Events

Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs about How Government Should Work---Roundtable Discussion with Authors

January 16, 2004 // 2:00pm4:00pm

Co-authors: John R. Hibbing, professor of political science, The University of Nebraska; Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, associate professor of political science, The University of Nebraska
Discussants: former Representative David Skaggs (D-Co.), executive director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Council for Excellence in Government; Catherine Rudder, professor and director of master's program in public policy, George Mason University

"Politics is innately distasteful to most Americans," concludes John Hibbing, co-author of Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs about How Government Should Work. "They think it is unnecessarily divisive; the key players are self-interested; they dislike campaigns, debates, and compromise. They just want people to stop talking and go off and get things done."

Hibbing and co-author Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, both political scientists at the University of Nebraska, have called this phenomenon "Stealth Democracy," after the aircraft that are difficult to see on radar (yet everyone knows they exist), because most Americans don't really want to see their government in operation, let alone participate in its workings. "That is not to say people are anti-democratic," says Hibbing. "They like that democracy is there, but they don't want to be active and involved in politics."

The authors draw their conclusions from a survey conducted by the Gallup organization in the spring of 1998, and eight focus groups conducted by the authors from New England to California in 1997. The survey and focus groups were funded by the National Science Foundation's Democratic Processes project. Among the survey findings: 80 percent of Americans think elected officials should "stop talking and just take action; 60 percent agree with the statement that "compromise is just selling out on principle; and 47 percent think political decisions should be made either by successful businessmen or un-elected policy experts, or some combination of both.

Another surprising conclusion from the data is that people are more concerned and upset about the processes of government than policy outcomes. They see decisions being made by elected officials out to benefit themselves instead of working for the common good. There is a common misperception that all of the conflict and compromising would not be necessary if politics and special interest groups were removed from the equation and officials just went straight to the solution that is in the public good which most Americans think should be obvious and apparent. The authors say this myth is based on a failure to appreciate the diversity of our society and the fact that people do have good faith differences of opinion and policy preferences.

In discussing the book's findings and conclusions, political scientist Catherine Rudder at George Mason University's School of Public Policy, suggested the book might better be called, "Lazy Americans" than "Stealth Democracy," though she doesn't disagree that most Americans are not interested or involved in politics and government on a regular basis, and would just as soon not be. "People only want to be involved when the impulse hits them," she said. Rudder called into question whether some of the survey findings support the conclusions the authors draw, though the comments elicited at focus groups tend to be more supportive of their interpretations.

Rudder also questioned the authors' findings that the people are more concerned about process than policy outcomes. "What do we mean by process How do we know process when we see it? What keeps the politicians from embracing the processes the people want? The fact is, the people get what they want," citing findings that most people are in the middle, as are most policy outcomes. "Process does not win elections," she went on. "Citizens do care about policies, though perhaps only one or two. But issues matter at the margins and elections are often won at the margins." Moreover, Rudder said, opinion leaders pay close attention to candidates and in turn influence the electorate.

Former Democratic Representative David Skaggs, who now works on projects to better educate young people in grades K through12 about the workings of their democracy, said that "we may underestimate the concerns people have about process, and this book helps to bring out its importance." Skaggs said he is worried about "the backdrop, which is the state of health of American democracy. The people don't trust the way things work and therefore don't vote because they don't want to be implicated in such a system. Their attitude is that "voting only encourages them." We now have minority government in the U.S., with only 18 percent of those eligible to vote choosing the winning candidates in the House and Senate. "Most people are withholding their consent, even though their government is predicated on the ‘consent of the governed'." Skaggs concluded that the "real fix-it, is the ‘understand it better' solution. There's been a real decline in our attention to civic education. Unless we do a better job of educating our children on our system of democracy, there will soon be even little or no support for the system, and that is dangerous."

The roundtable discussion on Stealth Democracy that followed the presentations of the co-authors and principal discussants, involved 18 participants, including current and former staff from the Congress, representatives of the media, the Wilson Center fellows and public policy scholars, and area political scientists. The program was sponsored by the Wilson Center's Congress Project and moderated by its director, Don Wolfensberger.

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