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Democracy: It's Complicated.

Osita Nwanevu
8 min read
Democracy: It's Complicated.

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.


Last week, I finished and turned in about half of my book on democracy ⁠— about 42,500 words, about 160 pages ⁠—  which should be out sometime in 2024. What that means logistically for the newsletter is that I should get back to putting it out on a more regular and frequent schedule; I appreciate your continued patience and interest. What it means content-wise is that I’ll probably be putting in more bits and pieces of what I’ve been working on and thinking about into these posts when they seem relevant to whatever’s going on in the news.

For those who don’t know already, I’m writing about democracy ⁠— what it means philosophically and how we might better instantiate democratic principles in our politics and in our economy. This is my first book and I’m really being led by the hand through the whole process, but I’ve heard and have reason to believe that the first portion of a book like this is generally the hardest, even for people who know what they’re doing. It’s often more difficult than you expect to translate your careful notes and outlining into prose, it can take a while to settle on the appropriate tone, and so on. What was doubly difficult about writing this first half was that it’s very abstract ⁠— the idea is to give readers a primer of sorts on democratic theory before moving into the second half’s critique of American political and economic institutions.

The idea underpinning the project is that we’re not encouraged, in this country, to think about what democracy actually means from first principles. We argue intensely about what the Founders intended. We parse, or pretend to parse, the Constitution’s text because we care, or pretend to care, what it says and instructs us to do. But thinking about what the Founders wanted or what the Constitution demands interests me less ⁠— as a writer and as a citizen ⁠— than thinking about what democracy itself asks of us. As I’ve already argued in previous writing, it should be plain now that making “American democracy” real will mean jettisoning the Founders and the Constitution they freighted us with in a distant future we should be working towards. I’m far from the first to say so; it’s been a real joy, as I’ve worked on this, to come across other theorists and thinkers, old and new, who’ve either found their way to the same conclusion or further broadened my understanding of what democracy could mean.

But explaining and analyzing their ideas in terms accessible to the general audience I'm hoping to reach has been hard work. One of the ironies of democratic theory as a discipline is that its academics are quite good at defending the capacities and intelligence of ordinary people in language ordinary people cannot understand and in spaces that ordinary people cannot access. If we’re going to mount an intellectual defense of democratic principles capable of sustaining the right’s onslaught and shifting the political and economic landscape of this country to the benefit of the masses, we’ll need to pull that material out of the Ivory Tower and translate it into workable political rhetoric.

That impulse sits next to ⁠— and in some tension with ⁠—  my commitment to precision and clarity, both in my own head and on the page. Democratic theory is genuinely complicated; there are ways that well-meaning people talk about concepts like majority rule in particular that elide conceptual difficulties and practical concerns that matter. What’s more, values that we might offhandedly think of as democratic ⁠— participation, representation, deliberation ⁠— don’t necessarily mesh well together, and people who care about democracy can clash bitterly on which values should take precedence and on specific points of institutional design.

We see those competing values at work in our discourses about community input and development projects. I haven’t really been too engaged in the NIMBY-YIMBY wars of the past few years mostly because I honestly don’t think there’s all that much to sensibly fight about. We need more housing, period ⁠— by hook or by crook, public or private, whatever politics and the policy space allow ⁠— and I think just about everyone serious in these debates agrees that displays like this recent meeting in a Baltimore neighborhood called Hampden stand in the way of making housing more affordable:

The old Freestate Book Bindery at 3110 Elm Avenue is being redeveloped into a new apartment complex. The plan is to create a six story building with 151 units and at least 155 parking spots inside the complex, which is one spot per unit.
Hampden residents say that amount of parking is not enough, because nowadays each household has about two cars, and they worry the limited parking in the complex will push people onto the streets where neighbors already fight for spots.
"I mean there's consequences to making things that dense and that populated. That's my big concern I can tell you right now, from 7am to 7pm if I sit on my porch, there's hundreds people that go by in cars. Parking is going to be tight," said one person.
[...] Additionally, many fear having more cars packed on the streets will bring more carjackings to the area.
Another issue that came to light was birds. Currently, chimney swifts, which are migratory birds, use the old bindery chimney as their summer home, and people don't want to see them forced out.
"We've gotten large counts of migratory birds coming north as well as going south, and to lose that chimney, will be very heart wrenching," said Alice Greely- Nelson, Hampden neighbor.
Officials will conduct a traffic study with a goal to find solutions. They will be updating neighbors with timelines.

This isn’t my neighborhood and I don’t have an account on hand of what the meeting was like beyond this report, but it seems notable to me that no one who supported or who might have benefitted from the development was quoted; I doubt supporters or the most housing-insecure people in the area rivaled the number of homeowners and housing secure people who showed up. We see these dynamics over and over again ⁠— not just with housing, but with transit, energy, and other projects. Jerusalem Demsas has been writing about this at The Atlantic for a little while now, and though I don’t agree with her overall conclusions, I think she illustrates the pitfalls of community input. Her latest piece is on permitting reform and the burdens of environmental impact statements:

These reports have become behemoths, averaging 1,600 pages and taking years to complete. (Developers for small projects don’t have to complete the onerous EIS, but even the less taxing analyses can take hundreds of days if not more than a year to complete.) NEPA also provides legal grounds for private actors to sue to block projects they consider harmful.
Delays run up the cost of vital infrastructure and exert something like a chilling effect on new projects, as developers may not want to contend with the expensive legal battles that lie ahead. These laws have been used to stymie wind farms in Nantucket (residents dubiously claim that offshore wind kills whales), Martha’s Vineyard (the owner of the solar company that opposes the project lives near the proposed site part-time), and dozens of other purportedly progressive communities across the country.
Key to understanding the undemocratic nature of “community participation” is defining who is actually meant by “community.” First, the types of people who have the time and money to sue developers under federal environmental statutes are not representative of the broader community. Second, the costs of construction (noise, a disrupted view) are localized, whereas the benefits of renewable energy are large and diffuse. That means if the process for green-lighting a project prioritizes local voices, it will miss a much larger piece of the picture: all of the millions of people who will benefit from a greener future. The environmental-justice movement’s response to this problem has been to propose expanding opportunities for litigation for marginalized communities. But research has shown that even when community leaders reduce the barriers to entry, input meetings remain just as unrepresentative as before.

So what’s the right thing to do here, from a democratic perspective? The people who stand to benefit from new renewable energy projects and housing developments deserve more of a say than they currently have in these policy spaces. But the bird lady, like it or not, is also democratically entitled to a vote and voice. Contra the headline of Demsas’ piece, everyone really should have a say, in some form, if democracy means anything to us at all. So what call would we ideally make if the opponents of new projects legitimately constitute the majority of the community? What’s more, the history of urban renewal suggests that giving policymakers free rein to go about projects as they see fit after being elected would pose its own problems even if it were more efficient. In theory, voters can punish them after the fact if projects go poorly, but once they’re done, projects can obviously be hard or impossible to reverse. And sometimes, though it assuredly isn’t the case in Hampden, the people most impacted by projects do lack the political and economic resources to push back against ill-considered or inequitable ideas ⁠— telling already poor and ignored voters they can just kick the bums in City Hall out once they’ve already plowed through the block doesn’t really work.

Democratically, I think we need community input. But we also desperately need to input housing and renewable energy into more communities; whatever happens or gets said at these meetings, voters do seem to support those goals in principle. So community input as we know it does need to go. I don’t have firm thoughts on what should replace it yet, but I’ve taken an interest, in the course of working on the book, in the sortition-based ideas for reforming democratic institutions advanced in recent years by theorists like Hélène Landemore, though I disagree strongly with her on important points. As suggested above, one problem with putatively open community forums is that they tend to be dominated, in practice, by those with extra time and money on their hands. If we’re going to have community input at all, we should at least ensure that officials are hearing from a representative sample of the communities they represent. So we ought to consider replacing open forums with versions of the randomly-drawn, demographically-adjusted “citizen’s assemblies” reformers have been experimenting with in Europe. At the very least, policymakers could try fielding decent surveys. Whatever the specific mechanisms would wind up being, the important thing, to me, would be shifting the informational burden when new projects are proposed ⁠— rather than waiting passively on citizens to tell policymakers what they think and winding up with a narrow, unrepresentative sliver of public opinion, policymakers should take it upon themselves to actively gather a representative sample of opinions within a much shorter window of time.

Even that approach, though, would leave a number of fundamental questions unsettled. Again, what should the final call from policymakers ultimately be if most in the community genuinely oppose a beneficial project? How should we set the standards by which we determine which projects are beneficial in the first place ⁠— how beneficial and for whom? How much special attention should a marginalized minority be entitled to in democratic processes and what form should that attention take? How should we feel about courts and the extent to which they can be used ⁠— by causes we respect and revile alike ⁠— to sidestep the democratic process? More generally, how do we arrive at the right mix, in any given political system or situation, between direct participation and electoral representation? These are all important and difficult questions; you can spend your life working on them without wrestling them fully to the ground. And I think mainstream political discourse leaves us ill-equipped to answer them. We’re not thinking deeply enough and we’re not reaching far enough; as loudly as we insist we’re on the frontlines of a fight for democracy now, I’m not convinced we really know what it means or why it’s intrinsically worth defending, and I think democracy would be in better hands if we did.

That’s the pitch for the book. I wish I could share more of what’s already in it more directly, but I think I’m contractually barred from doing so at length. Still, you can send any and all questions you might have on democracy to me for Mail Time ⁠— the next one should be in late November.

A Song

“Make the Road By Walking” ⁠— The Menahan Street Band (2008)