Friday, June 05, 2009

Creating a Democracy 2.0 to Pass a New Deal 2.0

Heather K. Gerken

Right now there's an interesting discussion going on among scholars, policymakers, and commentators about (1) whether the current fiscal crisis ought to prompt a New Deal 2.0, and (2) what a New Deal 2.0 should look like. If we want a New Deal 2.0, we will need a Democracy 2.0. After all, at some point the Obama Administration is going to have to get these policies passed.

Some naively think that the Obama administration can pass anything it wants because the Obama campaign had so many energized supporters and such an impressive grassroots network. That's a mistake. Electioneering is different from governing. Note, for instance, how hard it's been to convert Obama for America into an equally muscular Organizing for America. Elections are the rare moments when voters pay attention; the drama of the race focuses people's attention on the issues, and candidates provide human stand-ins for abstract policy proposals. Politics, in short, is what happens when policy gets personal.

When candidates turn to the workaday project of governing, voters tend to fall away. They stop organizing, they stop volunteering . . . they even stop paying attention. That is precisely why passing policies comparable in scope to the New Deal is exceedingly hard to do.

In my first post, I consider whether the institutions that have grown out of recent elections -- Organizing for America, MoveOn, Talking Points Memo, DailyKos, ActBlue -- are capable of creating what Justice Frankfurter called a "civically militant electorate," keeping voters sufficiently involved in the project of governance to hold politicians' feet to the fire.

In my second post, I ask whether we should instead resign ourselves to the possibility that citizens are not going to actively police their representatives between elections and thus place our faith in their ability to "vote the bums out" at the next election. Anyone familiar with the astonishingly high re-election rates in Congress will be deeply skeptical of this approach. Voters use party ID as a rough proxy for holding election officials accountable. The problem is that voting based on party ID isn't usually enough to put the fear of God into politicians; it's too rough a proxy for holding politicians accountable on specific issues. Americans want health care reform, yet they routinely vote for politicians who don't provide it. As long as people vote based on general conditions, not specific legislative failures, the status quo remains a pretty safe option for politicians.

The question, then, is whether we can give voters more fine-grained shortcuts so that voters start punishing politicians not just for presiding over a fiscal crisis, but for failing to enact health care reform. I offer a few ideas along those lines in my conclusion.

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