Alan Wolfe

Does American Democracy Still Work?

VTR Date: December 7, 2006

Dr. Alan Wolfe discusses "the new politics of democracy."


GUEST: Alan Wolfe
VTR: 12/07/2006

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and today our conversation concerns another in the Yale University Press “Future of American Democracy” series edited by Norton Garfinkle.

My guest is Alan Wolfe, professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, and his agenda of concern is perhaps best identified in the very chapter headings of “Does American Democracy Still Work?” his new book.

Let me list those headings for you:

“Democracy Without Information”….”Democracy Without Accountability” …. “Democracy Without Institutions” …. “Democracy Without Disinterest” and …. “Democracy Without Justice.”

And then let me ask Dr. Wolfe whether these make up what he now calls “the new politics of democracy”. Do they, Dr.Wolfe?

WOLFE: Yes, what I tried to do with these chapter headings is really to kind of give an overview of what I see as some of the ways of tackling the question of how well American democracy is working.

The things that you mentioned, Richard … information, accountability, disinterest, justice … these have always been part of a, of a well functioning democracy. And my, my goal is to evaluate the status of our democracy according to these criteria.

HEFFNER: And if we start with information … how well off are we?

WOLFE: Well, information is something that political scientists have been studying for years and the conclusion ever varies. Americans don’t know that much about politics. This has been true … go back to the 19th century … you know, maybe even at the time of the Founding … although even then … probably out, you know, in most quarters of America, people didn’t know much about what was going on. This has just been a basic fact. We’ve never had that much information.

But I go … I argue in the book that for a long period of time, until relatively recently, the fact that Americans didn’t know much about politics really didn’t matter that much because we had a two party system and we had a kind of consensus building mechanisms. And so most politicians … Conservative or Liberal, Democratic or Republican, they wound up in the middle. And most Americans are in the middle.

They may not know much, but their instincts are moderate. They take the middle position on every issue. So, if people take the middle position, the politicians too, you’re not harmed by the lack of ignorance.

What I’m calling the new politics of democracy, however, is very different. In this kind of environment politicians are very extremist, much more so. And they’re not interested in consensus, they’re interested in their own partisan … strengthening their own partisan base. And under those circumstances, the public’s lack of information really harms it.

HEFFNER: You’re saying then, if I understand you correctly … we have to guard ourselves against our political people.

WOLFE: It’s really remarkable that we do. I, I’ve … I can’t remember a time quite like this, when, in the aftermath of the November 2006 election, when the public chose the Democratic Party to represent them in both houses of Congress. That election was widely taken to mean that the President’s policies in Iraq were wrong and needed to be changed.

And then you had the most amazing thing. You had a Commission established by Congress of the establishment from both parties. And it was like they were trying to control the President of the United States, which, of course, they needed to do because the President of the United States was out of control.

He wasn’t listening to the result of the election. He never has really expressed much interest in what the opposition party thinks. This is an amazing thing where, where you need to establish a mechanism to bring democracy back to make it work again.

HEFFNER: The people … yes. The people shall judge. The people shall rule?

WOLFE: (Laughter) It is a … for all the faults of the public’s lack of information in the past … democracy still is the best form of government … because, you know, as I said … if I were to sort of give a quiz to the American people … about “Who’s your Congressman?” and, you know, so on. I wouldn’t get very good answers. In fact, one of the most remarkable answers of all is that a group … a representative sample of young people … 18 to 21 were asked which party controlled Congress. Now there are only two parties. So …by pure chance … you’d do 50/50. Well their answers were actually lower than that. (Laughter) Lower than by pure chance.

So, you know, you ask people factual information … you’ve got a problem. But if you go out and you ask people about their moral sense, about, you know, what they think about complicated issues of the day … abortion, the War in Iraq, Social Security and so on … gay marriage … a lot of them … by and large they’re pretty sensible, they’re pretty thoughtful.

Doesn’t mean they agree with my positions, but I think they’re pretty thoughtful. So what we need is a, is a system that allows that allows that kind of sensibility to flourish. And, and that happens, I think, when you have a system that encourages a kind of consensus form in politics.

When you have ideological politics that doesn’t happen at all, you get polarization. You actually sort of instead of lack of information … being a kind of background condition, it, it gets foreground. Politicians try to take advantage of it, they try to manipulate it. And, and that I think we’ve seen can be very, very dangerous.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting … there was a time, not all that many decades ago, when so many political scientists said, the problem was tweedle dee and tweedle dum …

WOLFE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: The problem was we needed to have a split and be able to choose from extremes. Have you ever felt that way?

WOLFE: I probably, in my more radical youth may have felt that way. But I’ve come to really appreciate the benefits of a political system in which political parties obviously should be partisan, they definitely should be. They should have ideologies; there are Liberals, there are Conservatives, they have different views, they should argue with one another. But what I think we see increasingly is people who put their partisanship and, to some degree, their ideology ahead of their country, ahead of everything. And that’s, I think … that reminds me, at least of some of the experiments in Europe that failed so badly where you got these intense kinds of polarization, which I think are, are ultimately very dangerous for democracy.

HEFFNER: Are they moving … are others outside the United States moving more toward the consensus politics?

WOLFE: Consensus politics has always been very strong in European countries because they have a completely different structure of government. So you have multi-party systems and you have proportional representation, governing coalitions. You almost never … in any country … have one party having more than 50% of the vote. So, it’s built in.

We have a winner-take-all system and that does create a, a different dynamic … this is just not a problem for other countries.

HEFFNER: Information. A democracy can’t function without people being well informed, though you say in the past, in a sense it didn’t make all that much difference.

WOLFE: It didn’t in the past. It’s making a lot … it’s causing us a lot of problems now. As I say, when, when, when leaders … we recognize, really, in new techniques, focus groups, new techniques/media management … which enable them to manipulate public ignorance to a, to a much greater degree than ever before.

HEFFNER: But the phrase “dumbing down” seems to apply to America just at the time you seem to feel we need to be moving in exactly the opposite direction.

WOLFE: Well … you know … ahhhh … I, I’m not much for making harsh critiques of the American public. I, I spend a lot of time … I try to spend a lot of time out there in the heartland of America and I, I really have come to respect Americans. But factual knowledge is not high.

Let me give you another example. I do … a lot of my work involves American religion. You know and we’re constantly told what a religious country we are and how evangelical Christians, you know, are Bible believers … they read the Bible.

Well, you know, I’d love it if they read the Bible, frankly, because at least they’d be reading one good book. Ten per cent of Americans think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. I mean …this is … we have the same choices …

HEFFNER: She wasn’t?

WOLFE: (Laughter) We have the same kind of lack of knowledge about religion … what’s in the Old Testament, what’s in the New Testament. Let alone what are Muslims and what do they believe in, you know … then as we do in politics.

HEFFNER: Then … wither democracy?

WOLFE: Well, information, of course, is only one. As you said, I talk about accountability … in the book …

HEFFNER: What do you mean by “accountability”?

WOLFE: Well accountability is really what democracy is ultimately about; it’s the idea that leaders have to be accountable to the people they represent. And, again, there are structural problems in our democracy that have always been there.

The Senate, for example, has two members from every State, which gives Wyoming an awful lot more representation than New York. So that’s a kind of flaw of accountability. But we can live with that, that’s always been there, you know, and, and we’ve become much more adjusted to it.

What’s new in American politics is the fact that we have such techniques available to incumbent politicians to kind of protect their office, by redistricting, by certain kinds of financial advantages they have. So that the number of actually competitive seats … where, where politicians are held accountable to each other … has been declining drastically.

Now fortunately in November 2006 many more seats were in play than had been in the last three or four elections which enabled the Democrats to take over.

But even with all these new seats in play, we’re nowhere near what was true in the 1960s and 1970s, you know when about a quarter of the seats in Congress were competitive. Now we’re down to about 10% of the actual seats in Congress are competitive. That, that isn’t much of a democracy in, in terms of promoting accountability because the theory is that if there’s a chance that you’ll be voted out of office by the other party, you’ve got to take the public’s views into account. If you know your seat is safe then there’s no accountability.

HEFFNER: What’s the remedy for that? Although nobody every said there’s an answer to every question.

WOLFE: Well, you know, the remedy is … I, I believe that when politicians try to protect their office people should, you know, pay more attention, learn more and do something about it. And as I said, the 2006 election was an encouraging sign because many … see … I mean the man who engineered the decline of accountability in American politics, Tom DeLay, former Majority Leader from Texas … even his seat turned over to the Democrats. So these, these were positive signs that even the people who rig elections ultimately are held accountable, we just need a lot more of it.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting … immediately after the election of 2006 … I was in despair and my wife was furious with me because she said, “Look the Democrats have won” (assuming that we’re a united couple) and found that of advantage to Americans.

I was impressed or depressed by the fact that it … there wasn’t a sweep despite the condition …

WOLFE: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … of the country.

WOLFE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Despite the impact of the war. There wasn’t the kind of Congressional district by Congressional district sweep that one might have anticipated. And I wondered what that tells us …

WOLFE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … about the American people.

WOLFE: Well, I had very much the same reaction. I was pleased with the results, not because I’m a Democrat, although I am … but because it was … it seemed to me to be very bad to have a situation in which the Presidency, both Houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, were all under the control of the same party. So I was glad to see checks and balances restored. And, you know, I felt very good after the election, like your wife.

But I understand your question fully. I mean we actually had a major Constitutional crisis leading up to the election of 2006. The most secretive government we’ve ever had. A government which had created a, a mind boggling disaster in Iraq … but even more than that, we had suspension of habeas corpus … one of the most fundamental principles of American democracy. We had attacks on, on a free press, it really looked for a while there, as if we were going to lose some of the most precious and the most time honored freedoms that Americans have had. And, and we have lost some of them. And in the context of that, I still remain, after 2006 is long gone, still remain concerned.

I mean suppose “mission had been accomplished”, suppose when the President went on that aircraft carrier … Abraham Lincoln with that banner … I found that a very chilling banner … and, and celebrating his victory. I mean suppose it had all gone well … we, I think, would have had a very, very serious crisis in our democracy. So to some degree voters did, what I think was a very good and very helpful thing for democracy, by voting a new party in. But, boy, it makes you wonder, what does it take … in terms of a crisis to produce that result?

HEFFNER: It’s interesting … over the years at this table when guests have basically said ay de mi, have been very pessimistic and disturbed … and then would go no further. After the program, off the air … and I would say, “Well, how do you think this could possibly change?” They’ve talked about other catastrophes … a major war or a major depression as the only way they would see that a fundamental change would be brought about. You’re too optimistic to say that.

WOLFE: I’m very optimistic and always have been about this country. I think that there are always news sources of political energy in the country. I’m … personally one of the greatest stories in American history has never changed, and that’s the story of immigrants coming to this country and revitalizing it with new ideas. I think that’s still going on. In America I think we’re a country of just incredible dynamism.

As someone who spends a lot of time in Europe and, you know, where, you know, they hate our, our President in Europe, they hate him like no other President in American history has ever been hated, as far as I can tell, I always feel that it’s my job to defend the country, to defend America and what it stands for, which I still believe is a vibrant and wonderful dream.

I still, you know, would rather be here than in any other country that I know of. But, we have had bad leadership.

HEFFNER: Well, then let’s …

WOLFE: And that is a problem.

HEFFNER: … let’s move on to some of these other points. Let me just pick …

WOLFE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … maybe we’ll cover them all and maybe we won’t. Democracy without disinterest?

WOLFE: Well, that’s the one I didn’t expect … to know immediately what I meant, so I’m glad you asked. But “disinterest” or impartiality are, are simply terms for expressing a moral point of view. We have this going back to, I think the greatest moral thinker in the Western tradition … Emmanuel Kant. And it goes right up until contemporary political philosophy. The moral decisions are decisions that are just because they’re taken based upon the sense that “there but for the grace of God, go I”. That you never know what position you’re going to be in, in the future and therefore you have to make decisions based upon a kind of ignorance of how things are eventually going to turn out.

Impartiality is the opposite of self-interest. You know we’ve always been told by the economists that everything is run by self-interest. Impartiality is, in my view, a much better ideal than self-interest.

And our democracy has had many institutions that are designed to promote the idea that there’s always a judge, there’s always an “impartial spectator”, as Adam Smith called it. It could be the media, it could be the social science community, it could be judges themselves, but you always need people who’ll be above the fray, that everyone can trust.

And my chapter “Democracy Without Impartiality” is about how that idea of disinterest, of trusteeship, of, of people who are above the fray, has been in severe decline in the United States. You can see it in the judiciary, which has become one of the most politicized aspects of American government, where ideology is the only thing that goes into a decision about whether a judge will get approved.

We’ve lost the sense that judges like Felix Frankfurter and others have long stood for … Benjamin Cardozo … all … a number of great judges, that they could be impartial and really administer justice that way.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting you use the word, “trusteeship” because that does seem to spot it, identify it, so well, if one were thinking of elder wise men … be hard to find today. The …

WOLFE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … recent Commission on Iraq …


HEFFNER: … presumably was drawing upon such. They paled contrasted … in large part … contrasted with years before when we could look to major figures …

WOLFE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … what does that indicate?

WOLFE: Well, you know, to some degree, what we’re talking about here. I like the word “trustee” I’m glad you picked up on that. There’s another word that I like, but I generally find that every time I use it, people hate it … but that’s the word “elite”. You know, elite to me is not a bad word. It’s another … it’s another word for leadership that we’re talking about when we talk about impartiality … we’re essentially talking about an elite, a people who are knowledgeable, people who are experts.

They’re not democratically chosen, generally speaking. One of the great tensions in our democracy is the tension between populism and elitism.

And I think our democracy is working very well because it’s becoming increasingly populistic. But it’s not working well because we’re losing this sense that you need leadership. It’s an odd thing, but I can argue it at great length in my book … what a friend of mine, John Judas … another author has called the paradox of American democracy … that you have to have strong “elites” to make democracy work.

If you manage it well, you get the best of both popular input and leadership. And I feel that if you look, not only in politics, but in religion, in the academic world, in the military … leadership is increasingly hard to find. And, and, and I’d like to see more of it, frankly.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that you see that we are becoming aware of that lack of an elite …

WOLFE: MmmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … group. Because like you … I like that word.

WOLFE: Well you mentioned the Baker/Hamilton Commission which was set up in the wake of the 2000 election to give guidance on Iraq. And that certainly was an effort in that direction. Former Secretaries of State, former Secretaries of Defense. So we clearly understand the need at some points in time to have that kind of elite leadership.

I mean look at the people who were on that Commission … James Baker has never been elected to any public office. He embodies that idea, although he’s pretty partisan. He also embodies that idea of leadership. I have no way of knowing whether that Commission will be successful. I do know, however, the fact that we had to establish one suggests to me that we recognize that things have gotten so out of control that somebody had to stand in and say, as Congressman … former Congressman Lee Hamilton, the Co-Chair of the Commission said, that the ship of state is running into dangerous waters. And when that happens you need a good Admiral, and we need good leadership.

HEFFNER: Well we’re, we’re taping this program at a time marking Pearl Harbor Day …

WOLFE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: December 7th. I don’t feel that inappropriate to, to indicate and to see how, what your reaction is … a very, very strange feeling that the objective of this Commission, coming at a time when we no longer believe in Blue Ribbon Commissions …

WOLFE: MmmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … I mean talk about “elite” …


HEFFNER: … we, we had a title for that ..


HEFFNER: … sort of thing. Is not going to be able to provide the kind of cover …

WOLFE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … for a Presidential move because the President isn’t going to move. How do you feel about that?

WOLFE: Well, by the time the show is aired, I’m sure we’ll probably have an answer to that …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

WOLFE: … but …

HEFFNER: Making you a prophet now.

WOLFE: … you know, I, I think we’re seeing both things. I think we’re seeing the absolute, essential need for a bi-partisan Blue Ribbon Commission, but I also think we, we’re understanding that you can only go so far with such a Commission. That if you have an obstinate man as President … he, he can ignore him.

Now, you know, I hope that whatever happens with respect to this specific Commission, I hope for a successful outcome because I think that that would then remind us of the need for such Commissions … of the need for such leadership. So that maybe in the future we’ll avoid the kind of disaster that the War in Iraq turned out to be.

HEFFNER: Well, we, we’ve heard a lot about deregulation … it’s a mantra … deregulation, deregulation, deregulation …

WOLFE: Right.

HEFFNER: It seems to be to be part and parcel of what you’re talking about. We see no way to have an elite, to have those who could form Blue Ribbon Commissions …

WOLFE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … to guide us, to direct us.


HEFFNER: Now, this is, in a sense the populist tradition in America.

WOLFE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Isn’t it?

WOLFE: Right. It is and as I said, I think you need both. I mean I can’t let this opportunity go by without saying that, in the past when we had strong, elite leadership they frequently made mistakes. In New York City the Ford Foundation tried to play a role in promoting school integration in Brooklyn that turned out to be a disaster. That was an example.

Or John Lindsay, the former Mayor of New York represented this kind of elite leadership … and he, you know, by all accounts now, I think, is viewed as not a very successful Mayor. So that patrician tradition can do very, very good things, but it also can make mistakes.

HEFFNER: Well, then, how do you pick and choose?

WOLFE: Well …

HEFFNER: As you guide your students?

WOLFE: … well, I think, you know, I’m struck by what we have here with the War in Iraq, which is such a turning point in our history. Here you had people and, you know, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, and, you know, and all their staffs. These are bright men. They really are. They’re very bright. These are very effective political operators. They really know how to manage levers of government and make it work. They’re smart as hell, you couldn’t get better kinds of politicians, they’re very, very successful … they’re workaholics. They had all the requirements of leadership except one … they were absolutely wrong. They were just wrong. Wrong about what they chose. So let’s not forget that, that one of the key ingredients of any kind of leadership is getting things right. And in this case, this example of bad leadership … I am thoroughly convinced came from the fact that for all their skills, they were ideologues. They put an ideology first and facts second. And you generally get it right when you put facts first, and your ideology second.

HEFFNER: We have a minute and a half left. Which of the other sine qua nons would you, would you choose to say “You can’t have democracy without …?”

WOLFE: Well, justice … not only in the sense of impartiality, but in the sense that everybody participates in the system and everybody can contribute to a political system … is enormously important and we’ve seen terrible examples of growing inequality in the United States.

HEFFNER: Then you mean “social justice”.

WOLFE: I mean social justice. I mean equality, I mean greater equality. Because a democracy should take advantage of the strengths of everyone. And when you make conditions of life better for the worst among you, you’re not taking from the rich to give to the poor … you’re strengthening the hand of everyone in society so that they can contribute. You weaken society through growing inequality. You weaken justice through growing inequality.

HEFFNER: What’s your prophecy? Given all of these items …

WOLFE: I’m not …

HEFFNER: … that you …

WOLFE: I try to speak in a prophetic voice, but I cannot make … I cannot make predictions. But, you know, so much is going to depend upon whether we can extricate ourselves from Iraq in a way that minimizes some of the real dangers of … wars have a tendency on the one hand that they can really bring out the best in a country, but the can also bring out the worst in a country. It’s really up to all of us, I think, to recognize that the one great lesson of the Bush Administration, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. The one great lesson is it really matters who’s President. It really matters. You’ve got to take this stuff seriously because it’s going to affect your life.

HEFFNER: Professor Wolfe, I appreciate you’re joining me today and it’s clear that your answer to your question “Does American democracy still work” is “Yes.”


HEFFNER: But we’ve got to do certain things.

WOLFE: Much better. We could make it much better. Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.