As an avid reader and admirer of Ira Katznelson’s work, I am both puzzled and disappointed by his essay.
I am puzzled as to why he defines the crisis of democratic decline so narrowly, as a loss of faith in representative institutions and parliamentary governments. He quotes John Locke asserting that “the establishing of the legislative power” is the “first and fundamental positive law” of a good political regime, as well as James Mill, who nearly hyperventilated describing “the system of representation” as the “grand discovery of modern times.” Really?
What about associations—the astonishing variety of voluntary institutions that stunned Tocqueville when he toured the United States? What about faith organizations that led the earliest and most brutal battles to reverse slavery and other forms of abuse and domination? The legislatures of the 1950s and ’60s did not lead the Civil Rights Movement. It was led by pastors and deacons and deaconesses, who risked—and sometimes lost—their lives for decades before public opinion and a critical mass of powerful allies tipped the scales. Legislatures only reluctantly, grudgingly, belatedly followed.
Ordinary people have proven that they can access political life.
Consider any major example of social progress from the past thirty years. The end of apartheid in South Africa. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Within our own country, the living wage movement, the health care reform effort (in Illinois in 1999 and Massachusetts in 2006), the rebuilding of large sections of Brooklyn, the South Bronx, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore with affordable housing: all these changes were instigated and propelled, often against obstructionist and corrupt local legislatures, by independent, voluntary, third-sector citizen organizations.
Katznelson claims, “In large, complex, heterogeneous societies where direct influence is often elusive, legitimate collective decision-making requires electing representatives who consider, fashion, and authorize legislation and oversee its implementation.” His nod to civil society is that its role is to “inform” the representative process.
But a robust civil society is prior to and at least as important as the representative process—in my view, more important. My organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation, works with more than sixty citizen groups in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and Canada that clearly answer the worry “whether citizens can effectively access and influence political life or even develop informed views about key issues.” I won’t dwell on the presumptuous and insulting implication of these words. I’ll merely point out that ordinary people have proven time and again that they can “access and influence political life.” And because they are in touch with the realities and conditions of their communities, they are more informed than many of the isolated experts of academe.
My experience resonates with the description of democracy in John Medearis’s new book, Why Democracy Is Oppositional (2015):
We seem to be in need of a way of conceptualizing democracy not behind walls but actively engaged with threatening forces; a theory not satisfied with viewing democracy in terms of just one social role, that of the citizen; not just focused on decision, narrowly, but on action, extensively; a view of democracy that emphasizes power, comprehensively, not just in one of its manifestations, coercion.
Rather than deploring the decline of the representative process in the larger political sphere, Katznelson might learn some effective techniques for improving it if he attended to failures in participatory governance closer to home. Where were Katznelson and his colleagues, over the past three decades, as their own institutions—where they are tenured and esteemed—were systematically gutted by administrators and trustees and turned into temp agencies for struggling adjuncts? Universities do not need an anatomy of the decline of representative democracy. They need more professors such as Adrianna Kezar at the University of Southern California who are willing to act. Her book Embracing Non-Tenure Track Faculty: Changing Campuses for the New Faculty Majority (2012) is both a deeply documented study of the adjunct problem and a set of useful case studies of colleges and universities that have tackled this challenge with creativity and power. Colleges need professors willing to put their careers and tenure on the line to organize and to fight—not start, God help us, another anxious “conversation” about the future of democracy. Katznelson might just find such an experience would restore his waning faith.