Following my last post, I’d like to address the provenance and fate of two websites, and what that means for contemporary politics: publicmarkup.org and whorunsgov.com. Public Markup is a site that lets readers read and comment on bills proposed and under consideration in Congrees. Who Runs (Gov) is new site by the Washington Post that offers profiles of the new administration’s officials, a kind of “Who’s Who” of the Obama administration and the lobbyists and think tank fellows who make things happen at the federal level. Where the Public Markup lets us talk to each other and offer each other our reasons and concerns, Who Runs (Gov) profiles those who will in fact govern us, as we sit back passively hoping they’ll decide correctly and in our varied and often conflicting interests. Public Markup is a little used, unpopular site with no fanfare; Who Runs (Gov) was rolled out a few days ago with banner ads and a major marketing push, and it promises to be a very popular new political blog, because it turns politics into a kind of reality television or gossip magazine where we discuss haircuts and pedigree rather than accountability and policy. This is a disappointing indicator of the next four years.
One of the things that troubles me about the out-of-the-gate moves of our new President has to do with the difference between participatory electioneering and participatory governance. Even the most cynical of political theorists note the necessity of energizing the citizenry during elections. I’m thinking here especially of Joseph Schumpeter and Anthony Downs, who treat elections as voting markets and politics as a specialized case of rational self-interested homo economicus to be cynically modeled. In this sense, parties use branding to sell themselves and their candidates, and a funny name that seems like a disadvantage can always be an asset if you find the right logo, slogan, or jingle. Though the Obama campaign was very inclusive, this can be interpreted either as the result of progressive politial commitments or as an attempt to build the kind of customer loyality that is lately in vogue amongst advertising executives, indistinguishable from niche marketing and identity-consumption. In this light, Obama’s campaign looked a little like an Apple campaign or the kind of lifestyle branding you see with Volkswagon.
Yet at various points during the campaign and even before, in his books, Obama suggested that he wanted to see the energy and involvement of campaigns carried forward into the rest of political life. There are two ways to do that: first, civic engagement at the community level, such as volunteerism programs and an increased emphasis on service work and service learning. Second, deliberative opportunities for more direct engagement with policy-making. Many people, including Philip Pettit and myself, would like to see more deliberative opportunities for citizens during the day-to-day governing of the country. Otherwise, our role as public citizens comes only once every two or four years.
The conversation in the comments to my last entry has been great: I’m lucky to have such intelligent and thoughtful readers adding their voices to the blog. However, we’ve been talking in terms of libertarian v. communitarian political theory, playing out the old Rawls v. Nozick debate regarding equality v. liberty. I think we need to adopt the third way which is also older than both: the civic republicanism that emphasizes fraternity (and sorority!), praising public life, taming the prince, empowering the the middle class, and designing institutions that enable regular accountability. That’s the political theory Madison and Hamilton inaugurated in the Federalist Papers, borrowed from Montesquieu, Machiavelli, and the old stand-by: Aristotle.
I believe President Obama has some real affinities for this style of political thinking and acting, but he’s busy trying to solve a lot of problems and the media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed, passively-consumed, administratively-governed world we inhabit has been molded to make power redistribution difficult. Moreover, this is the one job that he can’t possibly do himself, for to single-handedly modify our political institutions to make them more participatory is a performative contradiction. That’s also why I think it will be soon be time (if it’s not already too late) to move from celebration to action and critique.