Frazier will join the law school faculty at the University of South Dakota as a Visiting Professor starting Academic Year 2023.
You work in HR at a nationwide company. Your boss tells you that a third party has volunteered to do the vast majority of your team’s work. Effective tomorrow, your sole responsibility is to decide between two candidates for the most important roles at the company and you only have to do so every two years.
Shocked at light workload, you wonder how you will spend your time in the interim. Your boss explains that between these retention decisions they will provide your team with information from the third party on the candidates -- namely, the third party will send you a never-ending stream of subjective opinions on the caliber of the candidates. “Don’t worry,” consoles your boss. They let you know that the third party has assured the company’s leadership that they will filter out any undeserving candidates, so your actual influence over the decision is quite limited.
Some of your team members accept this new assignment but pledge that they will conduct their own research on the candidates. They develop extensive dossiers, conduct background checks, and analyze the credentials of each candidate. Then, a few weeks before the retention decisions they share these packets with the rest of the team. Most recipients barely glance at them. A few read the packets cover to cover. Yet, the information provided by the third party always proves most influential.
Other team members realize the company really doesn’t need them, so they just stop participating in the retention decisions. Sure enough, no one really notices and the company keeps them on payroll. A handful of the team think these laggards should be required to participate -- after all, they argue, these folks bring important perspectives to the process. A few branches of the company tried mandatory participation way back at its founding, but leadership later felt this sort of mandate was not inline with corporate culture. So rather than demand their participation, the company simply hopes other team members will peer pressure the non-participants into doing their jobs -- it’s a strategy that works on just a few of them.
Despite all the complaints about this process and suggestions for reform, the company has maintained for centuries. From time to time, leadership has implemented marginal reforms but the company’s desired outcome -- the election of the candidates favored by the third party -- occurs nearly 100% of the time.
Does this sound problematic? It should. And it should sound a lot like the sorry excuse for democratic participation we, the people, have accepted.
Vibrant and strong democracies do not allow the people to outsource their civic duties. Yet, Americans have become the democratic equivalent of the guy at work who sits on their butt and lets others pick up their slack -- consequences be damned. Not only is the system flawed -- calling on we, the people, to make choices between candidates and issues that reflect the will of companies, special interests, and parties more so than Average Joe and Normie Jane, the suggested reforms are also inadequate given the scale of the issues with the health of our democracy -- making it marginally easier for people to vote through mail-in ballots, for example, results in a marginal increase in turnout of about two percentage points.
If this we, the people, are not quite ready to abandon elections - despite them resulting in horse-race journalism rather than coverage of the news, campaigns funded by corporations and billionaires, and unqualified candidates being selected by an unrepresentative set of voters - they we ought to explore reforms reflective of the severity of our democratic inactivity. Universal voting seems best suited to respond to the issues posed by a lackadaisical population of eligible voters.
If, however, the people decide it is time to really kick the tires and begin experimenting with new forms of democratic participation meant to complement elections, then we should adopt a slew of deliberative democracy tools on a trial basis. At the heart of deliberative democracy lies the idea that true democracy cannot occur where participants have unequal political power -- such as through economic wealth or amplification of their priorities by third parties. These deliberative tools come in many forms but, per James Fishkin, require providing participants with quality and balanced information, ensuring the representativeness of participants, creating a process in which participants thoroughly weigh the merits of proposals and candidates, and giving all participants equal political power.
If your boss cut your job responsibilities in half, but stressed that your title and pay would remain the same, you’d likely respond, “That’s too good to be true!” And you’d be right. You cannot effectively do your job in HR or in our democracy if others take charge of the core responsibilities of what it means to be a good employee or good democratic participant.