Democracy, Done (Even) Better

Jeffrey Edward Green, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, has some ideas.

Friday, March 30, 2018

By Susan Ahlborn

Jeffrey Edward Green, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy

Jeffrey Edward Green has written two books about what he sees as weaknesses in democracy as currently practiced—not just in the U.S. but around the world—and how he would alleviate them. In the first book, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship, the Associate Professor of Political Science addresses the idea that citizens are as much spectators as voters. This thesis has since been the subject of numerous commentaries, including symposia published in leading political science journals, a German book of essays with contributions from 10 contemporary scholars, and a recent Dutch book which develops Green’s idea of “ocular democracy.”  More recently, Green’s The Shadow of Unfairness: A Plebeian Theory of Liberal Democracy lays out the reasons he believes no democracy can be fully fair because of the impact of economic inequality on civic life.

We talked with Green about voters as spectators in the “Age of Trump,” the solutions he suggests, and how his ideas are being addressed internationally.

What is spectator democracy?
The simplest articulation of the idea would be citizens are not only deciders with voices. They're also watchers who experience politics more passively with their eyes. My point is not to celebrate this aspect of democracy but to note its prominence and conceptualize the difference between better and worse forms of political spectacle.

The central idea in The Eyes of the People is that situations where leaders are not in control of their publicity and are forced to be unscripted and spontaneous are more democratic and reveal more than those in which leaders are preprogrammed, entirely in control, and without risk.

I call this principle candor. In my view, candor is a democratic value. It takes leaders down a notch, so there's a kind of egalitarianism implicit in it.  Candor also makes our politics more eventful and less fake, and so more worthy of being watched. Further, candor implies a notion of peoplehood that is more communal and inclusive than that implied by an electoral conception of the people. When we’re talking about selecting policies, usually only a small majority rules the day, but those who collectively watch politics are a broader church. There's something inclusive about thinking about the people as a watcher and not just as a decider.

I think that there are many people in political science who wonder about representation. Is it happening? How well is it happening? And the problem is how shockingly little we know about such questions. And this is not only an academic problem, but a political one, since representation lies at the heart of most people’s conception of what popular empowerment involves in a liberal democracy. If I were to ask you, are you better represented today than you were yesterday, would you be able to answer? I think we have trouble making these judgments because we don't have clear metrics for representation. Part of that is because public opinion, which is supposed to be one of the devices that achieves representation, is itself very murky in its functionality. There is debate about how to measure it. And there is even more uncertainty about how to determine whether it’s making leaders responsive and accountable.

The more you take seriously these question marks surrounding representation, the more you ought to be open to finding supplementary modes of popular empowerment beyond the traditional wish that the people’s interests, preferences, and values find articulation in a nation’s legislative output. And this too is what the principle of candor aims to achieve. After all, we can be much more concrete and certain of when leaders are or are not in control of the conditions of their publicity—and this measurability is something that makes it in my view a worthy supplement to more well-entrenched efforts to strive to achieve more and better representation.

How do you view Donald Trump’s presidency in the context of The Eyes of the People?
I think the clearest connection to the present context is that the book argues for the value of speaking extemporaneously. Extemporaneity is hardly the entirety of candor, but it’s often part of it.

Now Trump is known as someone who speaks more extemporaneously than is typically the case in American politics. And I think the fact that he does this partially explains his appeal, and in some way buttresses the book’s claims that unscripted, spontaneous speech is something that would be attractive to large numbers of citizens in a mass democratic society. The book also attends to the revelatory aspect of extemporaneous speech. And whether you like Trump or not, it’s through his unrehearsed and unmanaged speeches—whether off-the-cuff remarks given at press conferences and public events or recordings of private remarks released without his consent—that central aspects of his persona have shown themselves.

Some critics of Trump have wondered if Trump invalidates elements of The Eyes of the People, since for them Trump models what is limited—or even irresponsible—about too much attention to the virtue of extemporaneous speech. That is, from the perspective of these critics, Trump’s extemporaneity has neither chastened him, nor led to transparency (in the sense of true information about what the government is doing), nor promoted policies serving the public interest.

However, while I can see how Trump’s rhetoric may disclose potential limits to extemporaneous speech, I do not see it as undermining the value of candor. Candor, at root, is about subjecting leaders to the burden and risk of appearing under conditions they do not control. If there are rare individuals for whom extemporaneous speech is not a burden or a risk, then this only means that candor is best achieved via other institutions, such as hard-hitting interviews and press conferences or, if necessary, legal investigations. Moreover, it is not obvious to me that Trump is in fact emblematic of candor. It is not candid, for instance, not to release your tax returns, to threaten freedom of the press, or to fail to hold a press conference during the 2016 general election (from July 2016 to January 2017).

I would also add that critics of Trump who are deeply concerned by his apparent mendacity, flippancy, and lack of respect for American political institutions should not blame the candid communicative exchanges that bring these elements to light. If the broader citizenry is not sufficiently worried about these problems, then that in my view would be the fault of our political culture—of us as citizens—not of the norm that, ideally, leaders in a democratic society ought to be compelled to appear under conditions they do not control.
How did Okulare Demokratie [Ocular Democracy], the German book of essays, come about?
The two editors, Dominik Hammer and Marie Kajewski, got in touch with me about having European scholars write essays about The Eyes of the People for a German audience, and I was willing to help participate. I wrote an introductory essay that revisited my idea of ocular democracy, and worked to secure one of the ten contributors, Nadia Urbinati. They did all the rest.
How does the Dutch book connect to The Eyes of Democracy?
In Het Huis van Argus; de Wakende Blik in de Democratie [The House of Argus: The Watchful Gaze in Democracy], Huub Dijstelbloem builds on my book. Argus is a mythological character who had 100 eyes, and worked for the goddess Hera guarding over things. Dijstelbloem further explores the relevance of visual processes for the regulation and improvement of democratic societies. There have been numerous connections between my work and Dutch scholars over the last few years. In June 2016, I was invited to appear before the Dutch Ministry of Interior, where I spoke at an event concerning both of my books, with a special focus on the question of how non-representative modes of popular empowerment might be forged and pursued in the years ahead.  

Your new book, The Shadow of Unfairness, is described as a sequel to The Eyes of the People.
The second book is about not just putting political leaders under a burden but politicizing the role of economic elites. What special responsibility, if any, do very rich people have in a democratic society?

It's a sequel in thinking about the relationship between the few and the many, and thinking about regulating the few as an alternate strategy for democratic empowerment besides representation.

Both books are worried about the situation that most ordinary citizens have a second-class political life. That is, most citizens don't make individual judgments and substantive decisions in the same way that elites do. We’re confined to mostly making electoral decisions, which tend to be pretty rare. Experientially, most of us in a mass democracy come to expect others besides ourselves to make the big decisions.

The Shadow of Unfairness adds an economic dimension by insisting that plutocracy is an inescapable feature of liberal democracy—not necessarily as the coordinated role of the moneyed interests, but as the fact that wealth has power: not just a material power to buy things but the power to impact two domains which, ideally, it should not interfere with, namely the domains of political opportunity and educational opportunity. The book pushes back against a certain false piety in a lot of contemporary thinking about liberal democracy, which imagines that it is after all possible to cordon off a sphere of civil equality (in politics and education) uninfected by economic inequality. Of course, I think we can always do more to reduce the impact of economic inequality in these realms, but The Shadow of Unfairness asserts that it is naïve to fail to recognize the plutocratic fact that, so long as there is private property and the family, wealth will always to some meaningful degree unfairly impact a liberal democracy’s political and educational systems.
With regard to politics, countless studies show that socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of political engagement, of access to government, of likelihood of running for government—not just in the U.S. but in the more egalitarian northern European societies.

In the case of education, it's a tenet of liberal democracy that it shouldn't matter how wealthy your parents are with regard to your educational opportunity. Two children, one born to a poor family, one to a wealthy family, if they're similarly talented and motivated, ought to have similar prospects of career advancement. But that's not just how things work, given everything we know about socioeconomic status and the socialization borne from family structures.

My point is not that liberal democracies can’t or shouldn’t always try to do better in reducing plutocracy. Rather the book claims that, in addition to that, it is valuable to acknowledge this “shadow of unfairness” stemming from plutocracy and other factors. I try to demonstrate in the book how a lot of leading paradigms in contemporary political philosophy fail to recognize this shadow and lead us to consider liberal democracy as a perfect, or perfectible, political system. In my view, by contrast, liberal democracy is attractive relative to other options, but it’s not at all perfect. Being appreciative of this imperfection—not just in any specific polity but in the very model of liberal democracy itself—can actually help us strengthen our liberal-democratic regimes by recognizing the enduring sources of citizens’ frustrations and also, in my view, explaining the need for the especially well-off to take a greater responsibility in addressing those frustrations.

When you advocate some compulsory burdens for the most advantaged, what kind of things are you thinking of?
I have in mind a kind of compulsory noblesse oblige, such as seems to have been in place in one of the very oldest democratic regimes of which we have record: ancient Athens. The Athenians appear to have understood that popular empowerment is achieved not just by giving ordinary citizens the ability to shape the law, but by imposing special burdens on the most advantaged citizens. For example, the Athenians instituted the eisphora, or special taxes uniquely levied on the rich in times of emergency, as well as the liturgies, or special services (like funding triremes, choruses, and gymnasia), that only the wealthiest 100 or so families in Athens were obligated to pay. Importantly, these were burdens, but they were also honors.

The book is cognizant that such proposals are not only controversial, but unpleasant. There’s something genuinely off-putting about thinking in terms of the few and the many and, thus, in terms that are classist terms. We have a deeply rooted aversion to “envy” in our political culture that The Shadow of Unfairness seems to violate. I try to admit as much, but nonetheless defend the idea of compulsory noblesse oblige. On the one hand, I do this by delving deep into the philosophy of envy—in particular the work of John Rawls—to defend the propriety of a special category of “reasonable envy.” Roughly, this is the idea that under special conditions, such as excessive inequality, it is not in fact immoral or irrational for those with less to worry about how much those with more have. On the other hand, I appeal to Machiavelli, who is famous for teaching that political leaders sometimes have to do unsavory things as part of effectively executing the responsibilities of their offices. My claim, in what I refer to as “Machiavellianism for the People,” is that if there’s any place in politics for Machiavellianism (and some of course think that there isn’t), then there ought to be popular—and not only elite—manifestations of this idea and that both of my books (The Eyes of the People with its call for candor and The Shadow of Unfairness with its call for legalized noblesse oblige) could be seen as articulating what Machiavellianism for the People might include.

Some people would say the rich already pay most of the taxes. Would you call that a mandatory noblesse oblige?
It's not just about fiscal needs, or quietly paying more taxes. It's about publically acknowledging that our political societies are not fully fair—that they are failing to live up to widely-held standards of what they should be doing in order to treat citizens as free and equal—and finding ways to make that acknowledgment as productive as possible. The wager of the book is that those who are the most advantaged have a special role to play in that process. My suspicion is that there would be less ill will in contemporary liberal democracies if there was more honest acknowledgement of their structure and less false belief about how much political and educational opportunity is achieved within them. In addition to making the future more fair, democracies should also take a retrospective interest in addressing the unfairness that has always accompanied them to date.

Again, I appreciate that these reflections are uncomfortable because they seem to let go of the historic promise that a democracy might treat all of its citizens equally, regardless of social class. I’d just add that for a long time liberal democracies have been willing to operate with a notion of the least advantaged class (for instance, those living below the poverty line or those in need of government assistance). The Shadow of Unfairness could be seen as a book which argues that this longstanding concern with the least advantaged ought to be paralleled by a newfound willingness to operate with a category of the most advantaged.

You’re also the director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. How do you balance your work in democratic theory with that role?
With my research, I see myself as trying to contribute to the ongoing evolution of what democracy means. One of the remarkable things about liberal democracy, in particular, is that it continues to evolve in its demandingness. Over the last 200 or 300 years, there have been dramatic changes in who is considered a citizen and the removal of formal barriers, based on class, gender, and race. And the very issues I keep coming back to in this discussion about equalizing educational opportunity and opportunity of political voice are themselves new expectations that I think have been placed upon the liberal democratic regime in the last half century or so.

Fifty years from now, hopefully, democracy will be practiced and understood in even more demanding ways. A Dutch critic once told me that my work is realistic but not cynical. I would accept that description, since I think we can find ways to make future democracies the best that have ever been.

Still, as Director of the Andrea Mitchell Center, I see my mission as not to impose my own ideas but to generate and integrate the voices of as many interested parties as possible, and to bring people together in discussions and research that feels urgent, that has policy applications, and that brings in various constituencies: undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, scholars from outside Penn, political activists, and journalists. It's very important to me that the Center’s programming be diverse, not just in the sense of including minorities and disadvantaged groups, but in the sense of ideological diversity.

Looking back at the soon-to-be-finished academic year, I’d like to think we’ve achieved genuine ideological diversity. As regular participants at our events can attest, we’ve hosted speakers from across the ideological spectrum, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, radicals and libertarians, and also numerous figures who defy easy labeling.  Also, one of our major new initiatives this year—a partnership with the Penn Political Union, in which the Mitchell Center sponsors debates between outside speakers and undergraduate students organized into five distinct political parties—has ideological diversity built in to its very structure. And so, as much as I have my own personal sense of how democracy should be improved, my vision for the Mitchell Center is that it be a welcoming place for a very broad spectrum of scholarly and political voices.