Can Governing Well Save Our Democracy?

Article In The Thread
New America / InnaBor on Shutterstock
Jan. 4, 2022

Most of us who live in a country that’s considered a democracy share an unspoken assumption about how politics works: That governing well, in a way that improves the lives of most people, generally pays off in electoral results. That assumption is at the core of most of the stories we tell about political history, especially in the United States — FDR’s New Deal delivered jobs, rural electrification, and a small foundation of economic stability, and that’s why he won four terms and his party gained seats in the 1934 midterms. Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts led to a booming economy in 1984, and thus his landslide reelection.

That presumed feedback loop is as essential to accountable democracy as voting rights, free expression, and the peaceful transfer of power. If elected officials don’t see policies as connected to electoral results, good or bad, they will have little incentive to do their jobs in the interest of the public and those who most need support. And when policy feedback is effective, it can do more than influence the next election. In 1935, E.E. Schattschneider, an influential political scientist of the mid-20th century, coined the phrase, “new policies create new politics.” Consider, for example, the way in which Social Security created a constituency for actively supportive government that lasted through several generations. Other policies, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or even the National Labor Relations Act, created new politics by broadening democratic participation and giving workers greater voice.

Yet there is ample reason to suspect that these feedback mechanisms aren’t working now. (Maybe they were just comforting stories all along.) Information is so diffuse, so divided along ideological lines, and so distorted by misinformation and money that voters seem unaware of what the government has been doing, particularly in this administration. Political allegiances defined by race, region, culture, and the urban/rural divide can be impermeable to policy ideas or even great policy successes or failures. Restrictive voting rules and extreme partisan redistricting can lock in single-party domination in state legislatures and congressional delegations even where voters are closely divided or demographics are changing. Mistrust of institutions, especially government, has been deepened by the trauma of COVID-19 and school closings, accelerating a decades-long campaign to seed mistrust, funded by those who benefit from ineffective government.

If President Biden succeeds in enacting such popular and helpful policies as the expanded child tax credit and paid family leave, and the economy continues to add jobs while price inflation subsides, Democrats might expect to go into the midterm elections in 2022 with strong hopes of retaining control of Congress.

More than just winning an election, such policies and programs might reconnect people with government, cut through decades of cultivated mistrust, and renew a sense of democratic possibility, ultimately allowing us to continue to expand policies that improve ordinary people’s lives. But current polling and the national mood — more than 60 percent of voters say the country is on “the wrong track” — suggest that outcome is unlikely.

The 2020 election seemed to open two narrow paths to strengthen American democracy. One path, still an option, involves restoring the structural safeguards to voting and representation, such as the provisions in the Senate’s Freedom to Vote Act, along with changes to the flawed and confusing 1887 Electoral Count Act that former President Trump attempted to exploit in his scheme to stay in office. This structural path has been blocked by what is itself one of the most counter-democratic practices in the already anti-democratic institution of the Senate, the filibuster, although there remains a slim hope that 50 senators will agree to a “democracy exception” to the rules.

The other path, though, involves restoring trust in government by delivering for people, in the form of effective, accessible, tangible economic and family supports. This is a shaky hope and there are no signs that it’s working yet. But the policy feedback loops described above are not automatic. There are no political rewards just for passing legislation, since most people don’t follow legislative affairs. And there are no automatic rewards just for getting a program in place, especially if the early stages of implementation are messy and complicated, as in the case of the Affordable Care Act, which became popular only eight years after it was enacted.

There are things government can do to make it more likely that good policies will induce positive feedback. One is to make improvements highly visible. Political scientist Suzanne Mettler in her influential 2011 book, The Submerged State, showed that many government programs, especially those delivered through tax benefits, are invisible to recipients who think they’re getting no help from government. The Biden administration has learned this lesson well, delivering stimulus checks and child tax credit payments in ways that people noticed.

Government can also strengthen feedback loops by making programs simple and accessible, easy to qualify for, and easy to know if you qualify. That’s the essence of an executive order issued by the administration on December 13, 2021 identifying ways to improve the “customer experience” of government programs (“customer” is not the best word to describe the role of a citizen in a democracy, but that’s a small quibble). Universal programs that, like Social Security, benefit almost everyone at some point, have been touted as a way to gain broad support, but the greatest advantage of universality may be just simplicity. The more qualifications and exceptions you add to a program, the more complex and daunting the “customer experience” becomes.

Unfortunately, as the Build Back Better legislation winds through the Senate, skeptics such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) may insist on qualifiers, such as income limits or work requirements, that will add unnecessary complexity. States may also add their own hurdles to programs such as paid family leave and child care, or refuse to implement the programs entirely.

A third way to ensure that policies strengthen democracy is to engage the public in implementation. The legislative process being employed for the Build Back Better legislation, known as budget reconciliation, inevitably leaves a lot of details empty, giving the administration room to fill in the legislation, but also a lot of work to do. The process of rulemaking, regulation, and implementation can be opened up to greater public participation, beyond the limited notice-and-comment process for rules published in the Federal Register.

To demonstrate how this could be done, New America’s Political Reform program recently convened community leaders who have found ways to work together with government, rather than as adversaries, in developing local solutions. These models, loosely gathered under the term “co-governance,” can help even the vastly larger federal government find a richer, more nuanced way to engage the public, which we hope in turn will result in more accessible, responsive programs.

If new federal policies can be designed and implemented in a way that “creates new politics,” then the policies are likely to be sustainable and improved over time. The need for structural reforms to protect voting rights and prevent election meddling remains urgent, but it’s still possible that governing well will matter — because it should matter.

You May Also Like

Designing for Community Engagement (Political Reform, 2021): Federal regulation impacts every American – yet, regulatory processes are extremely disconnected from the people who they impact most. How can we bridge the gap between federal policy and civic engagement, while working harder to take a more equity-driven approach?

Co-Governing to Build Back Better (Political Reform, 2021): “Building Back Better” for the future means working alongside the community, not for them. Now, with fewer resources than before because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders are expected to address larger, and more pressing issues. With special attention to equity practices, a co-governance model could be the solution.

Democratizing the Federal Regulatory Process (Political Reform, 2020): Day-to-day democratic governance is largely centered around the regulatory process. Now, a new administration has called for the modernization of the regulatory review process with hopes to prioritize equity and underserved communities — experts discuss what alternative measures can be implemented to benefit marginalized communities, instead of harming them.

Follow The Thread! Subscribe to The Thread monthly newsletter to get the latest in policy, equity, and culture in your inbox the first Tuesday of each month.