What is Really Wrong with Government
The real problem with American government is that it is not as democratic as it should be. Affluent special interests have too much power in our political system and the public has too little.
While it is crucial to acknowledge all that is right with American government, we must not turn a blind eye to what is wrong with it. Although government on the whole is good, there are things wrong with government – things that need to be fixed. And fixing those problems is necessary if we are to revive Americans’ support for government. The better we can make government, the more we can expect citizens to oppose efforts to undermine this vital institution.
Readers of the other articles on this site might have gotten the impression that I was suggesting that there are no serious problems with American government. But my argument has not been that there is nothing wrong this institution – only that it is not what conservatives say it is. It is simply not the case that government grossly overtaxes us, or that bureaucracies are incredibly wasteful, or that Big Brother is constantly threatening our freedoms. What is wrong is something altogether different – and something more disturbing. The main fault of our government is that it is not as democratic as it should be. We have what some have called a "deficit of democracy."
The problem is that American government is now increasingly responsive to special interests and not the public interest. This is why many people are frustrated and disappointed with our political system. Instead of a democracy where all citizens have an equal say in the governing process, some organizations and individuals have a disproportionate and unfair influence over what the government does. The result is that the power and greed of the few too often win out over the needs of the many.
This problem is getting worse and it is increasingly limiting how good government can be in the United States. The less responsive a government is to its citizens, the less liable it is to act in the public interest. The more it favors the interests of the few over the interests of the many, the less likely it is to do all the good things it could do. Most of the substantial achievements of government described in this book have occurred because it was reacting to demands made by the public to deal with serious social and economic problems. So if we want our government to live up to its potential as a force for good in society, we need it to be as democratic as it can be. That is why it is crucial to understand exactly why our democracy is falling short, and what can be done to fix that.
The Public’s Disappointment with American Democracy
While many politicians ignore our democratic deficit, most Americans are painfully aware of it. Surveys find that they are increasingly concerned that their democratic government is not working for them the way that it should. In the last ten years, the number of people who say that “public officials don’t care about what people like me think” has ranged from 50% to 75% – up from 36% forty years ago. Polls show that many in the public also have a very clear sense of who really is influencing what government does. A clear majority now says that “the government is run by a few big interests looking out only for themselves.”1
This perception – that government is working for the few, not the many – is part of what fuels public hostility toward politicians and government in general. A 2000 survey found that over 60% of respondents cited the undue influence of special interests as a reason for not trusting government.12 The less democratic a government is, the less legitimate its actions are and the more alienated the public becomes. In this book, I have been arguing that much of modern cynicism about government is unfounded – but in this case, it is not. It makes a great deal of sense to be cynical about a government which seems to consistently favor special interests over the public interest. When people feel that they have little say over what government does and see that their government is not working democratically, it is only natural to be distrustful of that institution.
The Real Problem: The Mal-Distribution of Private Power
But while it is natural to lay the blame for our unresponsive public institutions at the doorstep of politicians and the government itself – this is a mistake. Undemocratic government is just the symptom. The ultimate source of this political illness lies in society at large – in the private sector. The real problem is that private economic power – primarily money – is not distributed equally among all citizens. Some people and organizations have very large financial resources that they can then turn into political influence. Private economic power too easily becomes public political power, and this is what is undermining the conditions of political equality that are so essential to a well-functioning democracy.
For a society to be truly democratic, political power must be shared by all – it must be distributed relatively equally among all citizens. All citizens must have a voice in determining government policy. This principle is what lies at the heart of a democracy. And this is what Lincoln was getting at when he described democratic government as being “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Americans understand this principle very well. In surveys, as many as ninety-five percent of them endorse the idea that “every citizen should have an equal chance to influence government policy.”3
If we all have the same basic amount of political power, then government will respond to what most people want – and its actions are more likely to be in the public interest. That is why elections are so crucial to democracies – why they are defining characteristics of democracies. Ideally in elections, we all have the same exact amount of power: our one vote. A suburbanite does not have more votes than a farmer, and a rich person can’t vote more often than a poor one. So the vote is the ultimate form of equal political power. And if it were the only form of political power, our democracy would not be in so much trouble.
But the vote is just one among many other sources of political power. And many of these other sources are located in the private sector where they are distributed very unequally. The result is that instead of being responsive to average Americans, our government is primarily reacting to a powerful elite. And this is undermining the promise of American democracy. The political dangers of this situation were recently highlighted by a task force of distinguished political scientists put together by the American Political Science Association. They issued a disturbing report entitled: American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality.4 They concluded that despite efforts to ensure that all citizens have an equal voice in our political system, increasing levels of economic inequality in the United States are threatening this democratic ideal:
Generations of Americans have worked to equalize citizen voice across lines of income, race, and gender. Today, however, the voices of Americans citizens are raised and heard unequally. The privileged participate more than others and are increasingly well organized to press their demands on government. Public officials, in turn, are much more responsive to the privileged than to average citizens and the least affluent. Citizens of lower and moderate incomes speak in a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive government officials, while the advantaged roar with a clarity and consistency that policy-makers readily hear and routinely follow.5