So many expectations burden democracy. There are conflicting expectations of representation. Some expect democracy to represent different viewpoints or ideologies while others expect a representation of diverse groups sorted by geography, gender, race, or other characteristics. There are expectations of merit. Leaders are expected to embody personal character, virtue, and most of all, leadership. But the most fundamental of all expectations in a democracy is accountability.
No politician is perfect. Many politicians have imperfect moral characters. Some fail to provide adequate leadership. Others are ideologically ambiguous as they shift between policy positions without firm commitments. But political scientists cannot forgive incompetence. The voters are expected to demand capable government. Francis Fukuyama uses accountable governance as a euphemism for democracy. Accountable government, of course, has a broader range of possibilities beyond democracy. And yet, democratic governance is expected to be the most accountable of all forms of government.
The American political system runs counter to the expectations of political scientists. The American electorate has been willing to reelect incompetent administrators and too often refuses to hold its officials accountable for poor governance. The recent presidential election is both an exception and a demonstration of this trend. Donald Trump handled the pandemic poorly. He was hesitant to place restrictions in effect, allocate resources, or offer moral leadership. Instead, he criticized the performance of others without any offer of support or assistance. The American electorate did vote him out of office, but it was not enough to represent a reprimand. Joe Biden may have won 15 million more votes than Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump still received 11 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016.
Political scientists offer many excuses for the inability of the American electorate to hold its leaders accountable. A common explanation has been shared governance blurs the lines of responsibility. It is not clear whether the President or Congress is responsible for poor governance, so parties always have a viable claim to blame their opponents. But few consider whether accountability is simply not compatible with a thicker form of democracy.
Theories of accountable governance make the most sense in plebiscitarian democracy. Max Weber argued for a democracy where the electorate chose its leaders but allowed them to govern without interference. It is an illiberal form of democracy where the public is silenced outside of elections. The electorate was expected to behave as an impartial observer of the performance of elected officials. Plebiscitarian democracy relies on the alienation between the public and their elected leaders. But this theory of democracy does not feel democratic. The people are governed, but do not govern. Indeed, government is not by the people so much as by the officeholders the people have elected.
Reality does not respect such rigid demarcations. The alienation between the people and their officials is not as expansive as some believe nor so much as others fear. Elected officials are responsive to public opinion throughout their terms. They rarely make any decisions without consideration for its electoral implications. This is where democracy introduces a paradox. Responsive government does not produce accountable government. Politicians are responsive to voters but are rarely held accountable for poor governance.
Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life is an unusual source for answers about political theory. It is more properly a work of philosophy. The title reflects a shift in emphasis away from grand topics like politics and economics. Instead, it considers mundane aspects of life. It departs from high art to consider the importance of the ordinary. An entire chapter is devoted to “Walking in the City.” And yet, its critical insight is extraordinary. It carries broad implications for many disciplines.
De Certeau removed the distinction between production and consumption. Instead, he saw consumption as the impetus for further production. The way a person uses a finished product becomes a new form of production all on its own. People recycle symbols to add new meanings and produce new forms of expression. The truth of this insight has become increasingly apparent in the digital age. People no longer simply consume media. They transform it into memes and messages that become shared across social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Some believe social media has changed how information is digested. But social media did not create memes. It simply encouraged their proliferation through wider distribution.
The Practice of Everyday Life is reflective of the human condition and prophetic of what humanity was destined to become. It reminds me of how the internet turns consumers of media into producers of content through blogs, podcasts, and social media. Digital communication has begun to emphasize “what the consumer makes of these images.” It is not simply important whether someone consumes content. Producers hope their content will be shared, liked, and transformed through the engagement of others.
It is often taken for granted how many finished products are simply tools or ingredients for further production. People do not buy things simply for consumption, but for the creation of further forms of production. Like the ingredients of a recipe or the tools in a garage, so many consumer goods are meant to become organized, rearranged, or engaged in the creation of something unanticipated by those who supply them. The household is an overlooked source of production. The kitchen produces delicacies. The shed stores tools for repair. Everywhere work is demanded of its occupants, and yet economists speak of household consumption rather than household production.
Let’s apply these concepts to politics. Politicians produce messages for campaigns. Voters are the consumers of these messages. But there is no guarantee of how they may use them. It is up to the creative impulse of the political consumer to transform these messages into new forms of political content. Voters align themselves with political parties and ideologies. They become conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. This is not simply relevant for how they consume political content. It becomes relevant for how they transform these messages into new content. And it is not only through social media where the electorate become participants in the democratic process. Informal conversations, speeches, and volunteer activities transform voters from impartial observers into active participants.
Moreover, the role of ordinary citizens in the electoral process is not limited to elections. People share opinions and ideas throughout the year. Democracy has no time limit or expiration date. Few people abandon their political affiliations at the conclusion of an election. Their political allegiances are not tossed aside until the next election. Political opinions and interests overlap between elections. It is rare for people to change their political identity. It happens, but it is not easy nor is it simple.
Ultimately, there is little incentive for accountability in a democracy. Political scientists spend too much time focused on institutions and elites. They obscure the role of the demos. The great challenge for democratic governance is not the irrelevance or inability of the people to influence government. The challenge is the inability of the people to hold themselves accountable for the outcomes of democratic governance. Democracy is idealized as a government by the people, and yet, elites are held responsible for poor governance, gridlock, and polarization. The root of the problem is voters continue to reelect these leaders. There is little incentive for officeholders to compromise or moderate their views when the electorate continues to demand uncompromising positions.
Sometimes institutional reforms are necessary to better reflect democratic ideals. Nobody who believes in democracy will justify the disenfranchisement of women or racial minorities. These were essential reforms to the political process. But other reforms do not guarantee improvement. Maybe proportional representation is better than single member districts. But it will not matter so long as the voters do not hold themselves accountable for their government.
Accountability has become lost as politics has become more democratic. The irony is democracy has the potential to undermine accountability because the closer politics resembles democracy, the greater the responsibility is placed on the people themselves rather than their leaders. Democracy offers channels to make officeholders more responsive, but it has no checks on the people themselves. There is no avenue to hold the people accountable so there is no incentive for government to perform well.
And yet, this is not an argument against democracy. It is a challenge. I call this the Democracy Paradox. The people have always been the greatest threat to democratic governance, but they have also been the answer. Machiavelli argued governments reflected the nature of its people. Republics required a certain character, a republican virtue. He argued autocracy is not imposed but emerges from the corruption of the body politic. Anne Applebaum has recently suggested there is a “seductive lure of authoritarianism.” Democracy is difficult. So many are quick to blame our failures on a lack of democratic governance. The more disturbing reality is our political failures are from our unwillingness to live up to the obligations which democracy demands.