A Powerful Model to Strengthen U.S. Democracy

7 minute read
Romeo, a long-time writer for The New Yorker, teaches in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His new book is The Alternative: How to Build a Just Economy

In a famous passage, the 19th-century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville proposed a link between the love of material gratification and the loss of political freedom. Taking Americans as one instance of a general point, he wrote: “It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. The discharge of political duties appears to them to be a troublesome impediment which diverts them from their occupations and business.”

When most people become “engrossed by private concerns,” he argued, it’s common to see a multitude represented by a tiny minority who “speak in the name of an absent or inattentive crowd.” Only later, after these few become tyrannical and capricious, changing laws and manners, do people “wonder to see into how small a number of weak and worthless hands a great people may fall…”

Many cabals of powerful elites have recently been proposed as the owners of the “weak and worthless hands” that rule American politics: tech executives, financiers, executives at Fox News, editors at the New York Times, and basically every member of the House and Senate, to name just a few. Such claims have varying degrees of plausibility, but Tocqueville’s analysis encourages a more self-critical question: does our own absorption in private affairs also enable the political misdeeds of the few?

Ordinary citizens who neglect the political are not as guilty of undermining democracy as plutocrats who fund and control legislators. But Tocqueville’s argument does suggest that transcending our political morass will require not just curtailing the extreme power of a few special interests, but also a broader transformation of our own political habits and sensibilities, so that more of us dwell less on private affairs at the expense of public ones. 

It's easy to find signs of American disengagement from the public sphere. Though voting-age population turnout surged in the 2020 election, it remains below levels in dozens of other countries with developed economies and democratic traditions. A 2022 survey of young Americans found that “few are excited to join the government themselves…signing a petition was more likely to be viewed as impactful than working in government.” Even people earning graduate degrees in public policy have become less likely to take government jobs. 

It’s also easy to find commencement speeches, t-shirts, yard signs, tweets, and op-eds decrying these trends and proclaiming some variation on the theme that democracy is not a spectator sport. If democratic engagement consisted only of signaling one’s views via yard signs, T-shirts, and social media posts, America would have a strong and healthy political culture. In reality, measures of partisan antipathy have more than doubled in the last 30 years, with significant numbers of both Democrats and Republicans perceiving the views of the opposing party as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Those most involved in the political process are also the most politically polarized.

In short, not enough people are engaging in the political sphere in functional and healthy ways, and many of those most engaged become most polarized. 

Changing this state of affairs would require giving more people a greater number of meaningful ways to engage in democratic deliberation without further polarizing them. Rather than designing such a system from scratch, it's useful to explore effective models that already exist and ask what makes them work. Two in particular merit close attention: participatory budgeting and worker-owned cooperatives. At their best, both structures, one in the public sector and one in the private, can function as schools of democratic engagement, building essential civic habits and skills. 

Since it began in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989, participatory budgeting has been implemented in some form in thousands of cities around the world. The basic premise is simple: people’s tax dollars are the source of much public funding, so they should also get a direct say over how public budgets are spent. In reality, most participatory budgeting programs are quite limited. Few people participate, the budget over which they have influence is small, and the types of projects they can implement are highly restricted. 

In some places, however, the model’s full potential can be seen. One of these is Cascais, a city of just over 200,000 people near Lisbon, Portugal. Since launching participatory budgeting in 2011, the city has spent tens of millions of euros through the process. Ordinary people in Cascais have proposed, campaigned for, and voted on a huge range of projects, from new engines for firefighters to skate parks for teenagers. Unlike in many other cities, roughly 15% of the annual investment budget is allocated through the process, and voter turnout is exceptionally high. One year, more people voted in the participatory budget process than in the city elections. Direct democracy, when done right, is very popular.

Cascais also offers some nuanced lessons on that crucial caveat "when done right." One key feature is that people proposing ideas must appear in person at public sessions and sit with other residents, trying to persuade them why a certain project or program is valuable. Skilled moderators keep these conversations focused and civil, clever voting rules encourage people to form broad coalitions, not just support their own projects, and an efficient staff vets ideas for feasibility and executes winning ones swiftly, so that people trust the process. There's also an extensive PB program in public schools.

Worker-owned cooperatives also show the power of direct democratic models. In their most expansive forms, workers vote directly on matters of compensation, culture, and strategy, shaping the nature and profitability of their workplace. The pay ratios between senior leadership and entry-level workers at such businesses tend to be much smaller than at conventional ones. Thousands of such businesses already exist around the world, suggesting that they are not invariably at a competitive disadvantage. Indeed, some research suggests that they are more competitive; workers who share in economic upside and enjoy genuine influence can be quite motivated.

Extending democratic principles into the workplace lets businesses more closely embody fundamental, cross-cultural human perceptions about fairness. In one fascinating study, researchers asked people in various countries what they thought the compensation gap between executives and workers was and what they thought it should be. The numbers varied by country, but a pattern emerged: people typically guessed the ratio was smaller than it really is, and they thought that it should be even smaller than their estimates. In America, for instance, people estimated that the ratio was 30:1, whereas it’s actually over 300:1. Their ideal ratio was 7:1. This suggests a rarely appreciated way to limit exploding wealth inequality: give workers direct say over how much they and others at their companies get paid.

A final benefit of both participatory budgeting and worker ownership is their bipartisan appeal. The mayor of Cascais is from a conservative political party. Worker ownership models such as ESOPs – employee stock ownership programs – have also won support from a broad range of Republican and Democratic senators alike.

Tocqueville’s remedy for the disturbing dynamic he identified was education: “the time is fast approaching when freedom, public peace, and social order itself will not be able to exist without education.” The places where we work and live are also sites of education: running cities, neighborhoods, businesses, and companies according to the principles of direct democracy would convert more of the world into just the schools of civics we desperately need.

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