Monday, November 27, 2006

Elections, Power Brokers, and Oligarchs

Ernie Cortes critiques the marketing ploys that election campaigns like the one just passed have become. He also grieves the loss among average citizens of the "skills of public life," like debate and compromise, which were once taught in "mediating institutions," like schools, unions, settlement houses, congregations, and other community centers. Campaign experts and power brokers fill the void left in their absence. In essence, what replaces democratic civic relationships is an oligarchy dependent on special interests, which are most skilled at mobilizing money and a critical mass of a cross-section of voters driven by single-issues rather than a general interest in democratic discourse.

Never was this more true locally than when the property tax referendum amendment was shepherded by Ben Cunningham and the Tennessee Tax Revolt. Cunningham's political skills have lead to his coming out as a media darling; and a sure sign of his arrival was the recent fawning editorial by Liz Garrigan in the so-called "alt-weekly" Nashville Scene. Garrigan goes all but ga ga over Cunningham's personal financing of his single-issue campaign, even as she quotes critics. But can we continue to call a rag "alternative" when it treats deep pockets and personal campaign financing as some kind of virtue?

The ability to increase one's own campaign is no virtue, especially absent questions of the virtue of the campaign. And in democracies, campaigns absent mediating institutions that foster democratic habits of debate and compromise have no democratic virtue. Cunningham confuses (as does Garrigan) direct democracy with a popular referendum. The two are not necessarily synonymous; they, in fact, contradict one another, given Cortes's proposed vacuum. And our mediating institutions are either under attack (unions and public schools), extinct (settlement houses), or abdicating their roles to oligarchies (congregations).

Direct democracy worked in ancient Greece with cities that only numbered in the tens of thousands and when quorums of 6,000 people were required to conduct city business. But when the modern Metropolis numbers ten times the typical ancient polis, indirect democracy--reliant on mediating institutions rather than on polls and their pollsters--is infinitely more progressive and enlightened. Direct democracy in cosmopolitan, anonymous societies is not only impossible, it twists itself into a staged reality show, the realm of oligarchs and charlatans. And the polls are mere snapshots of peoples' attitudes absent any debate, negotiation or compromise. Polls have less to do with democracy and more to do with marketing and money (thus, Cunningham's $4,000 contribution); and in this hackable age, polls have more to do with ill-gotten access.

Confusing direct democracy with shallow popularity contests, as Garrigan does, confuses the issue, even when journalists are supposed to be clarifying it. The people don't rule when we have oligarchs paying and vying for media attention. The experts do. A broker-elite capitalizes hot button issues, like the general ambivalence toward taxes, and they put together enough of a plurality through petitions to drive wedge issues into the democratic process. That is a poor substitute for democratic habits of face-to-face conversation and mutual decision-making.

In the end, our democracy will not work unless we rebuild the infrastructure of mediating institutions that make for metropolitan democracy. Absent civic institutions, Cunningham's referendum insures that all future property tax debates will be co-opted by oligarchs with the deepest pockets and the most mobilizable mobs. They won't be settled democratically by debate or in the best interest of the general public, and they won't be informed by the mainstream media.


  1. The Scene is "alternative" because it's not an old Republican paper, it's a Young Republican paper.

  2. Deep pockets? Cunningham spent $4000. The opposition didn't organize, so they officiallly spent nothing, but the Tennessean ran several articles discussing how bad the idea was - negative publicity easily worth more than the relatively small amount, politically speaking, that Cunningham put into it.

    As for the complaint that the charter change means that "all future property tax debates will be co-opted by oligarchs with the deepest pockets and the most mobilizable mobs," you write well, but where are your facts to sustain your assertion?

    ALL of Colorado's counties and municipalities have been required to hold referenda on tax increases for more than a decade, and also referenda on bond debt increases and on the spending of surplus tax revenue instead of rebating it to taxpayers.

    Well more than 1,000 such referenda have been held, and over half the time the people vote for higher taxes, for higher government bond debt, and for allowing their local government to spend surplus tax revenue surplus rather than return it to taxpayers via rebates or tax rate cuts.

    That's right - over half the time, the people vote for higher taxes and bigger government spending.

    And has this put deep-pocketed oligarchs in charge in Colorado's cities and towns? Well, no. What it has done is involve the people more directly in fiscal decisions, and that has lead to a more informed electorate as the municipal and county elected officials who wish to increase taxes or spend extra funds or increase bond debt spend a lot more time and effort to explain their proposals and the reason for them to the people who must foot the bill.

    Over half the time, they are successful in convincing the voters of the need for higher taxes and bigger government spending.

    One example: A few years ago, the people of Castle Rock, Colorado, a well-off Brentwood-like Denver suburb, and a Republican stronghold, had to chose between getting a $1,000 per household tax rebate or letting the government spend the money to build new fire halls, a new park, etc.

    The public was well-informed by media and by the supporters of the spending proposal, and in the end had to decide if they thought that was a good use of their money.

    How did they vote?

    It doesn't matter. The point is they had a public debate over the future of their town and how the government should spend their money, and then they voted. Castle Rock didn't collapse, it wasn't taken over by oligarchs, and the community was not damaged by the process.

    Just as the people across Colorado have done in more than a thousand local referenda over the past decade-plus.

    Colorado is a living laboratory for how provisions such as the new Nashville charter change actually work in real life. The evidence shows that they actually work very well.

    Last year Colorado voters voted to forego tax rebates due them for the next five years under the statewide version of the same law - after a very public debate over the merits of the proposal.

    It's yet another piece of evidence that such direct-democracy provisions regarding fiscal matters work - and that people won't always vote for lower taxes and lower spending, even though anti-tax advocates who wrote the provisions wish they would.

    Will Nashvillians ever vote for higher property tax rates? The broad and deep data from Colorado indicates it is a distinct possibility.

  3. I'll be happier when the majority of Nashville is as smart as the people in Colorado. But I;m not holding my breath.