Democracy for Busy People

Democracy for Busy People

The Book in 1'

Written by Prof. Kevin Elliott (Murray State University), Democracy for Busy People poses the question:

What is the best political institution to engage busy individuals in voting and caring about democracy?

The book is divided into two parts, each comprising three chapters.

The first part delves into epistemology and explores why so few people show interest in democracy, voting, and staying informed. Elliott places significant emphasis on the common characteristic shared by the majority of non-voters: busyness.

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Busyness here refers to "unequal" busyness, not the general kind. Elliott focuses on disadvantaged individuals who lack the time for politics and whose interests are often ignored in our democracy, rather than busy managers or jet-setters whose interests are already well-represented.

They may desire to participate in politics, he argues, but they must prioritize addressing their immediate needs, which consume their time and impede their ability to engage in supporting the democratic process. Consequently, they remain politically excluded, with their political interests unlikely to be represented.

The second part of the book delves into institutional reform and design. After analyzing other inclusive and more representative forms of democracy (such as deliberative democracy, mini-publics, etc.) proposed by contemporary democratic theorists, Elliott suggests that the most straightforward non-ideal solution to engage "unequally busy people" in voting and representation is MANDATORY VOTING. The idea is that if the state mandates citizens to vote (read: vote or you'll be fined), it will have to provide an easy, accessible, and inclusive voting process. Furthermore, starting in primary school students will be educated to care about politics, democracy, and the common good.

As the most innovative section of the book, I will describe here the institutional solutions that Elliott suggests for the inclusion of those who are unequally busy. Or, as he calls them, solutions regarding "how to democratize elections." (You can also summarize this position as "centralization, centralization, centralization.")

Mandatory Voting

Voting, according to Elliott, is the key system to engage unequally busy people in caring about democracy because it can be made easily accessible and is the most cost-effective form of participation. He argues that making voting mandatory "discourages apathetic inattention and encourages standby citizenship." Among other suggestions to facilitate voting, he proposes extending the voting period from a weekend to a week and allowing for mail-in voting.

Get rid of Federalism!

Elliott views Federalism and intermediary bodies like city councils and civic communities/associations as unreliable sources of democratic accountability. He argues that people lack the time to comprehend how the federal system operates and who the candidates are for their local neighborhoods and municipalities, for instance. These intermediary layers between national politics and citizens are considered "cognitively challenging" and "effectively make it impossible to determine who is responsible for various policy outputs or the persistence of public problems."

Importance of Political Parties

Political parties will reach people where they are because they aim to secure their votes. Parties will organize citizens into clusters based on their interests and introduce political narratives and ideas into society. Since they need to appeal to busy citizens, they will simplify issues and seek to include as many citizens as possible to secure their votes. While competition among many parties is seen as positive by Elliott, having too many parties is considered detrimental. He contends that the best solution would be

"A sort of Aristotelian mean - not too many parties and not too few."

My Take Today

I admit I was enthusiastic when I bought this book. As the author writes in the introduction, people have busy lives, and politics is likely not the first thing they care about. I do agree.

As you have briefly understood, Elliott’s idea is to find ways that make participation as easy as possible. Then his argument proceeds as if it were a slippery slope: the easier it is for people to vote, the easier it is to have a reason why they ought to get information about politics, the easier it is to vote in their interest (or for the group they belong to), the easier it is to be better represented, and finally, the easier it is to enhance and support democracy.

Not only am I skeptical of this very idealistic escalation, but I would also like you to think further about how we can really equate "easy" with democratic enhancement.

I mean, do you think the goal should be to make it super easy for everyone to vote (consider voting with your smartphone) or that people genuinely care about their vote? Notice that one does not necessarily go together with the other.

I agree with Elliott when he says that democracy must not be too demanding, and that citizens obviously have better things to do than reading newspapers and talking politics all day long. The real difference between the author and me is that he thinks citizens—especially disadvantaged ones—do not vote because the voting procedure is burdensome, federalism is difficult to understand, and the election time may be too short.

Instead, I do think people don't vote because they just don’t care about the issues they have to vote on. Why should I bother going to the ballot box when, at the end of the day, the same policies are implemented over and over again? Why should I vote for MPs who are so distant from me, who gather in the capital city, which is so far from where I live? People who decide on mostly trivial things and are often even forced to act in particular ways by other institutions?

Moralistic arguments aside, democracy is difficult to defend in those cases because it doesn’t help get people to care. Giving people easier ways to vote doesn’t make them care or even show up.

I do think the game changer is another one.

Usually, people care about things that interest them personally, in everyday life. I do care whether they decide to cut trees in my neighborhood or replace a parking lot with a cycle lane, for example. These are issues that give people incentives to go to the ballot box. These are issues they can measure and have high-quality information about without much effort. What citizens have, and what Elliott seems not to realize, is what Hayek called "contextual" knowledge.

Democratic support does not necessarily imply that citizens must care about things that happen in DC or in Rome, Italy. They may be more likely to care about their city council elections, their municipality, and their state/region's. Citizens already have knowledge about their local circumstances and what could be improved there. It is only this kind of knowledge that really empowers people without demanding further information. Local knowledge and local democracy ARE for busy people, and citizens will genuinely vote for their local politics when they have a stake on it.