New Progressive Alternative Essay on Deepening Democracy

At the Progressive Alternative, our initiative to broaden the vision and restore the integrity of the Democratic Party, I just published an essay explaining that deepening democracy doesn’t always mean “everybody voting on everything” — it means building participatory institutions that open up power to more people in more ways:

When most people imagine deepening democracy — increasing citizen participation in power — their mind often jumps to the furthest extreme of direct democracy: endless meetings of every citizen ignorantly voting on every issue.  If this is what deep democracy means — all of us taking time to discern the right policy regarding inland fisheries regulations and medical device taxes — then deep democracy is ridiculous.

But this is the wrong way to think about deepening democracy. Rather than seeing a deep democracy as a system where every citizen has a vote on every issue, we should imagine it as a system where every citizen has a variety of open avenues to having their voice heard and ideas realized. To deepen democracy is to open up power — the power to start projects, change projects, and stop projects — to more people in more ways.

The mechanism for deepening democracy is the participatory institution: a system that gains political power for the purpose of distributing it to a wider variety of people. A deep democracy would consist of a dense array of interconnected participatory institutions.

One such category of participatory institutions are what one might call “passive input tools”: avenues built into closed governing bodies to allow citizens to directly engage with legislative processes when they have reason to do so. A prime example is the “notice and comment” periods that federal agencies host before enacting new regulations and city planning boards host before approving new zoning changes. Each citizen does not vote on every regulation or zoning change, but when a new change arises that they wish to have input on, they have the opportunity to have their voice heard. Less potent examples include surveys and listening sessions that governing bodies utilize and town hall meetings that legislators occasionally hold.

Even better are “active input tools”: systems which force governing bodies to actively seek citizen participation on certain governing decisions.  One example is participatory budgeting, which sets aside a portion of a governing body’s budget to be decided on by the citizens themselves. Another example is the periodic community visioning, which invites the whole community to come together to lay out its priorities and ideas for the coming years.  One could imagine other active input tools, such as a requirement that Congresspersons hold Congressional District visionings to set priorities for the coming term or a system by which an annual citizen convention is held to place, say, five issues on the ballot without having to go through the initiative or referendum process.

Perhaps the most effective participatory institutions are what we, in the Progressive Alternative intervention, refer to as participatory counterbalances to corporate and state power.  These are standing participatory organizations that address the same issues as bureaucratic entities, but are organized to better engage and amplify the unorganized public at large. The classic example is the trade union, which organizes workers to counterbalance employer power. But other examples include: consumer purchasing cooperatives, which organize consumers of certain projects to counterbalance seller power; tenant unions, which organize tenants to counterbalance landlord power; and the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in D.C., which organize neighborhoods to counterbalance city council power.

Read the full essay — Deepening Democracy: The Varieties of Participatory Institutions here at the Progressive Alternative.

Political Equality First

I just wrote a new essay — “Political Equality First” — for The Progressive Alternative.  I attempt to make the case that the Democratic Party’s revival of the economic message of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism (the idea that state power should be deployed to ameliorate disparities in economic power) will fail if we do not revive Roosevelt’s political message that political equality — restoring political power to the people and away from the grip of monied interests — must be achieved first:

Although the same sentiments are expressed, President Obama and his fellow “New New Nationalists” have echoed only half of Roosevelt’s program. They have failed to articulate the role political equality plays in achieving economic equality. The progressives of the First Gilded Age understood that if they wanted the New Nationalism to work — if they wanted state power to be able to occasionally counterbalance free-wheeling economic power — they had to ensure that state power was free from the control of economic power. They had to fight for state power to be deployed democratically, in the interest of the public sentiment of equal citizens.

In the Gilded Age that Roosevelt faced, state power was not deployed democratically. In practice, there was not an equal distribution of political power. Worse, the disparity in political power mapped on to the disparity in economic power, so that those with economic power had political power and those without economic power did not have political power. The government was not in the control of the People; rather, it was controlled by those with the economic power. Our nation — conceived as a democracy of citizens with equal political power — suffered a crisis of immeasurable political inequality.

Today, with the crisis of economic inequality in the spotlight, but the crisis of political inequality sidelined, we must finally address this second strand of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and give the cause of political equality its due. Even more, we should call forPolitical Equality First: the strategic prioritization of equalizing our distribution of political power. If we want to use state power to better achieve income equality, wealth equality, or structural equality — or even gender equality or racial equality — we need political equality first. We need to wrest back control of state power from those with economic power.

Practicing a strategy of Political Equality First comes with important benefits. Whereas a sizable portion of Americans are — rightly or wrongly (in my view, wrongly) — philosophically opposed to efforts to increase economic equality, most Americans believe in the democratic principle of political equality. Political equality takes the relatively popular sentiment of “the rich deserve their economic power” off the table and centers focus on the even more popular sentiment of “the citizens deserve their political power.”  Whereas most efforts to increase economic equality will immediately affect the direct experiences of only a segment of Americans, the 90+% of Americans who have little to no voice in government would — given efforts to increase political equality — immediately experience increased political power.

Read the full essay here.

The Voting Apollo Program

Yesterday, I attended the festivities in Selma, Alabama marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for Voting Rights. Almost every speaker spoke of the threats facing voting rights today, referencing the efforts by various state legislatures making it harder to vote. For example, Obama said: “Right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.”

However, no speaker made explicit the two stories of what’s really going on here:


STORY 1: If everyone voted, the Republican Party, as it is organized today, would face an existential threat.

Take this Pew Poll of non-voters linked here:

If you bring non-voters into the fold, support for Republican candidates and Conservative ideologies fall:

  • 47% of likely voters supported Romney in October 2012 while 39% of all adults supported Romney because only 24% of non-voters supported Romney.
  • 51% of likely voters viewed Obama favorably in October 2012 while 56% of all adults viewed him favorably, because 64% of non-voters viewed him favorably.
  • 44% of likely voters consider themselves Ideologically Conservative, while only 38% of all adults do, because only 28% of non-voters view themselves as Conservative.

If you bring non-voters into the fold, demographic groups that generally support Republican candidates wane (and vice versa for demographic groups supporting Democratic candidates):

  • 74% of likely voters are White, while only 68% of all adults are White because only 59% of non-voters are White.
  • 20% of likely voters make less than $30,000 while 32% of all adults make less than $30,000 because 52% of non-voters make less than $30,000.
  • 54% of likely voters are over 50, while 35% of all adults are over 50, because only 28% of non-voters are over 50.
  • 13% of likely voters are under 29, while 21% of all adults are under 29, because 36% of all non-voters are under 21.

As you might expect from the facts above, if you bring non-voters into the fold, support for left-wing economic policy increases:

  • 39% of likely voters believe the government should do more to solve problems, but 44% of all adults do because 52% of non-voters believe the government should do more.
  • 49% of likely voters believe that Obamacare should be repealed, but only 43% of all adults do because only 31% of non-voters believe it should be repealed.

These 5-10% differences seem small, but given that most elections are decided by differences of this small size means that this matters: if all non-voters had been voters in the last 10 elections, American politics would be completely different. Specifically, it would be different in the Democratic coalition’s favor.

I don’t mean to be so partisan, but this seems to be the story that the facts are laying out:

  1. Among likely voters, the party coalitions are roughly balanced, ping-ponging electoral victories back and forth;
  2. Non-voters skew towards the Democratic coalition; and thus
  3. If all potential voters voted, the Democratic coalition would have a solid, more permanent majority in American politics.

Given this, it’s not surprising that Republican Party mega-strategists would, at best, not support efforts to have more non-voters vote, and, at-worst, discourage increased voter turnout.

So, that’s what’s probably happening here: Republican-controlled state legislatures are making it harder to vote based on a puffed-up “voter fraud threat”, Democrats are doing their best to parry such attempts, and serious efforts to dramatically increase voter participation are voted down or blocked because only one party has an interest in voter expansion being achieved.


STORY TWO: “Increasing voting rights” today is a technology question masquerading as a political question.

So what do we do about this voting scuffle between the Republican coalition (which has an interest in limiting voting people) and the Democratic coalition (which has an interest in expanding voting to more people)?

Well, the first thing we have to affirm that it’s not our formal democratic system’s problem that the Republican coalition doesn’t have a popular majority. That’s their problem to figure out. The democratic system’s job is to make sure our government is accountable to the will of the People. The integrity of the democratic system should be preserved and fortified regardless of the present consequences for either party coalition. Attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will should be called out for what they are: “attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will.”

The second thing is to remember that the spirit of a democratic electoral process is not the literal act of going to ‘polling places’ and ‘casting ballots’, but rather the general idea of having the People choose their governing officials. Too often, I’ve heard people act as if the literal technological mechanisms of voting are what voting is about: for example, I’ve heard many people say “If you’re too lazy to go to a polling place to vote, then you shouldn’t be able to vote” or “if you don’t have it in you to get an ID, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” But that’s an arbitrary poll test, one that’s randomly based on the technology we happen to use to transmit People’s wills to be centrally counted. Again, the spirit of electoral democracy is that the People choose their governing officials, not any specific literal task that was necessitated by the technology needed to transmit the public Will to a central counting mechanism.

One way to put it is to say that there are two different concepts that make up elections: (1) The political mission of elections: “Transmit the People’s will for certain candidates into a formal decision of who is elected”; and (2) The electoral technology that is used to achieve that mission: IDs, registration, voting, ballots, counting, election commissions, etc.

We can have a political debate over what the mission of elections should be, over who should be able to vote. For example, I believe every adult citizen should be able to vote. Someone else might believe that the imprisoned shouldn’t be able to vote. Someone else might believe that permanent resident non-citizens should be able to vote. This is a political debate.

But, all this voting rights back and forth — voter ID, same-day registration — is actually discussions about the technology we should use to achieve the mission of voting. It’s masquerading as a political debate, but its actually just those interested in limiting voting using ambiguity around the technological mechanisms of voting to limit voting. It would be the equivalent of a town voting to design a building a certain way and then someone from the losing vote side using ambiguity of brick masonry practices or blueprinting technology to achieve their original intention.

The technology challenge of elections is hard, but simple:

  1. Your technology system needs to transmit choices from people across a geographic area to a centralized counting mechanism and then publish those results.
  2. Your technology system needs to make sure that those who are issuing their choices meet certain criteria (above 18, American citizen, from the proper district).
  3. Your technology system needs to make sure that its counting’s integrity cannot be compromised in an environment where people will have a deep interest in compromising it.
  4. Your technology system needs to be able to be audited to verify 2 & 3.

This is do-able: Banks protect money in an environment where people want to steal money, the government processes tax information from across the country to a centralized source, etc. But this is a technology challenge that engineers should work on, not politicians. Like with all other technology challenges the state faces (the Pentagon building a tank, the IRS running a website) the officials should set a mission, hire people (like engineers) to achieve that mission and then verify if the results achieve that mission. They shouldn’t use the middle engineering process of developing an adequate technology as a political tool to achieve their own private mission counter to the agreed-upon mission.


So, what?

Given these beliefs above, you can think bigger about Voting Rights than the small ball that those at Selma50 were speaking to.

We have had the political debate about elections and decided: most every adult citizen should play a role in our formal democracy, having their preferences counted in our elections regardless the color of their skin, their gender, and their income.

Given this political conclusion we should have election technology that lives up to this mission. If we believe everyone should play a role in elections, our electoral technology should work to ensure that. We should see low voter turnout as a technology problem, not as an apathy problem. We should say: “If the government can get every male over 18 to register for selective service; if it can track all our phones and emails; if it can collect taxes from us every year…then it can get our voting preferences every two years.”

Let’s use the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act to start a VOTING APOLLO PROGRAM that aims to achieve 99% voter participation by the 2020 election.

The government wasted almost $5 billion on a failed replacement of Marine 1 Helicopters for the White House. What if we spent $5 billion on election technology that achieved the following:

  1. Complete integrity: (A) Ensures each voter fits requirements of voting (18, American citizen, proper location); (B) Ensures counting’s integrity is not compromised; (C) Ensures counting is auditable by everyone.
  2. Easy participation: (A) You can vote online anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election; (B) You can vote offline in various places (post-offices, McDonalds, schools, etc.) anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election.
  3. Constant reminders: (A) You are emailed constant reminders to vote with direct links to webpages where you can vote; (B) You are snail-mailed constant reminders to vote with direct return envelopes to vote; (C) You are reminded in public to vote and provided with public kiosks to vote right there.

In short, a Voting Apollo Program would achieve full voter participation and integrity protections through election technology fit for the internet age.

Yes, there are thousands of technological details of achieving this mission that are going to be hard. But, there were also a lot of technological details of achieving the mission of inventing the internet and going to the moon. This is beyond achievable by our country.

Full voter participation through serious investment in the technology of voting expansion can be our Edmund Pettus Bridge. Let’s not play small-ball on the sidelines of full voter participation. Let’s cross the bridge.