A Realist’s View of Democracy

Imagine two very different starting points to consider democracy. One is to say that politics is ‘broken’ and that we need to rediscover popular democracy. The other is to say that almost all decisions are made, necessarily, by a very small number of people out of the public spotlight – and that no political reform will change this fact. How might we bring those two points closer together? We should start with Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy (in America – first published 1960; I am using the 1975 version).

Schattschneider’s argument is timeless because he describes (a) a widespread belief in the power of democracy but (b) a disdain for unrealistic expectations about the power of ‘the people’ and (c) a belief that the more realistic vehicle for democracy – government – contains undemocratic elements.  So, he provides a series of warnings against the assumption that there is a simple way to encourage popular democracy:

The beginning of wisdom in democratic theory is to distinguish between the things the people can do and the things the people cannot do. The worst possible disservice that can be done to the democratic cause is to attribute to the people a mystical, magical omnipotence which takes no cognizance of what very large numbers of people cannot do by the sheer weight of numbers. At this point the common definition of democracy has invited us to make fools of ourselves. What 180 million people can do spontaneously, on their own initiative, is not much more than a locomotive can do without rails (1975: 136)

For Schattschneider, the key argument is that a political system can be run well if most decisions are made by the government on behalf of the people, with minimal public involvement, and the very small number of important decisions is made with maximal public involvement. So far, so good (if we ignore the very-problematic idea that ‘the people’ is a real thing and that we can agree on what the most important problems are). The problem is that the political system does not ensure that these issues are the ones most likely to be discussed. On the contrary – a key source of power is to make sure that people pay attention to innocuous issues at the expense of the more important ones.

Schattschneider (1975: 2–5) creates a thought experiment to demonstrate that, in any conflict, the audience could be more important than the original participants. The people matter when they pay attention and become mobilized. Think of two fighters surrounded by a massive crowd – its composition, bias towards each fighter and willingness to engage are crucial. The outcome of conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved. However, there are far more potential conflicts than any public can pay attention to. Therefore, most are ignored and the people are ‘semi-sovereign’ – only able to exercise their power in a few areas.

This is important because there are systematic imbalances in social systems that may require systematic attention. For example, the pressure group system is not pluralistic; a small proportion of the population – the well-educated and upper class – is active and well represented by groups (1975: 34–5). The pressure system is largely the preserve of the business class seeking to minimize attention to their activities (1975: 30–7). Therefore, Schattschneider (1975: 12; 119) highlights the need for government to intervene:

Democratic government is the greatest single instrument for the socialization of conflict … big business has to be matched by … big democracy.

Yet, of course, the same argument applies – elected officials within the government can only pay attention to a small number of issues; they have to promote a few to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest.  This is where one kind of power becomes important – it is exercised to determine the issues most worthy of government attention. The structures of government, such as legislative procedures controlling debate, reinforce this process by determining which conflicts receive attention and which are ignored:

All forms of political organization have a bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out (1975: 69).

While we may have some vague hope that key decisions receive the most attention, we should not expect it to happen naturally. Rather, groups may exercise power to make sure that important issues do not receive attention. Politics is not only about winners and losers, but also a battle in which the winner seeks to isolate its opponent (by keeping the dispute between them and not a wider audience) and the loser seeks to expand the scope of the conflict by encouraging a part of the audience to become involved. Most political behaviour involves this competition to ‘socialize’ or ‘privatize’ conflict. The most common example may involve keeping an issue off the government agenda by encouraging policymaker attention to relatively ‘safe’ issues – more attention to these issues means less attention to, say, the imbalances of power within society. Another example is when groups exercise power to reinforce public attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, they will not ask the government to intervene.  In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.

If we look at that problem, as I have described it, and conclude that politics is ‘broken’ we should also accept that it cannot be fixed. Or, to put it more positively, we should consider what can be done in that context rather than hoping that political reforms can be a quick fix.  Let’s conclude by thinking of two issues to be addressed. First, can we use existing measures to make sure that ‘the people’ consider the most important issues? We may not agree on what are the most important problems to solve. Maybe the forthcoming in/out referendums in Scotland (in/ out the UK) and the UK (in/out Europe) are good examples, maybe not. Maybe we could generally agree that ‘the economy’ is the big one, without agreeing what we should consider (such as encouraging growth and/ or reducing inequality). Who knows?

The second issue is the one that I think is more of a conundrum: how much attention do you think that we should expect ‘the people’ to pay to the same issue? The thing about public policy is that it involves thousands of decisions, taken hourly or daily when new information arises. We may make one key decision, only to find that we need to make a thousand decisions to inform the substance of that big decision. Do the people just make that big one, or should we expect them to stay involved? Should we expect them to pay attention once per year? Who knows? While this may be starting to sound a bit facetious, it is a serious point that is explored very well by books such as Agendas and Instability. Baumgartner and Jones describe long periods (often several decades) of public inattention to an issue when the assumption is that (a) it received huge attention (b) the problem was ‘solved’ then (c) the details were left to public and private organisations. This process helps explain why the public (a) seemed to support the use of pesticides and nuclear power in the early postwar era, then (b) seemed dead against those things from the 1970s.

It’s at this point in a seminar where I’d say ‘oh look at the time’ rather than try to produce a ‘take home message’ from this discussion because I honestly don’t know what you’d want to take home. Then I’d point out that Jones and Baumgartner were actually optimistic about the links between public opinion and government action and ask you to work that one out.

A lot of this discussion draws on my book Understanding Public Policy, pp 52-6 and the Baumgartner/ Jones chapter is Green Access (Paul Cairney Understanding Public Policy chapter 9 STORRE)


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Social change, UK politics and policy

4 responses to “A Realist’s View of Democracy

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