How To Stop Being Powerless

When Everyone Holds Sway, Nothing Gets Done. It's Time to Find Ways To Give Some People More Clout.

How can government give the ordinary citizen a voice and still get anything done?

In the 18th century, we began a long march of democratic empowerment. We struggled to free ourselves from imposed traditions, cultural insularity, political tyranny, and imperialism. But now we have ended up disempowering everyone. We’ve discovered that no one is in control anymore, neither the gated nor the gatekeepers. As the Argentine comic strip Mafalda put it (albeit in a different context), the question is not how to break things up, but what to do with the pieces. Now what?

The End of Power, a new book by Moisés Naím, explores how we got to this point. Rapid economic growth and the spread of technology have allowed emerging economies to become major global players. Far from creating harmony, though, newfound economic strength has engendered political and cultural self assertion. The world’s two fastest growing economies, Turkey and China, are seeing upsurges of nationalism—neo-Ottoman nationalism in the case of Turkey, neo-Confucian nationalism in the case of China.

Just as divergence is increasing among nations, it is also growing within them. From Tahrir Square to the indignados in Spain to the villagers of Wukan in China, people are demanding meaningful participation in the way their lives are governed. Thanks to the information revolution and social media, ordinary people have more influence and more ways to keep an eye on power. But all of this also makes it harder to form a consensus. Netizens often cluster among like-minded peers of their digital tribe, seeking out only the information they like. If we continue along this path, the information age risks becoming the age of non-communication.

All this makes governance today very, very hard. In order to accommodate regular citizens, power must be devolved downward toward the grass roots. At the same time, enough authority has to be delegated upward to get anything done.

Any system that fails to find the right balance between these two requirements will experience a crisis of legitimacy—either because it can’t deliver the goods or because it ignores the will of the people. In Japan, political paralysis has been so protracted that a new phrase has been invented to describe it: kimerarenai seiji, or “politics that cannot decide.”

As Naím points out, quoting Jacob Burckhardt, such a governing vacuum throws up “terrible simplifiers”—demagogic populists of left or right who further deepen paralysis and polarization without offering any solutions.

Unfortunately, impatient voters tend to favor the terrible simplifiers. Or, to put it another way, we’ve shifted from the ethos of deferred gratification to an ethos of consumerism. We’ve become a Diet-Coke culture. Just as we want sweetness without calories, we want rights without responsibilities, benefits without costs, consumption without savings, and a welfare state without taxes.

The latest example of all this is in Italy. In the last election, Mario Monti, a sober centrist who sought to correct Italy’s unsustainable course through necessary reforms, received less than 10 percent of the vote at the polls. The party of Silvio Berlusconi, the very poster boy of Diet-Coke democracy, garnered nearly 30 percent. The activist blogger Beppe Grillo, who quite rightly expresses anger at the corruption of the political class but has no governing program other than comic alienation, got 25 percent of the vote.

If the Italian elections were a contest between short-term populism and long-term sustainability, the long term lost. When democracy misprices the future by overvaluing the quick fix, it invites its own demise.

At the end of his book, Naím calls for “political innovation,” something for which there’s all too obvious a need. I’ve spent a lot of time with my colleague Nicholas Berggruen—who leads the Berggruen Institute on Governance and convened the Think Long Committee for California—thinking about just this sort of problem, and what we came up with was an ideal operating system that attempts to both devolve power and concentrate it.

Devolving power and involving citizens is the antidote to alienation of the ordinary voter. It’s a notion that harkens back to Thomas Jefferson’s vision of “district republics” that would allow communities to deal with issues in their own realm of life and competence. Only if something can’t be done at the local level should it be done at the state level; only if something can’t be done at the state level should it be done at the national level; and only if something can’t be done at the national level should it be done at the global level.

At the same time, we must delegate some measure of authority to those with experience and expertise, people who are entrusted with the task of balancing big-picture trade-offs. Society desperately needs non-partisan, deliberative institutions insulated from the direct constituency interests of electoral politics—depoliticized islands of good will—that can think through tough issues and present their conclusions to the often inattentive voter. People often deride “blue-ribbon commissions” made up of supposed meritocrats, but such groups have their place. We need both deliberative institutions and citizen participation for good governance. The “best and brightest” and uninformed voter are both fallible—but each can help remedy the other’s shortcomings.

Every system needs circuit breakers to restore balance when things are out of whack. Financial systems need regulation to avoid bubbles. Mandarinates like China need more accountability. And consumer democracies like ours need institutions to overcome the barriers of diffused power and, when necessary, make stuff happen.

The idea of combining democracy with meritocracy is not far from the vision of the American Founding Fathers, who designed institutions in their time to ward off both monarch and mob. Like the other Federalists, James Madison was clear on the need for “successive filtrations” that would refine, and not just mirror, the raw popular will. In the past two centuries, the raw popular will hasn’t led to a mob, but, as Naím so well describes, it has led to a system of more checks than balances.

Governance is not static. It must respond to the conditions a society faces. It is time to update the genius of America’s Founding Fathers and devise new ways to balance power and accountability. If we can’t manage to be equal to their spirit, the democracy they so carefully crafted is bound to falter.

Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Media. His most recent book, co-authored with Nicolas Berggruen, is Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East.
Primary editor: T.A. Frank. Secondary Editor: Joe Mathews.
*Photo courtesy of geezaweezer.
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