A Golden Age That Never Was

A Golden Age That Never Was

Downsizing Democracy: how America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public by Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, and Where Have All The Voters Gone? by Martin P. Wattenberg

Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public
by Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, 294 pp., $29.95

Where Have All the Voters Gone?
by Martin P. Wattenberg
Harvard University Press, 2002 200 pp $39.95

 

 

Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg have a creepy theory about what popular democracy is: in the nineteenth century, the powerful granted the powerless such privileges as the right to vote, civil rights, some small voice in politics, and the opportunity to buy government bonds; in return, the powerless-now classed as citizens-gratefully served in the military, paid their taxes, and allowed themselves to be administered. This is how Crenson and Ginsberg define their golden age-a time, now past, when “citizens were the backbone of the Western state, providing it with the administrative, coercive, and extractive capabilities to conquer much of the world.” It’s an unpromising way to begin a book whose title-Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public-would tempt many of us to pick up.

On this shaky foundation they propound a thesis at least a little more promising. It is that America’s elites have lately learned that they can conquer the world without bothering about citizens at all. “In one public setting after another,” Crenson and Ginsberg write, “government disaggregates the public into a mass of individual clients, consumers, and contributors,” leading to “new and nonparticipatory ways of doing business.” Elites have exploited that development to counter a structural flaw within the old model: namely, that a mobilized citizenry cannot be controlled. With pesky citizens out of the way, the powerful can defend their interests in less risky ways-in courtrooms, “by manipulating administrative procedures,” through privatization. Citizens are left subject to a “personal democracy” of individual access to government services and redress-which is, to these authors, always bad. This is a bit of a creepy theory as well. Because personal democracy is not all bad, any more than their golden age was all good.

What Crenson and Ginsberg, both Johns Hopkins professors, have produced is a series of not-so-well-linked portraits of a great number of governmental and quasi-government sieves that divert the possibility of ordinary citizens exerting influence over their workings. And it certainly can be said, to get the praise out of the way, that some of these portraits are impressive. The section on those innocent-sounding monsters called “government sponsored enterprises”-Sallie Mae, Freddie Mac, and so on-is devast...