David Frum

02.08.12

A New Theory of Democracy

Does modern science require us to change our understanding of how society works?

Noah Kristula-Green and I recently enjoyed a very challenging and stimulating interview with two smart political and economic liberals, Nicholas Hanauer and Eric Liu. Hanauer and Liu have written a brace of books offering their vision of a regenerated politics. Noah offers this appraisal and assessment, which I know will interest Daily Beast readers:

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Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer want to change the way Americans think about politics, and they want to do this with a new metaphor to describe how governance should work. This is the premise behind their new book, The Gardens of Democracy: that Americans politics can be greatly improved if we can agree that the country is like a garden.

Real gardens need to be tended to and cared for, but they are also alive and must be left alone to actually grow. Liu and Hanauer see a similar way to govern America: tend to the big objectives (for example, creating a green energy industry) and make sure the garden has no weeds, but don't try to micromanage each individual.

Liu and Hanauer write their book from the left-hand side of politics but are the arguments in this book applicable to both sides of the spectrum? Or will the right find this view completely objectionable? While the book makes its argument from a strong liberal and progressive background, this does not mean conservatives and the center-right have no claim to these ideas.

The metaphor that America is like a garden is not a gimmick, but powerful refutation of neoclassical economics. If you think that human beings are atomized individuals who only make rational decisions in a marketplace with the goal of maximizing their utility, Liu and Hanauer will not only disagree, they will argue that science has proven that view to be wrong.

Gardens of Democracy is like a Cliff Notes for the major advancements in social science that have occurred in the modern era. Liu and Hanauer are interested in presenting readers with summaries of major research that has occurred to justify their view that humans are much more social and co-dependent then we previously assumed.

The book provides quick overviews of where the research has lead us. (David Brooks The Social Animal is summed up as about how "Behavior is contagious, often unconsciously and unpredictably so." The field of behavioral science is described as "pulling us back to common sense and reminding us that people are often irrational to at least a-rational and emotional.") These summaries are short but the book does provides a reading list to set you up for further independent research.

So the question for the American right is, do you buy the premise and then argue over the implementation, or do you refute the premise entirely?

In some ways, the view that we are a deeply interconnected people is already conservative. Consider what might currently the best conservative defense of this perspective; Judge Silberman's ruling for the DC appellate court arguing that the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate is constitutional. Here is one of his most important arguments:

The right to be free from federal regulation is not absolute, and yields to the imperative that Congress be free to forge national solutions to national problems.

Silberman's argument is simple, Congress needs the right to attempt big solutions for the good of the nation. You can disagree over what those solutions should be, but can't disagree that sometimes, there are large collective action problems that must be solved.

It should come as no surprise that this argument has been attacked by a conservative movement which rejects this view. The Weekly Standard made a typical argument against this view:

"the ruling highlights how difficult it is to avoid the conclusion that Obamacare clearly violates the Constitution’s plain language. It showcases that the only way that such a determination can be reached is by subscribing to an expansive, Progressive reading of the Constitution that effectively transforms the document’s limited and circumscribed grants of power into an overarching power to do essentially anything that those in office think should be done. "

This debate will be conclusively decided in June of this year when the Supreme Court finally weights in, but it is going to be hard for conservatives to engage with the arguments in Gardens when they reject its fundamental premise. According to a conservative movement that sees the 10th Amendment as the final word for all problems: if America is a garden, there can't be a national gardener. At most you can have 50 individual gardeners at must who tend to their own plots of land but who can't do anything when they see that some patches are worse off than others.

Liu and Hanauer provocatively argue that adapting our governance to reflect what science now tells us is keeping within the spirit of America's founding. They cite a particularly helpful quote from the Jefferson Memorial to help make this point:

[Laws] and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change … We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain in ever under the segment of their barbarous ancestors.

It should not be impossible for conservatism to integrate what the latest science has revealed is true. For example, the understanding that we are a highly inter-connected society plays very strongly into traditional conservative preference for stronger local governance. The later chapters of Gardens of Democracy champion this view very well:

Government, as it has developed, too often drains first the incentive and then the capacity of groups of people to address the problems on a human scale. … One needn't be Newt Gingrich to ask why progressives can't foster more nongovernmental networks. Progressives say "it takes a village," but then too often rely on an agency.

While I didn't see Liu and Hanauer cite the work of Phillip Blond, there is definitely a strong strain of Red-Toryism in the sections that talk about empowering civic society:

Think about a dilapidated city block, with boarded-up buildings, litter, and graffiti. Rather than wait for the municipal government to fix it up, what if neighbors—using tools (both digital and physical) and some funding from the city—organized to fix it up themselves?

Liu and Hanauer have a policy agenda but they are more interested in getting Americans to adopt their metaphor. They would rather that we agree that our inherent interconnectedness requires us to cooperate, then we can then argue over how to achieve the best results.

So it is discouraging that conservatives may not even want to take the first step down that path. Consider the case study of the Race to the Top program. Race to the Top was a series of grants given by the Department of Education to states which were willing to reform their school systems. The program is a favorite of Liu and Hanauer's; the Government sets a broad goal but states had to experiment and compete to get the funding. The program also appealed to conservatives since the government rewarded states which passed laws to support charter schools (not a favorite policy of the teachers unions.)

And yet Texas Governor Rick Perry rejected the offer to participate in the program. His argument was very distressing:

If Washington were truly concerned about funding education with solutions that match local challenges, they would make the money available to states with no strings attached. 

Since when was money without standards or accountability conservative? This man, for a short time in the summer of 2011, was seen as the strongest anti-Romney candidate and his book Fed Up! accurately captured the mood of the Tea Party movement.

Liu and Hanauer have proposed a powerful new way to think about how society works and there is a lot here for conservatives to work with and debate. It will be to the detriment of the American right's ability to govern if rigid ideology means it can't even engage with these ideas.

—Noah Kristula-Green