to create a better society.

We're excited to announce the relaunch of our blog and continue the conversation about how to create a better society.

We at the Roosevelt Institute believe in a simple notion: ideas have power. Ideas shape almost every aspect of our daily lives: the work we do, the neighborhoods we live in, how we treat others and engage as citizens. I’ve experienced the ways Americans’ ideas inform how we organize our economy and our society firsthand. My Cantonese immigrant family was able to join the middle class in the U.S. thanks to American ideas about integrating many different kinds of people into one diverse community. It was also made possible because my parents attended the world-class public university system in California: my mother became a teacher and my father earned a PhD and went on to become an engineer. I also attended public schools funded by taxpayer dollars. All of our educations were made possible because of America’s ideas about how to afford basic opportunities to its citizens. Over my career, I’ve found job opportunities in both the public and private sectors because this country believes that both should thrive side by side. These are uniquely American experiences, shaped by our collective values and decisions.

But to make change and have an impact, ideas must take root.  They must get up and out.  This is especially true for the kinds of ideas that Roosevelt specializes in – ideas about the best ways to encourage growth and distribution by balancing a market economy with strong government – which can be specialized and detailed.  But academics and thinkers with new ideas about how our economy can work for everyone, how to create a more fair and just tax system, and how to discuss and promote a healthy vision for government in the 21st century must be able to reach wide audiences. Ideas have to resonate with elected officials who are responsible for crafting and writing laws, activists and advocates who knock on doors and distribute petitions for change, and families at their dinner tables or friends playing cards on a Friday evening.

Americans know that something is wrong, and they also know that it will take new ideas to improve their lives in these challenging times. The Great Recession has cost millions their jobs and livelihoods, and the recovery has felt so slow and painful for many, especially the worst off among us, that more children are living in poverty now than at any time since 1962. The middle class is being decimated by off-the-charts income inequality – we are now all the 99%. Yet our political system seems incapable of addressing the root causes of these crises, as it is so broken and co-opted that few Americans trust it to look out for them.

But this isn’t the first time the country has lived through these kinds of challenges. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt faced down an economic catastrophe, a financial system run amok, a social safety net that barely existed, and increasing threats to democracy. They didn’t shrink from the challenge, and neither do we. What these times require are ideas and solutions that can make a difference. As FDR himself put it, we need “bold, persistent experimentation” to not just recover from the recent financial crisis, but to create policies that ensure a prosperous future that is shared by all. In short, we need a New Deal for the 21st century.

To get there, we need to change the civic conversation. That’s why we’re excited to re-launch our blog, Next New Deal, formerly New Deal 2.0. Over the past three years, our blog has featured unique insight and sharp analysis aimed at reanimating progressive thought. It has been a platform for the people, work, and ideas of the Roosevelt Institute and a way to share all that we do with a broad online audience. We have started conversations around questions such as how to combat poverty in an age of austerity and how to restore belief in the value of government. We’ve given progressive students and young professionals a platform to share their innovative ideas for tackling today’s greatest challenges. And we’ve brought Rooseveltian solutions to those challenges into the mainstream dialogue.

The improved reader experience on the redesigned blog will make these ideas more accessible and available than ever. We will continue exploring in depth solutions to our most intractable problems. Both established experts and emerging leaders will have dedicated spaces to share their ideas. Above all, we hope to use this blog as a laboratory of ideas, applying the work we do at the Roosevelt Institute to the most pressing problems of the day and pushing ourselves to develop and communicate bold, effective policy responses.

The years ahead will be challenging, and issues will likely arise that we can’t even anticipate. But using the blog as a launching point, the work of the Roosevelt Institute, and the discussion we cultivate in the broader progressive movement, can help us guide drive new ideas up and out – so that we can craft the next New Deal.

Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

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Eric Schneiderman Urges Progressives to "Dig Deeper" to Transform the System

Apr 6, 2012

Last Thursday, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick kicked off the Roosevelt Institute’s new flagship initiative, Rediscoverin

Last Thursday, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick kicked off the Roosevelt Institute’s new flagship initiative, Rediscovering Government, at an event with a keynote address from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Why are Americans so distrusting in government? Schneiderman's answer is that we've been led to believe in the "magical market" that supposedly guides us to equality and prosperity. "Its like the conservatives are pretending they've found some missing pages of Genesis that the rest of us are missing," he said. But in reality humans are to blame for profound changes -- like skyrocketing income inequality -- not supernatural forces. "The distribution of wealth is not determined by nature," he said, "it is determined by public policy."


Progressives' efforts at making significant changes to the system after the financial crisis have mostly borne little fruit, he noted. We therefore "need to dig deeper" see how deeply the unfettered propaganda that less regulation leads to growth and higher taxes always create jobs has affected the American mindset and economy. We also have to aim for long-term, "transformational" change instead of the everyday "transactional" change we usually get bogged down in. We have to move past the election cycles and everyday battles to politics that involve working today to improve circumstances in the future and challenging the way that people think about issues in the first place.

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

But the importance of progressives' efforts can't be overstated. "Great strides in social justice don't come out because of politicians, they come out because of movements." The movement has to put pressure in all the right places -- most importantly by reviving the fact that government plays a vital and positive role in every American's life. "By demonstrating that the government can and will enforce one set of rules for everyone, and protect the interests of all Americans, not just the most fortunate, we begin the process of transforming people's awareness of themselves and our collective life," he said. "And if we do this work, we can put to rest the deep fallacies that have allowed injustice and inequality to grow unchecked for so long, and we can begin to rediscover the potential of government to get us back in touch to start building, as our counterparts in the 1930s did, a more equitable, educated, healthy, and compassionate nation."

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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.

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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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