The Man Who Knows Too Much

The Decline of Representative Democracy: Process, Participation, and Power in State Legislatures
By Alan Rosenthal
CQ Press, Washington, D.C., 1998, 369 pages.

There can’t be more than a cloakroomful of people in America who know as much as Alan Rosenthal does about our state legislatures, and thus (one would think) about the health of representative democracy in the United States. A professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers, Rosenthal has devoted his career to studying the ways and means of lawmaking bodies from Austin to Boston, from Alaska to Florida, from Rhode Island to California.

He is a regular speaker to legislative conferences and seminars, and he has worked as a paid consultant in some states, giving guidance to public officials on matters of ethics. After a stint in 1992-93 at the Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics, where he rubbed elbow patches with Harvard ethicists, he wrote a book for the Twentieth Century Fund (founded in 1919 by Edward Filene) entitled Drawing the Line: Legislative Ethics in the States.

Drawing the Line is a reasonable, even-handed, and quite useful book. Government would probably be much improved if all practicing legislators and statehouse reporters were required to read it. Now, two years later, Rosenthal is back with The Decline of Representative Democracy, which makes many of the same points he made in Drawing the Line, and yet somehow manages to be something entirely different. Where the earlier book was careful and thoughtful, the new one is unconvincing, ponderous, and even, to my mind, mildly insidious in certain ways.

One might guess from the title that Rosenthal is among the many writers and reformers who are worried about the lack of democratic vitality in today’s legislatures, or about the influence of moneyed interests and the widespread citizen alienation from politics that seems to be a direct result. But Rosenthal is not making the case for reform. In his view, our legislatures have been sufficiently repaired by a period of modernization and professionalization in the 1970s and 1980s and, in fact, are now in danger of being reformed to death.

He knows full well the public is not with him on this. A poll of Indiana citizens reported by the Indianapolis Star in 1996, he notes, showed 85 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement that in the legislature “the voices of ordinary citizens are drowned out by the influence and money of lobbyists and special interests.” Wherever he goes, he sees evidence that the public holds its legislatures in low esteem. But he finds no legitimate reasons for this. “The legislature is portrayed in the press and perceived by the public to be essentially undemocratic — unrepresentative, unresponsive, unethical, serving special interests, and controlled by a few,” he writes in The Decline of Representative Democracy. “That is not the legislature I have been observing for all these years, and it is surely not the legislature now in place. The legislature is a much more democratic institution, operating in a much more democratic environment, than is popularly conceived.”

So the good news is the bad news is wrong. Rosenthal took this tack in his earlier work (this is his fifth book on statehouse politics): “Legislatures are considerably more effective governmental institutions than they were thirty years ago,” he argued in Drawing the Line. He has consistently been willing to be a good news guy. But now he’s become a sheep in wolf’s clothing. His current book plays it both ways, making simultaneously the case that legislatures are much better than citizens realize and that representative democracy is in decline.

It sounds contradictory, but here’s how Rosenthal gets there: He makes a distinction between “participatory democracy” and traditional representative democracy. To the extent we are getting more of the former, we are weakening the latter. “Government is no longer conducted with the consent of the governed, according to the original Federalist plan,” he maintains. “It is conducted with significant participation by the governed, and by those who claim to speak for the public’s interest, according to a more populist plan.”

Yes, Americans feel they have lost control of their government, he concedes. But in reality, they have more control than ever. “The legislature and the legislative process are in the throes of greater democratization,” he writes. He cites technological change as one of the forces bringing people closer to government — the ability to send faxes and electronic messages to representatives, wider access to televised proceedings, instant polls that bring a steady stream of public opinion to elected officials.

In addition, there are more organized groups now involved in the lobbying process, many of which speak on behalf of employees or “public interest” concerns. “Efforts to limit campaign contributions from the special interests have generally achieved their objectives,” Rosenthal reports. Legislators are more independent of leadership and party control, and more attuned to constituent service. Turnover among legislators is on the rise, partly because of competitive elections and partly due to term limits, which by mid-1997 were in effect in 21 states. And when all else fails, citizens can find ways to go around the legislature — 24 states allow people to propose laws through the initiative process.

Rosenthal’s complaint: Legislatures are “more willing to do the public’s bidding.”

The result of all this citizen participation is that legislatures are more beset than ever by outside influences and are also “more willing to do the public’s bidding,” Rosenthal says. Is that such a bad thing? His answer is yes. People seem to have forgotten that representative government rests on the idea of putting decisions in the hands of representatives. Let’s let them do their work in peace, Rosenthal is suggesting.

At times, his point of view seems to rest on nostalgia. Throughout the book, Rosenthal turns to retired legislators and other old-timers to invoke a simpler, better time — a time when representative democracy was functioning well across the land. This heyday was during the 1970s and 1980s. The work of the legislature was more collegial then. Relationships among representatives, and with lobbyists, were more relaxed. “In capital after capital, one can hear veteran legislators — and even some of their juniors — lamenting, ‘It’s no fun anymore,’ ” Rosenthal writes.

Well. Nostalgia aside, it may be true that representative democracy is in decline. Many people think so, both on the inside and the outside of government. Rosenthal makes the case that the mass media do not provide an accurate picture of what legislative politics is really all about. He suggests the public does not think clearly, or think much at all, about the jobs of the legislature. Right on both counts. He is unconvincing in arguing that the influence of big money is not polluting the process, but we may at least grant that the issue isn’t as simple as most people think.

But the real problem with his line of thinking is that he surveys the sorry state of affairs and concludes the cause of it all is… democracy run rampant! It’s the old “too much democracy” problem that has long worried elites and experts. Never mind the logical inconsistency of criticizing a negligent press and an uninformed public and then moving to the idea that too many people are participating. The theory that representative democracy is in peril because of “democratization” is a theory only an embittered, tuckered-out legislator or a political scientist could believe. It defies common sense.

Yes, representative government is in peril. But the democracy itself is in peril. Schools are turning out ignoramuses with no sense of history or understanding of politics. The culture is obsessed with idiot celebrities and mindless entertainment. The commercial media are scared senseless about losing their audience. We are not a nation of readers, which means we are not a nation of thinkers. How could representative government not be taking a turn for the worse?

Now I must make a concession. I experienced cognitive dissonance with Rosenthal’s theories undoubtedly because of my own experience. The only two legislatures I’ve seen up close have been the Texas Legislature and the Massachusetts General Court. In the first case, I saw an institution almost wholly in the grip of the major industry lobbyists. In Massachusetts, the business lobby certainly knows how to throw its weight around, but the more noticeable factor is how tightly controlled the House and Senate are by their leaders. Rosenthal has seen much more than I have, but still I can’t help rejecting his central tenets that money-power and autocratic leadership are no longer serious problems.

By the final chapter of Rosenthal’s book, an explanation of his sour mood dawned on me: He’s been traumatized by California. California is clearly one of the states he knows best, and there are probably good reasons to be appalled by the state of politics there. Rosenthal is not the only critic who believes California’s initiative and petition style of government is making a mess out of things. Peter Schrag, the well-respected former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, has argued that point, and in his new book (Paradise Lost: California’s Experience and America’s Future) forecasts dire days ahead for the rest of the nation if we follow California’s lead.

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Dave Denison

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In the end, Rosenthal tries to suggest a way to avoid the further Californiazation of our politics. Term limits are not the answer. Nor is government by referendum. The solution is not endless tinkering reforms but, he says, the education of the citizens. The only problem is, Rosenthal has become such an insider in his thinking that the only way he can imagine the job is as a legislature-led campaign to get it across to the public that their representatives are not as bad as they may think. “Come on in and get to know us, and you’ll see how hard we try and why you shouldn’t expect so much.” Never for a moment is there a glimmer of recognition that such one-way communication is likely to flop.

Rosenthal concludes with these two sentences: “Legislatures have lived up to their end of a bargain with the public. It is time for the public to live up to its end.” Here I think he’s got it half-right. I would say the first sentence is false, but the second is true.