In the 1970s, feminists rallied to the phrase, "the personal is political." In Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public, Johns Hopkins University political scientists Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg propose the reverse is now true. In an age when a president can be selected by judicial decree rather than popular consent, politics has become personalized. Government no longer operates on behalf of citizens but instead caters to individual "customers" with services geared to the needs of special interests.
This contrasts to the government of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which relied on the active participation of the public. For decades after the nation's founding, there was no professional civil service. The Federal government was staffed through the spoils system while many local jurisdictions used volunteers. Putting together large blocs of voters was the bedrock of political legitimacy. National turnout for presidential elections in the late 1800s, for example, averaged a whopping 80% of eligible voters compared to less than 50% today.
Voter apathy in the present is the product of the public's marginalization by our political leaders, Crenson and Ginsberg maintain. Quite simply, ruling elites don't need and don't want broad-based voter consensus in putting their agendas into action anymore. They now rely more heavily on lobbying and litigation instead. Negative advertising and other smear tactics of recent electoral campaigns are designed to discourage voting by members of the opposition, not rally the support of believers.
The roots of this dilemma date back more than 100 years. In an attempt to rescue government from cronyism and corruption, the Progressives created the civil service system (based on merit rather than patronage) and established regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve Board to oversee commerce and the economy. These moves were supposed to put government under the authority of politically neutral technicians who would act in the public interest rather than by party loyalty. Yet they had the perhaps unintended effect of disengaging the state from its democratic foundation. (If nothing else, old-time machine politics tied leaders directly to their support base, however venal the relationship.)
Further aiding the professionalization of the government bureaucracy were the Revenue Act of 1942 and the Current Tax Payment Act of 1943, which enabled government to expand without direct citizen participation. The first piece of legislation broadened the nation's tax base, doubling the number of eligible taxpayers. The second provided for withholding income tax payments in advance of year-end filing, providing for a more predictable, steady cash flow. Prior to their passage, government relied on revenues raised through various use taxes and debt issues, augmented by the voluntary support of primarily affluent individual taxpayers.
Mobilizing larger voter masses under the New Deal, in response to the economic crisis of the 1930s, also only went so far. Franklin Roosevelt courted blue-collar workers in the North, but he did not challenge the feudal system in the South. Agricultural labor was exempted from minimum wage laws and New Deal management was delegated to the state level, allowing public funds to be kept away from Blacks, to appease the landed aristocracy of the former Confederacy.
When Great Society liberals sought to expand the New Deal coalition by embracing civil rights, the stage was set for the "New Politics" of today. Mobilizing the Black vote pushed many Southerners, including Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, out of the Democratic Party and alienated northern working-class whites. This broke up the left's constituency and shifted the electorate rightward.
In the place of high citizen involvement, New Politics introduced what Crensen and Ginsberg call "interest-group democracy." Public interest law firms, nonprofit think tanks, and other advocacy groups funded by foundation grants, private contributions, and government contracts trade on insider information and peddle influence within the Beltway on behalf of a plethora of constituencies, which may or may not exist in the national body politic. The judiciary and executive branches of government are the primary battlegrounds of these much less public skirmishes. And within the more discreet corridors of power, partisan politics are still being waged.
The government bureaucracy tends to be staffed ideologically according to function. Departments devoted to social welfare (health, education, housing, urban development, the environment, etc.) tend to attract career employees with more liberal leanings. Departments involved with commerce, security, and the military tend to attract more conservative ones. Recent efforts to reduce "entitlements" and their governmental infrastructures have had the bonus effect of solidifying power for conservatives within the government bureaucracy, Crensen and Ginsberg claim.
Another area where partisanship is still at play is in judicial and executive appointments. With more and more policy decisions being made through litigation and lobbying, controlling judges, department heads, regulators, etc. has become all the more important. Approving nominees for these positions has broad implications on the direction of government for a public that for all intents and purposes is being left out of the loop. In the case of the Federal judicial bench, for example, this includes the power to set case law and influence legal decisions for years to come.
What's to be done about this dysfunctional situation? Unfortunately, Crensen and Ginsberg don't give much cause for optimism. The withdrawal of the average citizen from politics cannot be easily reversed. "If citizens are to be roused from apathy to action," they write in the conclusion, "someone in a position to arouse them must have an interest in doing so." But there isn't really anyone in power today whose interests would be served by doing that. The best they can offer is to lift the guilt laid on by moralists that the decline of mass democracy is simply the result of the couch-potato solipsism the nation has supposedly slipped into during the age of Beavis and Butthead.
Still, Downsizing Democracy is an important book. One that anyone wanting to understand the sorry state of the nation these days will want, even if all you can do is read it and weep.