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Issue No. 96 (September 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Repairing American democracy:
Changing the rules is not enough!

Steven Hill, the bearded, mussy-haired, Yale-educated author of the recently-published 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy, may be relatively young, but he knows his subject as well as anyone.

He’s an experienced activist -- co-founder of FairVote, campaign manager of San Francisco’s successful (!) effort to require instant runoff voting for local elections, and now head of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation.

So you might hope the book would be something special. And it is, as far as it goes.

It is clearly written and fun to read. Chapters often begin humorously (“Election administration is our nation’s crazy aunt in the attic”) or on the barricades (“I remember the night of March 2, 2002, like it was yesterday. We had fought a hard campaign to pass a political reform . . .”).

It’s so well argued that it may change your mind on key issues. For example, I was persuaded by Hill’s argument that universal voter registration would result in less voter fraud (since universal registration occurs on a steady, rolling basis, whereas voter registration drives occur in hectic spurts right before major elections and are often left up to partisan organizations).

And it correctly emphasizes the transpartisan, radical-middle nature of many of its proposals (perhaps because the New America Foundation was founded by the authors of The Radical Center, reviewed HERE). For example, Hill notes that universal voter registration “is the best way to bring together conservatives concerned about fraud in elections and liberals concerned about low voter registration.”

In the end, though, I don’t think Hill covers all the key steps.

That’s what he was aiming for. “The reforms proposed in this book are designed to form a coherent picture, an overall vision, of what we need our republic to look like in the future,” he says.

I can buy into most of his 10 suggested reforms -- that’s not the problem. The problem is that they all have to do with the formal rules of the political system, and what democracy advocates are facing goes deeper than that -- to the increasingly uncritical way most of us see our institutions and the increasingly passive way most of us relate to them.

It is typical of activists to focus on how The System is failing us. But as psychologically- and holistically-oriented political thinkers have been pointing out for 40 years now, the equation also runs in reverse.

We ourselves need to (a) become much savvier political thinkers, (b) honestly dialogue and thoughtfully deliberate among ourselves, and (c) ensure that the products of our deliberations get through to the political decision-makers.

Hill doesn’t build any of that into his program. So while his book is marvelous and even definitive as far as it goes, it’s not complete. It’s a half moon, and 21st century democracy advocates need the full moon.

The half moon -- Hill’s 10 steps

Although I’d have constructed Hill’s steps somewhat differently (he is unenthusiastic about the idea of redistricting reform, and he wastes step #10 on some pro-government psychobabble), overall they provide a terrific overview of what needs to be done on the rules-changing side of the ledger:

1. Secure the vote -- for example, create a permanent cadre of “impartial, nonpartisan” election officials, and create a “national election commission” to establish “nationwide standards and uniformity”

2. Expand voter participation -- for example, have the government automatically register everyone to vote when they turn 18 (n.b.: I’d have everyone register for a joint military / community service draft at 18, and automatically register them to vote. Thus all 18 year olds would be taught a valuable life lesson: with rights come responsibilities)

3. Introduce instant runoff voting -- if voters ranked all candidates first / second / third in elections, and if the lowest scoring candidate gave their second-place votes to the remaining candidates until one candidate achieved a majority, then all sorts of wonderful things might happen -- e.g., voters would be liberated to vote for the candidates they really liked instead of having to choose the “lesser of two evils” or worry about wasting their votes on a “spoiler” third-party candidate

4. Introduce proportional voting -- instead of winner-take-all elections, establish larger multi-seat districts (e.g., eight 5-seat districts rather than 40 one-seat districts). Would create real competition and would virtually ensure that Democrats, Republicans, and racial minorities (sometimes even third-party candidates!) would win representation in all parts of a city or state

5. Authorize direct election of the President -- would reenergize voters. We’d all have reason to vote, no matter how “red” or “blue” our states were. Plus, would make it almost impossible for a close national election to be decided by so-called “administrative errors”

6. Overhaul the U.S. Senate -- allocate more Senators to high-population states and give some of the powers of the Senate (e.g., power of confirmation of judicial appointments) to the more representative House. Alternately, just abolish the Senate

7. Reclaim the airwaves -- for example, prevent further media consolidation, establish the equivalent of the BBC, and subsidize newspapers and magazines (n.b.: many periodicals compete against this Website for readers -- so THANKS A LOT, Mr. Activist!)

8. Minimize money’s role -- provide public financing for political campaigns, provide free media time for political candidates, and extend both types of subsidies to qualified third-party and independent candidates

9. Reform the Supreme Court -- for example, limit judicial terms to 15-18 years and establish a mandatory retirement age for justices

10. “Restore Faith in Government: ‘Government Is Good for You’” -- promote “smart” government, not big or small government (“smart government uses its unique capacity to bring people together . . . in such a way” that everyone’s helped); use TV and radio advertising “to remind Americans of the many good things that government does”

With the possible exception of that last step (I would substitute redistricting reform for it -- see Independent Nation author John Avlon’s piece HERE), who can deny that something like Hill’s agenda is badly, even desperately, needed in the U.S. today? How many generations do you think democracy can last without Hill’s agenda taking hold?

Unfortunately, it is not enough. Besides fixing the political system, we have to fix ourselves and our relationship to that system. So let’s add steps #11 and #12 to Hill’s 10 steps, as follows:

Step #11 -- Encourage “Socratic citizenship”

We have to become smarter and more critical citizens. Hill himself touches on this “11th step” -- but always in passing -- when he calls for daily newspaper reading in elementary and high school classrooms, when he criticizes the quality of our media, and when he calls for spending more money on education.

But Hill never identifies these varied education activities as a separate step, let alone recognizes the centrality of that step to the democratic process.

Our democracy is not just the casualty of a broken-down political system. By failing to develop our powers of analysis and critical thinking to anything like their full potential, we've contributed to the diminution of our democracy.  And our kids are not on track to do better.

One remedy for this is the notion of “Socratic citizenship.”

It's being developed by some relatively young (and remarkably prolific) professors of political philosophy, including Catherine Audard at London School of Economics, Robert Talisse at Vanderbilt, and Dana Villa at UC-Santa Barbara (see RE:SOURCES section below).

In their eyes, “Socratic citizenship” means that we not only develop our powers of thinking to the full (for example, by improving our schools). It also means that we each take responsibility for developing our own sense of moral and intellectual integrity. And that we work for our core beliefs in the public arena, even if that makes us less than popular in the communities we belong to.

Sometimes it’s good to dissent, they say. According to Villa, sometimes it’s even good to feel a bit alienated from The People as a whole.

Socratic citizens maintain two overriding commitments -- to independent critical thought and to thoughtfully contributing to public life.  Both at once.  "We owe each other more than slogans and catch-phrases," says Talisse.

You can’t have meaningful democracy without large numbers of people being willing to practice Socratic citizenship . . . no matter how many structural rules Steven Hill may change for the better.

Step #12: Implement “deliberative democracy”

Alas, even Hill’s 10 steps plus a critical mass of “Socratic citizens” won’t be enough to put our democracy back together again.

As the emerging “deliberative democracy movement” makes clear, a further step is needed, consisting of three interrelated opportunities:

  • We need forums in which we can dialogue with one another, honestly and depthfully, about who we are and what we value (in part so we can come to empathize with those with whom we disagree)
  • We need forums in which we can thoughtfully deliberate with one another about public policies
  • And we need mechanisms by which we can present the results of our deliberations to the relevant decision-makers

The dialogue and deliberation community goes back to the early 1980s, when the National Issues Forums Institute launched its community dialogues, and pertinent books by Jane Mansbridge, Harry Boyte, and Benjamin Barber were making the rounds.

But it became an organized movement only in 2002, when the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation held its first biennial conference (and 50 groups quickly signed up), and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium began making waves.

Today a wide variety of deliberative-democracy groups, from the nattily formal to the vaguely counter-cultural, are helping businesses, nonprofits, neighborhoods, communities, and collections of communities hold dialogues and / or deliberations (see RE:SOURCES section below). But though their styles may differ dramatically, their political aims are quite similar:

“Our democratic institutions lack mechanisms for bringing people into the governance process beyond periodic elections,” says Joe Goldman of the Washington DC-based group AmericaSpeaks. “In the end, a public that has no opportunity to deeply engage with an issue will always be a ripe target for manipulation. . . . A healthy democracy requires that . . . citizens have regular opportunities to wrestle with tough questions and articulate their views to decision-makers.”

“A strong civic life and a flourishing democracy presume the active involvement of many people across society,” says Martha McCoy of Study Circles (one of the few deliberative-democracy groups that builds traditional community organizing into its program). “While regular citizen-to-citizen communication has always been a central part of democracy, . . . we focus on face-to-face democratic deliberation as a means of enhancing civic engagement.”

“To address the really big issues in our society . . . we must elevate the quality of our thinking,” says Jim Rough of the Seattle area’s Center for Wise Democracy. “It’s not enough just to [help individual citizens become] more informed, intelligent, and involved. We must also raise the quality of our collective thinking, our intelligence together.”

“Communities are wise to the extent they use diversity well,” says Tom Atlee of the Eugene OR-based Co-Intelligence Institute (and author of The Tao of Democracy, 2003, an underground best-seller).  “The wisest know that every viewpoint represents a part of the truth, and that it is through the cooperative, creative interplay of viewpoints that the wisest, most comprehensive and powerful truths emerge. So they engage in that interplay [all the] way to wise public judgment.”

Without deliberative democracy, the vitality of democratic practice in this country will continue to decline -- no matter how many of Hill’s 10 steps are put in place and no matter how many individual “Socratic citizens” our schools are able to churn out.

Synthesis ahead

Happily, there is every reason to believe that a synthesis of all three approaches to repairing our democracy is on the horizon.

I’ve already noted that Steven Hill seems fully aware that Americans aren’t as critical or as well-educated as they should be. And toward the end of his book, he sounds like a deliberative-democracy militant when he claims that America is torn between those who believe in “an elite democracy that requires only occasional popular input and ratification” and those who see democracy as a “vehicle for self-government and popular endowment [requiring] an engaged citizenry.”

(Hill rightly sings the praises of the British Columbia Citizens Assembly, a group of 160 citizens randomly chosen by the BC government that managed to come up with a suggested electoral reform that almost passed into law last year. But he treats it as just another example of how to avoid winner-take-all electoral processes. He doesn’t acknowledge that it’s also an example -- and a wonderful one -- of how to implement deliberative democracy in the world.)

For its part, the deliberative-democracy movement doesn’t stand a chance without a citizenry willing and able to think critically -- and without formal political structures we can respect.

And “Socratic citizenship” philosopher Catherine Audard aims to show not that deliberative models of democracy are wrong, but that they need to “creat[e] space” for dissident and reflective thinking and moral individuality.  For Robert Talisse, the Socratic citizen is the ideal dialogue-and-deliberation participant, being committed to "charity in listening to opposing viewpoints [and] humility in changing one's mind."

What an exciting, potent, newly democratic nation our 21st century USA may turn out to be.


Some organizations promoting one or more of Steven Hill’s “10 steps” are: Campaign Legal Center, Center for Media and Democracy, Common Cause, Demos, FairVote (Hill is co-founder), National Committee for Voting Integrity, National Popular Vote, New America Foundation Political Reform Program (Hill is director), and Public Campaign.

Some principal "Socratic citizenship" texts are: Catherine Audard, "Socratic Citizenship: The Limits of Deliberative Democracy," in Sor-Hoon Tan, ed., Challenging Citizenship, pp. 89-97 (Ashgate Publishing, 2005) (alas, a talk based on that article has been removed from the Web); Robert Talisse, "Socratic Citizenship," 2006, see esp. pp. 8-12; and Dana Villa, Socratic Citizenship (Princeton University Press, 2001).  The foundational text for Socratic citizenship advocates is, of course, Plato's Apology of Socrates, freely available in the clunky old Jowett translation HERE.

Some key organizations in the “deliberative democracy movement” are: AmericaSpeaks, Center for Wise Democracy, Co-Intelligence Institute, Deliberative Democracy Consortium, National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, National Issues Forums Institute, Study Circles, and Viewpoint Learning, Inc.

Some key articles in, and from, the deliberative democracy movement are: Tom Atlee, “Empowered Dialogue Can Bring Wisdom to Democracy,” Co-Intelligence Institute (2002); Joe Goldman et al., “Millions of Voices: A Blueprint for Engaging the American Public in National Policy-Making," AmericaSpeaks (September 2004); Sandy Heierbacher, “An Overview of the Dialogue and Deliberation Community,” National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (2005); Martha McCoy & Patrick Scully, “Deliberative Dialogue to Expand Civic Engagement: What Kind of Talk Does Democracy Need?,” Study Circles (2002); Jim Rough, “Transforming the Public Conversation,” Center for Wise Democracy (n.d.); Tony Wharton, “Democracy’s Challenge: Reclaiming the Public’s Role,” National Issues Forums (2006); and Daniel Yankelovich, "Across the Red-Blue Divide: How To Start a Conversation," Viewpoint Learning, Inc. (October 15, 2004).  You might also want to sample some articles from the Journal of Public Deliberation, flagship publication of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

Two important recent conferences on deliberative democracy were: Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, Workshop on Deliberative Democracy and Dispute Resolution, 2005; and Environment and Public Policy Section of Association for Conflict Resolution, Deliberative Democracy: New Directions in Public Policy Dispute Resolution, 2006.

For a response to this article by Tom Atlee, one of the "deliberative democracy" champions we quote above, click HERE and look under "October 15, 2006."


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