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Subject:Breakthrough Before Breakdown - Why Governance Matters | Nathan Gardels

July 22, 2015

Breakthrough Before Breakdown - Why Governance Matters | Nathan Gardels

Introduction excerpt:

1. The world today faces two competing futures -- a world coming together through the convergence of new exponential technologies that promises an era of prosperity and opportunity for all, or a world splitting apart through ardent religious warfare, bitter partisanship, revived nationalism and the return of geopolitical blocs. While globalization and rapid technological advance empower some with unprecedented possibilities, they dispossess others, causing growing gaps in power and wealth that lead in turn to fear, resentment and violence.

2. Which future wins out will be determined by the quality of governance within societies and among nations. If the goods can be delivered inclusively, a new Renaissance of human flourishing across many cultures is possible. If not, a repeat of the wars and conflicts of the 20th Century beckons, or worse, a dark age for many not unlike that of Medieval Europe.

3. Achieving a quality of governance capable of meeting this challenge will require the reform of institutions to accommodate the radical changes underway in all societies. This means, first, a non-partisan, “post-party” politics to mediate the rising participatory power of social networks where the same knowledge is available to all citizens and rulers alike. Second, it means exploiting the possibilities and addressing the insecurities generated by a perpetually disruptive knowledge-driven economy through a stronger safety net and opportunity web that spreads the benefits of new wealth creation. The welfare state must be redefined in light of the transformation of capitalism.

Convergence vs. Divergence and Identity (excerpt)

While universal reason and efficiency engender the convergence we see today with globalization and the spread of technology, the cultural and political imagination engender the opposite – a divergent search for shelter in the familiar ways of life that register a dignity of recognition among one’s own kind and constitute identity against the swell of anonymous forces.

Philosophers and social thinkers have long noted the relationship between threats and the reactive fortification of identity. The greater the threat – of violence, upheaval or exclusion – the more rigid and “soliataristic” identities become, as Amartya Sen noted in his seminal book “Violence and Identity.”

Intense threats or their perception demote other plural influences in the lives of persons and communities alike and elevate a singular dimension to existential importance. Conversely, stability, security and inclusivity generate adaptive identities with a plural dimension.

The challenge in governing human affairs today is whether these two sets of logic can be brought into balance without social upheaval so disruptive that our bold leap forward will propel our societies several reactionary steps backward into the kind of wars and divisions we saw in the 20th Century, or worse, into some post-modern version of the dark ages in medieval Europe. It is not heartening to remember that the post- World War II breakthrough in governance that enabled several decades of relative global stability was only possible after catastrophic breakdown.

If we can manage the tumult of the present transition by institutionalizing a new politics of diverse equilibrium (or to use Pope Francis’ phrase in this context, “reconciled diversity”) that is an alternative to both a Tower of Babel singularity or a retrograde splintering into isolated shards of tribal or religious intolerance, then a new Renaissance of simultaneous human flourishing across many different cultures may well be possible.

Only an inclusive philosophy of intelligent governance that both matches the ambitions and meets the anxieties of a world in the kind of flux we have described can bend the tipping point in the direction of this summum.

In history, breakdown has always followed technological breakthroughs that have transformed societies -- whether the religious wars in the West in the wake of the Gutenberg press or world war after the advent of industrialization and urbanization –- if political institutions fail to reform by accommodating the resulting powershifts.

If there is any chance today of heading off breakdown, present practices and institutions of governance must adapt to the participatory power of social networks while seizing the opportunities and addressing the insecurities generated by globalization and the knowledge-driven innovation economy. Fundamentally, that means an inclusive political and economic system guided by a smart and capable governing class with a long-term perspective that possesses the legitimacy to lead its citizens through the thicket of interdependence and ever shifting currents of innovation in today’s world.

III. Greater participation will require more robust non-partisan mediating institutions. (excerpt)

Political awakenings everywhere, combined with the participatory power of social networks, will create more contending interests and social actors than ever before. That will require, in turn, stronger non-partisan, de-politicized mediating practices and institutions to sort out the tradeoffs for the long-term common good among proliferating and empowered parties focused on their particular interests; in other words, the deliberative function of reasoned discourse.

In the US in particular, the short-term horizon of voters in today’s consumer democracy, in which immediate gratification suffuses the culture, when combined with the domination of elections by moneyed special interests, has led to the woeful decay of democracy’s capacity to sustainably deliver for the common good.

“Post-party democracy” is the best response when the great mass parties of the past that represented large socio-economic blocs (workers, capitalists) have splintered into too many pieces to enable consensus formation. Precisely because of the overwhelming proliferation of new players, democratic governance in our time needs to be “de-factionalized” in the sense that James Madison meant it in the Federalist Papers when the US population was only a few million. While Madison believed that the more competing interests the better because that would frustrate tyranny, looking toward the future of America he was more concerned that unbounded factional strife would undermine democracy’s capacity to reach consensus on policies that benefited the general public good over special interests. In America in our day, gridlock, not the grip of a tyrant, is the key challenge. “By factions,” Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 10, “I understand a number of citizens united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." For Madison factions were like germs, ubiquitous and unhealthy. “The most common and durable source of factions, “ he continued, “has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” For Madison, “the principal task of modern legislation” was to prevent this economic origin of factional politics.1

“It may be concluded,” he continued, “that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Concerned both about the short-time time horizon of democratic election cycles and the subversion of the common good by politicized factions, political scientists such as Giandomenico Majone and Princeton’s Philip Petit have long called for the depoliticization of key governing institutions in a mixed constitution .

From a policy-making and implementation standpoint, Majone’s concern is that decisions dominated by the short-term election cycle risk suboptimal outcomes because the long-term would not sufficiently be taken into account. He therefore proposes “the delegation of policy-making powers to institutions which, by design, are not directly accountable to voters or to their elected representatives; in other words, delegation to non-majoritarian institutions.” What he has in mind, in particular, are autonomous institutions such as central banks, or the European Environmental Agency or the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. They are all appointed by elected officials, but not directly accountable to the electorate or whose terms are not tied to electoral cycles. Majone does make a distinction, however, between regulatory autonomy that should be depoliticized and “redistributive” decisions such as tax or trade policies that must remain in the political realm.2

Picking up on Robert Dahl’s3 classic distinction between “Madisonian” democracy that emphasizes constitutional checks and balances that enable sound government that can act in the common interest as opposed to “populistic” democracy as the pure expression of the collective will, Philip Pettit takes on the issue directly. He argues that republican government means “empowering the public valuation” of policies that serve the entire society, not “empowering the collective will” that expresses only the interests of a majority that happens to turn up at the polls. And that requires a depoliticized space for deliberation of choices that sorts out and makes trade-offs among interests, not simply majoritarian elections. For Petit, there is “no democratization without depoliticization.”4

In the developing world, Yao Yang5 has made the case for a “disinterested” no party or “one party” system like China’s Communist Party as the best governing arrangement for inclusive growth. He cites Mancur Olson’s6 idea of an “encompassing organization” that represents the interests of the whole society – neither the elites nor populist mobilizations that adopt redistribution schemes that the level of economic growth cannot afford. Outside of China in the developing world, Yao notes, many governments, though formally multi-party democracies, are either kleptocracies of the elites or, in reaction to elite corruption, populist regimes like Venezuela or Argentina that cannot afford to pay the bills because the promises of curbing inequality they make to win elections are greater than the resources their economies can generate.

What might all this mean practically in an advanced country like the US? How does post-party politics respond to the challenges of decay posed by actually-existing American democracy? As a conceptual exercise, if we were to step back from the fray and imagine how post-party democracy would be designed institutionally, what might it look like? What follows is by no means some rigid programmatic prescription, but merely an exploration to engage debate and get beyond stale formulas.

Post-Party Politics and Thinking Outside the Ballot Box

The US Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that scandalously enshrines nearly limitless campaign contributions as "free speech" took the dysfunction of American politics to a whole new level. Dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared this the worst court decision during her tenure, saying “the notion that we have all the democracy money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.”7

Like a steroid injection, political cash is bulking up the emerging plutocracy at a time when inequality is already greater than at any moment in modern American history since the 1920s. From 2010-2014, $486 million of outside money was spent on US Senate races alone, with less than 1% coming from small donors at $200 or less.8

Now legally for sale to the highest bidder, multi-party representative democracy may well be compromised beyond repair. When elected officials increasingly represent their contributors instead of constituents, voting becomes a form of disenfranchisement disguised as consent of the governed.

As California Governor Jerry Brown says, “the two parties in the US are nothing other than fundraising vehicles.”9 Brown was first was elected in the post-Watergate era by focusing on campaign finance reform, yet, as he himself is the first to acknowledge, more than three decades later there is more money in politics than ever.
The more things get out of hand, the less radical the alternatives appear. To restore the rule of the many over money, we need to go way beyond the same old campaign financing debate and start thinking about reforming our system of democratic governance itself.

It's time to open up the political imagination and think outside the conventional ballot box. There are other ways democracy can be organized than through choosing distant representatives from mass parties in periodic elections whose outcomes are largely determined through campaign funding by special interests.

To start with, mass parties that field partisan candidates who compete to represent millions of people presumed to have the same interests are, after all, relics of the early industrial age of mass production. In the 21st century, society has grown more plural and diverse with proliferating niches and identities beyond the polar silos of the two party system based on socio-economic blocs. Mass constituencies have given way to a cacophony of voices and multitudes of contending interests powered by social networking technologies that diminish the role of standardized intermediaries. In this new "de-massified" world, electoral majorities or singular "public opinion" -- like the defunct notion of the general newspaper reader -- have proven to be phantoms. Political alliances in such a society are transitory, changing with the issue at hand. Stable majorities have been replaced by coalitions of the willing in a shifting kaleidoscope that comes into focus at one turn, dissolves at another and then reassembles in a different combination at another turn. Think gay Catholics against abortion but for gun control or liberal suburban parents against teacher's unions, or anti-immigrant environmentalists.

Accommodating the interests of these hybrid constituencies, and balancing them against the “general will,” is a key challenge for liberal democracy in the future. The capacity to forge consensus out of the cacophony is an altogether different challenge than the one defined by Dani Rodrik in which the large constituencies formed by industrialization and urbanization, particularly in the post-colonial world where the rule of law and judicial independence are weak, has led more often than not to 
“illiberal democracies” in which minorities and niches are left unprotected.10
As the futurist Alvin Toffler once put it, drawing a comparison from the shift in modern manufacturing, mass party representative democracy is akin to the "batch processing" of the one-size-fits-all industrial era. More suited to our information age are "continuous flow" and "just in time" processes that accommodate ever-shifting consumer tastes and preferences through robust feedback loops that link directly to the customer or cohort. In politics, the equivalent is post-party direct democracy.11

Just as ordinary citizens are poised and equipped to meaningfully participate in shaping the rules that govern their lives, batch-processed partisan representatives are being locked up by the plutocrats. A total disconnect is taking hold. Democracy needs to be reconnected to its citizens by removing the wall of money and the confines of partisanship.

Post-party direct democracy, however, has its own inherent challenge. As we have said, the more diverse and participatory our highly differentiated body politic, the greater the need for a new kind of mediation by non-partisan or depoliticized practices and institutions that can sort out the trade offs among diverse and contending interests while providing and managing those pubic goods that remain in common over the long-term -- safety and security; access to health care; education, communication, transportation and other infrastructure; a stable financial system and a clean environment.

Institutions that "enlarge the public view" with the long-term and common good in mind are necessary, as James Madison understood, to counterbalance the short-term horizons and immediate self-interests of the various constituencies expressed through electoral politics. If distantly elected representatives no longer fulfill this mediating function because mass constituencies have dissipated and candidates are in the pockets of the special interests, post-party direct democracy must devise its own counterbalancing institutions and practices.

Changing the lexicon and functions

To start with, the lexicon of politics would change from “right” and “left” to “non-partisan.” “Upper and lower house” would be redefined to mean a long-term chamber that could be called the “stewardship council,” and 
 a short-term chamber, that could be called the “primary house,” that focuses on immediate concerns of constituencies. There would be two central pillars in a post-party democracy redefined and labeled with this new lexicon:
First, a stepped structure of representation that harkens back to Thomas Jefferson's vision of human scale "district republics" that would replace direct popular elections of the representatives to the “primary house.”

In order to garner attention and support in large electoral districts with millions of constituents candidates must raise huge sums of money to pay for media buys, pollsters and campaign strategists. If electoral districts were downsized to a human scale of large neighborhoods, and elections were non-partisan affairs as they are in many city councils today, this imperative would be eliminated and candidates could go back to people-to-people campaigning. The directly elected delegates of the “district republics” would deal with issues in their own realm of life and competence, collectively choosing in turn the succeeding level of representatives to the “primary house” with broader responsibilities and a wider scope of competence.

By reducing the number of electors at each level, the need for campaign financing to reach large constituencies would diminish almost completely. Above all, this new civic software would close the distance between the representative and the represented while involving individual citizens and diverse constituencies more meaningfully in elections where their vote really matters.

Representatives chosen by the stepped election system would hold the purse strings for the ongoing operating budget of government. They would also nominate candidates for the executive to be voted on by the entire public. The executive would be able to veto bills or line-items in the budget subject to a two-thirds vote override by the primary house.

Second, the non-elected, non-partisan second chamber, or “stewardship council” of the legislature would serve as a kind of “permanent task force and think tank.” In addition to a “second reading” of bills from the “primary chamber” bearing the long-term perspective in mind, it would engage in modeling and research, survey best-practices and actively solicit public input through deliberative polling as well as other scientific sampling methods. (Deliberative polling draws on a scientific sampling of citizens indicative of the public at large. It then brings in experts to provide information and advice on the issues under discussion so those being polled become fully knowledgeable in their position on issues which they then recommend to their fellow citizens.) That solicited public input and feedback would be processed into formulated policies for voter consent either through the direct democracy of ballot initiatives or through an up or down simple majority vote of the primary house. To become law, ballot initiatives would have to garner more than 50 per cent support of the voters.

The “stewardship council” would focus on proposing well-vetted, thought-through non-partisan policies that concern the long-term general interest instead of being constituency bound like the short-term house. Its purview would include such issues as constitutional reform, climate change, integrated infrastructure, water and education policy. In that role, it would have a decisive say in the long-term capital spending aspects of the budget.

One concrete example of the role of such a council can be seen in California’s current debate over climate change and water policy. The way California has stored water for decades in large reservoirs created by dams no longer fits the increase in temperature which is causing massive loss of reservoir water due to evaporation. A new strategy focused on conservation and water recycling better fits the climate challenges ahead. Yet, the construction firms, labor unions and other interests invested in building more dams have far more political clout than the relatively small businesses and consumers involved in conservation retrofitting. An objective body looking at the long-term interests of the state, such as the proposed council, could develop a phase-in plan to bridge the conflicting interests and serve the water needs of the state rather than leave the players to fight it out on the political battlefield to the detriment of a wise water policy.

This idea is in line with various proposals floated over recent years both in China and the US. In China, some leading intellectuals with both a meritocratic and democratic persuasion have proposed “A House of Scholars” as a second chamber to balance what would be a more democratically elected National People’s Congress.12 The late Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell proposed that term limits should be imposed on the US House and Senate, but “experienced and disinterested” former members would then join a third house, “The House of Counselors,” that would form a pool of expertise for “commissions and independent bodies” to evaluate policies from a common good instead of constituency perspective.13

The need for such a think and action tank role for the proposed stewardship council is manifest in California, the largest state in America. At present, the state government, astonishingly, has no resources or capacity to model a tax system based on the reality of its 21st Century service and information economy. Though the state’s Board of Equalization, which keeps tax records, can produce raw data on the scale of the state’s service economy, modeling what kind of revenues could be gleaned from that base, and what the incidence would be on different income categories, is beyond their competence. The State Finance Director, located in the Governor’s office, is primarily focused on current budgeting within the confines of the present tax system. The staff of the Senate Budget and Finance Committee, which considers tax bills, does not have the expertise. At the request of the chair of that committee, the former speaker of the Assembly, current Senator and Think Long member Bob Hertzberg, the Berggruen Institute hired outside analysts and financed the modeling of the state’s proposed new tax system – hardly the way government should function.

Using California as an example

If we use California as an example (its 40 million population approximates a mid-sized country; its economy is the 7th largest in the world), the present arrangement of 40 members of the Senate and the 80 members of the Assembly could be combined into one non-partisan primary chamber with 120 representatives. By removing representational duplication in two houses, the size of districts would be reduced to 300,000 from about 1 million each. Each district of 300,000 could be divided into six neighborhood districts of 50,000 each. New MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) technologies can easily tie together such a population size in real time interaction. Each of the six neighborhoods would elect a delegate; those delegates from the six neighborhoods would, in turn, elect one representative for the state level.

The 120 state level representatives would then nominate contending candidates for the executive from the legislature to be voted on by the entire state electorate. By law, each candidate would be given equal media time as a public good for their state-level campaign, thus reducing the need to raise vast campaign sums to make themselves and their proposals known to a very large public.

Continuing the California example, the eliminated Senate would be replaced by the non-partisan “stewardship
council” we have described. It would be composed of qualified persons with experience and expertise chosen for their merits combined with regional officials and citizen representatives. This Council, as noted, would actively solicit citizen concerns and feedback on all issues by employing the latest advances in social science sampling and deliberative polling techniques along with new crowdsourcing and social networking technology. On that basis, as noted, the Council would formulate policy proposals that would be put to a vote of the entire electorate through a ballot initiative or, alternatively, to the primary chamber of the legislature for an up or down vote without amendment so that lobbyists have no say in its content.

To ensure its independence and integrity, the Council itself would not be elected. One third of the members would be appointed for set terms that cross electoral cycles by the executive and one third by the primary house of the legislature elected in the human-scale, stepped system we have described. The other third would be composed of a rotating membership of designees by county officials and citizens chosen, as in the jury process, by scientific sampling techniques indicative of the race, gender and regional makeup of the state.

In this way, public concerns could be aired and addressed in a way insulated from the special interest pressures and campaign imperatives of electoral politics. Yet, voter consent, or that of a simple majority in the legislature, would still be required for any policy proposal to be implemented into law.

This proposal is not just pie in the sky. Its essential features were endorsed in the “Blueprint to Renew California,” the 2012 final report of the Think Long Committee for California whose eminent “experienced and disinterested” members, removed from any active constituencies, ranged from labor, business and minority leaders to former Governors, Speakers of the Assembly and the former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court as well as prominent statespersons on the national stage, including former US Secretaries of State George Shultz and Condi Rice.14
1. The Federalist Papers, Yale Law School
2. Majone, Giandomenico, “Temporal Consistency and Policy Credibility: Why Democracies Need Non-Majoritarian Institutions,” European University, Working Paper RSC N. 96/57
3. Dahl, Robert A. “A Preface to Democratic Theory,” Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1956
4. Petit, Philip; Ration Juris, Vol/ 17. No. 1, March 2004 (52-65)
5. Yang Yao, “The Disinterested Government”, China Center for Economic Research, Peking University, 10/31/2008 |
6. Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nation: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982). p.74.
7. LA Times, Michael Hiltzik, “5 Years Later, Big Money Reigns”, Jan. 25, 2015, Business section) C1
8. Ibid. Hiltzik
9. Interview with Nathan Gardels, 03/14/2015
10. Rodrik, Dani and Mukand, Sharun, “Why Illiberal Democracies Are on the Rise”, The WorldPost, 05/18/2015
11. Toffler, Alvin and Heidi; “21st Century Democracy: An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” New Perspectives Quarterly, Fall 1992, p. 74
12. Daniel Bell, East-West
13. Ibid
14. A Blueprint to Renew California |
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