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Voter apathy is high. Are reforms making it worse? A radical approach to save democracy by empowering busy citizens.

This year’s election contest is between Donald Trump, Joe Biden — and the couch. 

As passion runs high on the extremes, so does apathy about this election, about democracy, and about any kind of participation in our civic life. This raises the question: Whose responsibility is it to ensure our civic participation?

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, we examine the reasons for diminished engagement in American democracy with Yale political scientist Kevin J. Elliott. With voter apathy at record highs, Elliott argues in his book Democracy for Busy People that many well-intentioned reforms actually exclude and discourage potential voters, especially those struggling to make ends meet. He proposes a radically new approach, emphasizing accessibility, inclusivity, and flexibility, to ensure everyone has a voice in the political process.

Elliott discusses the role of political parties, the impact of Big Money, and the concept of “standby citizenship” — a minimal standard for being a good citizen in an era of increasing demands on our time and attention. While some of his ideas are unconventional, they are grounded, he argues, in a deep understanding of the challenges facing democracy and a passionate commitment to empowering everyday citizens.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Polls have indicated that in our coming election, the fundamental determination may be between Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and the couch. Voters are either die-hard supporters of one candidate or the other, or they simply can’t be bothered, inspired, or motivated in any way to vote. Stories are already circulated about people being burned out by the process and the noise. Add to this, the huge numbers of people who have never participated, and it paints a bleak picture of a disengaged American electorate. Is there any way to turn this around? We’re going to explore this today with my guest, Kevin J. Elliott, a political scientist and lecturer at Yale whose book, Democracy for Busy People tackles one of the biggest challenges facing our democracy today.

How to ensure that everyone, regardless of their personal circumstances, has a voice in the political process. Beyond specific apathy, in an era where people are increasingly caught up in the demands of work, family, and daily life, Elliott argues that many well-intentioned democratic reforms actually end up excluding and disempowering those who are already struggling to make ends meet. His solution, a radically new approach to democratic citizenship that emphasizes accessibility, inclusivity, and flexibility. All of this though raises the question of, whose responsibility is it to make sure that people participate? Do we need to reshape our system to accommodate those that don’t participate? And what role does personal responsibility play?

Well, some of Elliot’s proposals may seem unconventional and even controversial. They’re grounded in what he believes is a deep understanding of the challenges facing our democracy and a passionate commitment to empowering everyday citizens. Kevin Elliott is a political scientist and lecturer in ethics, politics, and economics at Yale. His main research interests are in political and democratic theory, and his work has appeared in numerous mainstream and academic publications. His latest book is Democracy for Busy People, and it is my pleasure to welcome Kevin Elliott here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Kevin, thanks so much for joining us.

Kevin J. Elliott: It’s my pleasure.

Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. I want to talk first about this idea of entitlement versus responsibility in terms of citizenship and how should we be looking at that.

Kevin: So one of the most common ways of thinking about participation in citizenship is to take a somewhat moralistic stance. The idea that you know it’s your civic duty to get out there and participate and to educate yourself. And this focuses all of our attention when we take up this perspective of duty. It makes it look like it’s all up to us. It’s all up to the individual. It’s the individual’s burden to bear. And I think one of the things that this excludes is the fact that all of us are operating inside a set of institutions.

We all are occupying the office of democratic citizens, and that office is embedded in the wider institutions of our democracy. So as a citizen, I’m a voter, and I might be somebody who can show up to local planning events, and I’m somebody who can engage in all sorts of other things, run for office, and there’s other modes by which I can be a democratic citizen. The perspective that I really want to encourage people to use is that I want to set aside that very individualistic focus on individual citizens and think more about how the institutions, the system as it were, how welcoming it is. How easy does it make citizens taking up those opportunities to participate, to have their voices be heard?

To really think about it is that instead of thinking about the burden of being an active citizen, being on the individual, think about how our democratic institutions help them. How can they make it easy for them to participate, to come in to have their voices heard? Another way of thinking about this is how can our democratic institutions welcome citizens in. How can they reach them where they are and get their voices heard, get a real opportunity to be a part of the democratic process?

Jeff: If we look at this historically, is it easier or more difficult for citizens today to engage in that participation?

Kevin: That’s a great question, and it’s going to vary. It varies a little bit by the very complicated politics and political institutions that the US has. So what do I mean by that? At any given time, our politics is going to be about a certain set of issues. These days abortion has become a very big issue in the United States, and that actually ends up being after the 2022 Dobbs decision in the Supreme Court. That is now partly a state issue. And that brings federalism into the picture. Federalism is a very, from the perspective of a citizen who maybe doesn’t have a lot of time to think about politics, and maybe really doesn’t grasp all of the particulars of how our system works, federalism is a tough nut to crack. It’s a little bit confusing. You see this a little bit in online discourse about how–

It was during Joe Biden’s presidency that Roe v. Wade was struck down, and somehow people were like, “Is that Joe Biden’s fault?” It can be a little bit unclear in part because of the complications of our system of government. So what I’m getting at here is that if you want to be engaged in this very important issue right now, as a citizen, you now have to come to an understanding of abortion politics in your state. And so now you have to become familiar with the lay of the land in your state regarding the parties in power, what their positions are on this issue, and very, very crucially, what other options your state government affords you to affect that issue?

So we’ve seen several states that have direct democracy initiatives or the ability of ordinary citizens to get together, sign a petition, and then get a law or a constitutional amendment put on the ballot to circumvent a legislature that might not want any action done on that issue. So that makes for a complicated situation for citizens to interact with. I would say that politics today is actually very hard to understand in the United States, in large part because of the mix of policies that we have on the political agenda right now, and also because of transformations in the parties.

So one of the very important things that political parties do for ordinary citizens is that they make the issues on the political agenda clear. They help the stakes of elections be clear. And what it means to vote for one party or the other, they help clarify what that is. Right now, particularly, the Republican Party is going through a big transformation in the policies that it stands for in what it means to vote for Republicans in particular is undergoing a change, and of course, also as a result, what it means to vote for Democrats.

And so if you are coming into politics from a time of not paying a lot of attention, you have to get up to speed on how things have changed particularly in the last 10 years. So I would say it’s very hard to be an American voter these days. It is very hard to be an American citizen these days, harder than in the past, in part because the parties are changing, and the issues have drawn us into needing to be more aware of state-level politics.

Jeff: Are the issues more complex today, or are we doing just a poor job of teaching civics and citizenship in our schools?

Kevin: Yes, I think that this is very often the way that people will think about civic education as something that happens, as you say, in schools. I tend to think about a lot of civic education that happens as we’re out of doors. So I think about someone like my mother that my book is dedicated to who was not a very good citizen. She was a busy single working mother without a college degree. And I have no idea what the state of civic education was when she was coming of age. She’s a baby boomer. And so I imagine [chuckles] that probably civic education was “better” back in her day. But that didn’t keep her from basically having nothing to do with politics for most of her adult life. Later on in her life, she would come into a greater political awareness.

And that was through what I would call civic education out of doors, which is to say, seeing what is happening in the world, what’s happening in the news, and trying to make sense of it. And one of the big challenges that citizens have in trying to become educated when they are not in school is that– so it’s not so much a challenge, but rather it’s an opportunity. When you have politics – the task of citizens to vote, to participate in other ways, that stimulates them to go out and learn. And so one of the things that I emphasize and one of the things that the American political system doesn’t do a great job of is providing for competitive elections everywhere.

One of the– a big stimulant to citizens going out and educating themselves, drawing on the huge amounts of information that we have available to us these days is the opportunity to vote in an election whose outcome is unclear. In most of the United States, at least if you’re voting for federal offices, almost all Americans, 90 plus percent live in uncompetitive states, uncompetitive districts for the House of Representatives. And this means that we don’t have a lot of reason to try and educate ourselves about the issues on the ballot and the political parties, or the candidates on the ballot. And the political parties don’t have a lot of reason to try to reach out to us with persuasive messages because they can take our votes for granted.

So one of the things that I really want to emphasize, again, thinking about what can our institutions do to help be welcoming, what can our institutions do to draw us into politics is to promote competition in a wider geographical scope. So one of the things that political scientists sometimes like to talk about and indeed some activists is, if the United States were to abolish the Electoral College and move to a national popular vote, that would mean that every American, no matter where they live, would matter exactly the same for the purposes of electing the president of the United States. And that would change the incentives of the political parties from concentrating all of their time, and all of their energy, and all of their persuasive efforts would no longer fall on the five or six most competitive states, but rather they would reach out to all the different states.

And that would be a way that the parties would help us to get educated about politics. So I think we have civic education out of doors. I think that that’s a very valuable thing, but right now, we don’t have a lot of competition. Our competition is very concentrated in a few pockets and those are the only places that the parties try to help us to know what’s going on in a particular election.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about how this squares with the idea, that the framers intended as they thought about this, of representative democracy rather than some kind of Athenian model of participation and how the evolution of that plays a role in lots of the things that you’re talking about.

Kevin: So a lot of democratic reformers are losing faith in representative democracy. We see this internationally when we see rising levels of distrust, falling levels of turnout in many democracies. A lot of reformers see this and they think, well, it seems like people have less trust for their representatives, for the parties that represent them, and so they suggest various forms of more direct forms of democracy. Democracy that either is based on more referenda, that is to say direct voting on issues, or various forms of small deliberative bodies, which actually is Athenian in a interesting way. And when it comes to the change in the social milieu from now compared to, say, the late 18th century, there was a considerably larger trust in aristocratic elites as a responsible leadership class.

This was the model of representation that somebody like James Madison will write about in the Federalist Papers. He’s assuming that you have this gentleman class, who is very civically responsible and will make use of the enormous amounts of power that the representative form of government puts in their hands. So we’ve seen that confidence break down in recent years. And so one of the things that I’m concerned about in that move away from representative institutions towards a more disintermediated, a more direct form of politics, is that it really makes politics much more complicated and much more complex for the ordinary voter.

I came of age, grew up in California, so the first couple of times that I voted was on a California ballot. At the time, and indeed in most, major elections, California will have lots and lots of initiatives and state, constitutional amendments, can sometimes be, 7, 8, 9, 10, or more of these sometimes very big controversial and consequential issues will be on the ballot, I would often not know what to do with those. I wouldn’t really know what the issue was. I might have trouble parsing what the topic is, so sometimes I wouldn’t vote for them or typically I would just say, “If I don’t understand this, I’m going to vote against it.”

That might not be the best way to make public policy. And so one of my concerns with moving towards more direct forms of participation is it makes politics more complicated. I don’t know what to think about issues when I don’t have a party that I trust to give me some guidance on this. So there are ways of getting around this. In the US context, we might have more parties, for instance. We might try to kind of double down on representative democracy and change the kind of representative democracy that we have. I tend to think that that’s a very promising way to go. Another way is to try and have ordinary citizens play a supportive role for representative institutions. I think there’s a lot to be said for this kind of thing where, for instance, you might have ordinary citizens who are on something like a jury.

Imagine a jury that’s a little bit large, say a jury of 100 people was given the task by, let’s say, the US Congress to deliberate, to talk amongst themselves, to get some experts to come in, and to consider an issue like what kind of electoral system do we want to have for the House of Representatives, or what kind of law should we pass at the national level to deal with the issue of abortion? The country of Ireland recently did basically that, and this led to a change in their constitution on the issue of abortion. These are different ways of trying to change our democratic institutions in ways that I think are very thoughtful and I think are ways that can make use of the considerable amount of experience that we’ve gotten with representative institutions, with direct democracy institutions since the founding of this country.

The framers of the US Constitution were really doing a lot of things for the first time. They were inventing things without even having a name for it. Things like presidentialism and things like federalism, they invented, but they didn’t have a name for it. We have had a lot more experience with representative democracy, with democratic institutions of all kinds and I think that we would really do well if we were to draw from some of this experience in trying to improve the way our representative institutions work and to support them with direct democracy, with more thoughtful forms of direct democracy perhaps that make use of these kinds of citizen juries.

Jeff: Talk about this notion of standby citizenship.

Kevin: So one of the ways that I think our imaginations about citizenship have been a little bit foreshortened is particularly when we find ourselves in a position where we don’t have a lot of time for political engagement. I have two small children, for instance, and I often struggle to balance all the things I would like to do in life and I know that there’s lots of other people who are in this kind of position. And typically, we’ll tend to think, well, a good citizen would really be paying a lot of attention. They’d be going to the local meetings. They’d be contacting the representatives all the time, and it seems to me that this is because we imagine the ideal citizen is someone who’s doing all of these things, who’s really dedicated quite a lot.

But it seems to me that when we fail such a very demanding ideal of citizenship, I think we end up in a place of unwarranted pessimism about democracy. We’ll often tend to think, well, citizens aren’t living up to this very, very high standard of citizenship and so I guess our democracy is in crisis and so I guess what we really need to do is make people feel guilty for not being better citizens, for not living up to their duty. Again, thinking about the way that, if we focus on the individual, we end up with this much more, individualized understanding of how to make things better. If we take a more systematic perspective, it seems, to me, that we can understand that the office of democratic citizenship, the expectations that democracy has for citizens can be modulated. It can be adjusted.

And I think that we should be thinking about a minimum of what – we expect from a good citizen, and that minimum should be different from that maximal ideal of excellent citizenship. And that’s where standby citizenship comes in. Standby citizenship is my proposal for a minimal standard of what a good citizen would be. If you do less than that, then you’re not a good citizen. You’re a bad citizen. But if you’re doing more than that, then you’re an excellent citizen. So what does it mean to be like your minimal citizen? You’re a basically good citizen, maybe not the best you could be. To be a standby citizen, the idea here is that you need to pay attention to politics and you need to maintain the ability to step in actively.

If you see, in paying attention to politics, that you are needed, your perspective is needed. People like you are not being heard from. There’s some big problem that you are concerned with. Things are going badly wrong in politics, and your active participation is needed. That’s the ideal of standby citizenship. It’s a way of being attentive, of surveilling politics, hopefully in a critical way, a reflective way. And then, when you see the need, then you can step in actively and participate in an active way. But that might not always be the case. It might be the case that you look at politics and things are going fine. Maybe there’s not that many people who would see that in American politics these days, but in principle, things might be going okay, and in that case, yes, go tend your garden. So that’s the idea.

Jeff: I want to come back to this idea of the involvement of political parties and the importance or lack of importance of political parties in this process because they have a clear vested interest in keeping a significant portion of the population away from participating in order to maximize the turnout of their people. Talk about that and why that’s necessarily a good idea.

Kevin: Yes, absolutely. So there’s been some work in my field of democratic theory that’s been attempting to highlight what political parties do for democracy. Because as I mentioned before, they do quite a lot of very important things that, for me, it’s the simplifying task. They help make the very complicated thing that we call politics more understandable. They take all the dimensions and all the issues, and they package them up, and they say, “Hey, here’s what it means to vote for us. Here’s what it means to vote for the other party,” and so forth.

So, parties, ideally, do that kind of thing. And a lot of us who are working on this are like, “Look, parties are actually not terrible necessarily.” We’re a lot of contrarians in my field, so we’re often– everybody’s talking badly about parties, and we’re like, “But what if they’re good?” But very importantly, that’s conditional. I would argue, and I emphasize that sometimes, parties can do democracy a good service, but that is conditional on their facing competition. When parties do not need to compete with each other, when they can rely upon their voters, or, as you were suggesting, your questions was suggesting, when there are strategies that the parties know that they can use to manipulate, shape the electorate, keep certain voters out, we have a long history of that in this country, obviously, in that case, the parties can become what’s called a cartel.

They can collaborate with each other implicitly to try to shape the electorate, keep out certain groups, keep out certain issues from politics so that they can create a nice, stable basis of very, very limited competition between them. There are some reasons that– I should say, some people see the US as falling into this catalyzed competition. I don’t know what I would say. Actually, I think in the US, what we have is very, very limited competition, and that’s the problem.

I think we need competition everywhere in the United States. Having single-party states is a bad thing. Having very few of the seats in the House of Representatives be competitive, very few seats in the US Senate be competitive. I think this is a huge problem for our politics because it encourages parties to be their worst selves. It encourages the parties, as you say, to chase the most reliable voters, which is to say, the most extreme voters. Those are the ones that they want to turn out to vote.

And so, you really have this movement away from the median voter, that is to say, the moderate voters, more or less in the middle, the persuadable voters in the middle of the electorate, who, other things being equal, they’re not going to be as concerned about beating the other side. They’re not going to be as concerned with ideological purity or whatever it might be. They’re going to be more responsive to, okay, well, how are things going in the world? How is this policy working out?

And so, if we have more competitive politics, that would help our parties to basically change who they’re appealing to. They would have to reach for a compromise. They would have to understand that they’re not always going to win and that sometimes the other party wins and the next time around could be our opportunity to win. We just need to make a better persuasive appeal. So, I really do think that parties are extremely important in our politics. When we look at our parties, and we’re like, “These seem bad,” that’s partly because they’re not really competing all that well with each other. They have lots of safe seats, and so our competition is really quite lacking.

Jeff: And yet the founders were very afraid of and very reluctant to even have political parties.

Kevin: Yes. So political parties in the 18th-century imagination are quite different from what we understand as political parties. If you read someone like Washington or someone like John Adams talk about political parties, what they mean by that, if you hear the word party, think of a seditious conspiracy against the government. That’s really what a political party, to them, meant. They were thinking about the small city-states of Italy where a political party would be a secret faction who’s going to try to take over the government and murder the current incumbents and put themselves into power.

The idea of a mass political party as a team who’s trying to win elections within the rules of the game. That was really not what they thought of as parties because they didn’t– they were really inventing mass electoral democracy in the late 18th century. It’s part of that limitation of what their imagination could foresee. Very smart people, very innovative, but they couldn’t foresee everything, and that was definitely part of the limits.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the concern that if we have standby citizens, and those citizens that are more actively engaged and better citizens, so to speak, that it further divides us. It creates another level by which people are divided.

Kevin: Yes. So one of the big concerns that I talk about in my book is that the way, certainly, that we, I think, currently, balance power within our democratic institutions enables these more and more active, I should say, more deeply participatory citizens to leverage their extra time, their extra, basically, concern with, you might even say sometimes obsession with politics. They’re able to leverage that into more weight for their own voices, more power for themselves, and that leads to problems of equality. So people who have lots of time are able to get their voices heard, and people who are busy will be relatively less well heard. And that’s one of my concerns. And I think we want to be very careful about where we locate power in part precisely because people who are very intensely interested in an issue are sometimes not the best representatives.

They’re sometimes not the people that we want to have control over our policy issues. The most characteristic example of this are special interests. By definition, special interests are groups of citizens, groups of often also businesses, corporations, and so forth, who want to have political policy that serves their interests. And they just really concentrate all of their time and effort on making that be the case. And who loses in this, the wider public. And so one of the things that I think a democracy for busy people would do is it would seek to put power into political institutions that are not as easily closed off to the mass public.

So if you think about having decisions made behind closed doors, if you have interest groups able to effect what policy is without the public knowing, for instance, this is the kind of thing that will enable busy citizens to– pardon me, not enable them, but rather disempower them, compared to more busy citizens. Another example that we’ve seen more of as housing policy, in particular, has become a bigger issue in the United States. Housing policy is typically a very, very local issue, tends to be at the city level, and very often you’ll have these public meetings at which, again, these local activist busybodies will sometimes be the ones who show up at these meetings.

And very often they will be homeowners, they’ll be older people, they’re more likely to be retired. And these are members of our community, we should hear their voices, absolutely, but if they are the only ones there, it turns out their views of what’s good for the community will often differ from those of other members of the community in ways that tend to militate against, for instance, approving more housing being built. They’ll often complain about changes in a community that might be very important for making sure that housing remains– well, it becomes more affordable, hopefully, becomes more available.

And so one of the concerns that my book is attempting to give us language for understanding, for talking about, is this problem of if a meeting in the evening is when housing policy is being made, that is going to shape who is heard and that’s going to shape what policy ends up being enacted. And that’s a problem for democracy, that’s a problem for equality, and that’s a problem for all of us, in a way, because it leads to these policies that represent only the people who show up, only the people who have the time, only the people who are specially interested will be heard. And I want us to be thinking about ways to change where decisions are made, to make sure that the widest possible public is able to be heard from.

Jeff: Is it one of the other problems that the habit of citizenship itself, we see it just in the divide between the way younger generations look at participation, they don’t have a habit and don’t have a history of participation, and older citizens that have been participating for a long time?

Kevin: So this is one of the somewhat unique features of the United States. When political scientists look at the kinds of institutions that encourage, particularly, voting, I’ll just talk about voting for right now. The US really stacks every possible institution that dissuades, that discourages voting in ways that most other democracies may have one or two of, but we have all of them. And this is part of the reason that the US, at least, historically, has had some of the lowest voting rates among any democracy. Pretty much only Switzerland competes with us for the lowest turnout.

And part of this is because we require citizens to do registration. Again, typically and historically, we’ve done that. We, for instance, don’t require the government to help people get registered to vote, instead it is the task of citizens. We have voting in the middle of the week. We vote on a Tuesday for national elections, at least. We also have lots and lots of elections. Elections in August, elections in July, primary elections, local elections, off-year elections. Depending on where you live, you might be asked to vote four, five, six times a year, potentially.

And I could go on. There are a lot of these. And then, of course, we also have federalism, which means that we’re also voting for lots of different offices, which makes the– again, the ballot gets very long and complicated, and it becomes very difficult to know what we are voting for in any given time and place. And that makes it hard to build up, as you say, the habit of voting, the habits of being a good citizen, the habits, in particular, also, of being an attentive citizen.

Because the first time you go to vote, you have to figure out not just who you’re going to vote for in that particular electoral choice, but also you’re trying to come to grips with the parties, the political system, and locating yourself within that existing arrangement of issues, parties, personalities, and so on and so forth. Some countries have started to think about allowing citizens to vote at a younger age, which seems a little ironic. Instead of having the voting age be 18 to have it be 16. And one reason for that, one argument in its favor, is that if you have young people voting at the age of 16, typically they will still be living at home at that time. They’re not of legal, majority age. They typically can’t go out and get their own apartment. And that means that parents and families are in a better position to help those young voters come to the polling place that first time.

Another policy that I discuss in my book, and that I think has a lot to be said for is compulsory voting, requiring people to vote. And one argument, one version of that institution is requiring first-time voters to vote. So you would have compulsory voting, but only for the first time you vote. And that will encourage citizens to take on that initial burden of learning, “Where do I fit in here? How do I vote? Where is my polling place?” All of those kind of initial learning and practical habituation, all of that can get rolled together if we have a different set of rules, if we had a different way that we approach the project of trying to make new voters, I think, make new citizens, have our institutions encourage habituation, have policies, and have institutions opportunities to participate that encourage people to come forward and undertake the last mile, as it were, of participation. Reach out to citizens where they are, and then help them to take those last steps towards actually having their voice heard.

Jeff: Do we have to separate, or at least think about separating, conceptually, the idea of citizenship and the idea of voting? That if we engage people in citizenship, per se, if we get younger people or people at a younger age more involved in their community, in what’s happening in the community and doing things in their community, that those are the things that will lead to a desire to vote, as opposed to pushing them to vote first and become citizens as a result of that?

Kevin: Yes. That’s a really great question, and it invites a very– there’s a very deep history here. The political parties in the United States used to be these highly localized organizations such that they were involved in the local community in the way that you described. So your local ward captain is somebody who would be involved in your local community in a way that would be very hard to miss.

And the advantage that this had for particularly new voters, particularly immigrant voters, is it would tie together in the way that you’re suggesting, where becoming engaged in your local community would have this immediate highway of really– a straightforward connection would be forged for you between this local friendly person and this local organization that does these things in my community that I can recognize to national politics, which is very far away, and if I’m an immigrant or whatever, I don’t really understand. Maybe I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

These days the parties have largely atrophied. They really don’t have a very large presence in local communities in the way you suggest. And that seems to force this choice between a more civil or civic orientation towards citizenship, getting involved in your local community garden or whatever it might be, your local city council, or local charities, or soup kitchens and so forth versus voting and voting for state-level or national-level politics.

It might be that for many people becoming engaged in their local community would develop the habits of citizenship that might then involve voting. I think I might be a little bit skeptical of that insofar as there’s just so much disconnect between politics as politics, as this thing that happens far away in just a different register than being concerned with my local community.

If I go outside and pick up trash in my neighborhood, am I thinking about that as civic? Do I see that as having any connection with what the governor does or what the legislature does? I might not. And so doing community things might be good for the community. It might be good for you and good for your neighbors and so forth and so on. It might not be quite the same thing as what we think of as politics, all to the worst. I think it might be better if our parties attempted to expand their local footprints. I just don’t see that in the offing at the moment. Perhaps that would be a better way to go. But I think that history has changed things in a way that is hard to see them changing in the near future.

Jeff: And getting to the end of our conversation, I want to talk about the one thing that we haven’t touched on, which is the impact and influence of money. We know that money is playing a larger and larger and larger role in the political process. And one wonders, the influence of money in these things that you’re talking about and trying to accomplish.

Kevin: Money is the quintessential example of what I call the paradox of empowerment. So there’s lots of these ways that we might imagine opening the doors to the halls of power. You might think what we want to do if we want to make our democracy stronger is we want to open new ways for citizens to access the halls of power. And this seems plausible to many people. They go, “Oh, you know, that’s what we need to do.” That’s that instinct towards creating more direct democracy, more quasi-direct democracy institutions, and so forth. The problem with that is that as– my whole book is premised on this, is that, well, there’s only going to be some people who are going to be able to make use of those opportunities.

It’s going to be people who are less busy. It’s going to be people with more time. It’s going to be people who might be able to hire out services that enable them to have more time, buy themselves more time. And so what you’re going to have is you’re going to try to empower more people by opening these new opportunities to participate. And reliably, you’re going to end up paradoxically giving people who are already powerful new tools to participate. Ironically, well, so money is one of these ways, I would argue. Some people will talk about donating money as a form of participation. Political scientists will sometimes study it in that way.

And so the paradox of empowerment suggests to us that sometimes we can make democracy better by reducing the number of ways there are to participate, by reducing opportunities to participate when we know that that mode of participation is one that’s going to disproportionately advantage certain groups in society. So if we were to close off legally, this would require potentially a constitutional amendment or some form of pressure on the Supreme Court, since the Supreme Court has made it a matter of constitutional law that giving money is a form of protected speech.

This is something that the people would have to override the Supreme Court in some way, which by the way, is very popular across parties. Everybody seems to have a problem with money and politics. It might actually be something we could get bipartisan majorities to endorse possibly, I’m not sure. Anyway, so if we were to close off opportunities for money to flow into politics, that would be a way of attempting to address what I call the paradox of empowerment, precisely because it’s a way that people who have lots of advantages can leverage those advantages to further increase their own power.

And so if you see limiting money in politics as a way to make democracy better, that is the kind of thinking that my book is trying to encourage us to do more broadly with Democratic reform. Try not to put new reforms into our democracy that are going to reliably enable people who are already powerful to have yet more power.

Jeff: Kevin Elliott, his book is Democracy for Busy People. Kevin, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Kevin: Thank you so much for having me. This was a wonderful talk.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


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  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for WhoWhatWhy.org

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