2003 February 04 Tuesday
Americans Want Stealth Democracy

University of Nebraska political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth A. Theiss-Morse argue in a new book, Stealth Democracy: American's Beliefs about How Government Should Work that most Americans want democracy that will quietly work well and without much involvement on their part. Americans do not want leaders who have shrill public debates while expecting the rest of us to listen.

Based on the results of a national survey, the researchers concluded that nearly half of us would prefer that the government's most significant decisions were made by "experts" or "business leaders" rather than by politicians or -- heaven forbid -- the average citizen.

The two professors found that democracy alternately bores people silly or upsets them in a fingernails-across-the blackboard, cellophane-crinkling sort of way. "They want democracy -- they just don't want to see it," Hibbing said. "They don't want to see debate. They don't want to see compromise. They don't want to see multiple issues dealt with at the same time."

Paying attention to the government is like having another job. People want to escape working on political questions. Its not fun for most. Its not rewarding. They want unselfish wise experts to rationally figure things out and make wise decisions. "Don't bother me. I'm eating a really tasty hamburger."

A description of the book.

Americans often complain about the operation of their government, but scholars have never developed a complete picture of people’s preferred type of government. In this provocative and timely book, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, employing an original national survey and focus groups, report the governmental procedures Americans desire. Contrary to the prevailing view that people want greater involvement in politics, most citizens do not care about most policies and therefore are content to turn over decision-making authority to someone else. People’s wish for the political system is that decision makers be empathetic and, especially, non-self-interested, not that they be responsive and accountable to the people’s largely nonexistent policy preferences or, even worse, that the people be obligated to participate directly in decision making. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse conclude by cautioning communitarians, direct democrats, social capitalists, deliberation theorists, and all those who think that greater citizen involvement is the solution to society’s problems.

Another description of the book

Examining how people want their democratic government to work, this study finds that Americans don't like many of the practices associated with democracy: the conflicts, the debates, the compromises. It finds that Americans don't want to have to see democracy in practice, nor do they want to be involved in politics. If American citizens had their way, political decisions would be made by unselfish decision-makers, lessening the need for monitoring government.

A paper Hibbing and Theiss-Morse delivered at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association "How Trustworthy Politicians Decrease Mass Political Participation." lays out some of the ideas that led to their latest book.

Two conflicting theories offer opposing explanations for people's participation in politics. The "reward" theory holds that people participate to reward government for its good behavior or do not participate when they are dissatisfied. The "repair" theory maintains that people participate more when they disapprove of government and believe politicians are self-serving. We test these two theories using a specially commissioned national survey and American National Election Studies data. We find that empirical evidence supports the repair theory more strongly than the reward theory. People who disapprove of the government and, especially, who believe politicians are self-serving are more likely to participate than those who think government and politicians are doing a good job. This relationship is strongest when we take into account people's belief that there participation can make a difference. These surprising findings can be explained by the fact that Americans do not want to participate in politics but feel compelled to when government is behaving badly.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 February 04 02:57 PM 

Michael said at February 6, 2003 2:47 PM:

Add this to the labeling of political speech as "hate speech",and we have the end of genuine democracy here.

Bob said at February 6, 2003 4:15 PM:

At least in the US it's still protected speech. Up here in the Supreme Soviet of Canada, it's prohibited speech.

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