In November of 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy competed to succeed Dwight Eisenhower as president. The results were close and charges of fraud flew. Yet, this did not interrupt the steady climb in the positive response to a question the Gallup poll had begun to ask a few years earlier: did survey respondents “trust the federal government to do what is right just about always/most of the time . . . ?” Despite a tense international context and growing recognition of daunting domestic challenges, over 70 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative in those years. But, after peaking at 77 percent in the autumn of 1964, this affirmative response abruptly began a sustained decline, bottoming out (at least initially) in the early spring of 1980 at 27. Trust recovered during the first years of the Reagan administration, declined again until early in the Clinton administration, peaked once more during 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, and fell still further to 19 percent in October of 2015 late in Obama’s second term.
The scholarship on trust in institutions offers multiple explanations for this sustained decline: perceptions of economic performance as well as of levels of crime and poverty, reactions to scandal, and international crises.1Virginia A. Chanley, Thomas J. Rudolph, and Wendy M. Rahn, “The Origins and Consequences of Public Trust in Government: A Time Series Analysis,” Public Opinion Quarterly 64, no. 3 (2000): 239-256. The confluence of Kennedy’s assassination, the war in Vietnam, and multiplying civil rights protests offers a persuasive, event-driven explanation for the sharp decline in trust in government in the mid-1960s. To the extent that trust in government can be taken as a metric—however problematic—of confidence in democracy, these arguments point to factors external to formal governing institutions or to the behavior of specific incumbents. But, what if the organization of governance itself has contributed to the decline of confidence, to the accumulating anxieties of democracy?
Disconnecting citizens from government“Bureaucratic rules and red tape are symbols of a government grown more powerful and less responsive.”
At first glance, this is a familiar argument. Bureaucratic rules and red tape are symbols of a government grown more powerful and less responsive. Yet, this broad case against bureaucracy overlooks the issue of how government has grown: through fund transfers linked to expanded regulation, through the impact of court decisions that limited the capacity of local governments to control their own communities, and redistributions of power through policies of decentralization to the states or expanded “choice” for citizens. Along a separate track, new technologies have been applied to state and federal redistricting, resulting in increasingly precise gerrymanders that crosscut the maps of lived communities and meaningful social networks with tactically precise electoral boundaries. The cumulative impact of these institutional developments has been a fracturing of connections between citizens and their government as well as an increasingly opaque, inconsistently layered infrastructure of governance. As a result, many citizens cannot identify the effective channels of influence or attribute responsibility for good or bad governing.
This discontent contrasts sharply with an idealized image of American democracy that foregrounds the town meeting, city council, or mayor’s office, nested within the politics of counties and states, framed by the actions of representatives to Congress in combination with the presidency. In this imagery, there are clear lines of representation and accountability that link citizens to decision making at different levels of government. The actual arrangements of governance, of course, were never so clear-cut.2New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009More Info → By the late nineteenth century, new federal regulatory agencies were multiplying and Congress began to authorize “matching grant” programs by which federal funds were offered as incentives to shape state efforts across diverse policy areas.3Elisabeth S. Clemens, “Lineages of the Rube Goldberg State: Building and Blurring Public Programs, 1900-1940,” in The Art of the State: Rethinking Political Institutions, eds. Ian Shapiro, Stephen Skowronek, and Daniel Galvin (New York: New York University Press, 2006). War, prolonged depression, and yet another war reinforced the interdependence of local, state, and national governance. Government action here might well be funded by government there and shaped by a policy mandate from yet another branch or level.“Sustained by financial resources and regulatory authority, federal control became both increasingly palpable and ever more disembodied.”
The key point is to recognize that the Weberian bureaucracies built in the early twentieth century were embedded in increasingly complex and crosscutting relationships across levels of government and between multiple agencies. In the aftermath of World War Two, those webs of funding and regulation became still more complex. Conservatives were determined to ratchet down the growth of the federal workforce under FDR during the Depression and war as well as to prevent any repeat of that experience under President Truman during the Korean conflict. To this end, Congress adopted an amendment that capped the size of the federal workforce,4US Congress, Analysis of the Whitten Amendment 83d Congress, 1st Session, Senate Document No. 35. US Government Printing Office, 1953. but the effort had unintended effects. Absent an expanding corps of state personnel, national governance was constructed out of flows of funds (fueled by the new mass income tax of the war years) and an expanded regulatory state. Sustained by financial resources and regulatory authority, federal control became both increasingly palpable and ever more disembodied.
Complicating local control
Alongside the expansion of federal funding and indirect governance, a second dynamic was at work. Local and state governments have frequently been vehicles for economic exploitation, religious intolerance, or exclusion on the grounds of gender and race. In response, citizens repeatedly mobilized to expand democratic participation and tighten its connection to policy outputs. But, as state and local governments became more dependent on flows of federal funding, the capacity of citizens to exercise democratic control over local and state governments was challenged. Driven by the combination of the intensifying civil rights movement and a series of court decisions concerning religion and race, local control over housing, schooling, and social welfare was destabilized. To the extent that structures of community power sustained discrimination against African Americans, Catholics, and other racial and religious minorities, the commitment to promote civic equality also entailed a confrontation with community control, particularly with respect to education5Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007More Info → and welfare services.6Karen M. Tani, States of Dependency: Welfare, Rights, and American Governance, 1935-1972 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 113-211.
The erosion of exclusionary and less-than-democratic forms of local control might have been accompanied by the invention of newly empowered, inclusive, and effective local governance. But, for the most part, this has not happened. Instead, policy responses since the 1970s have emphasized deregulation and offered new alternatives to participation in core public institutions. Among the most prominent has been the promotion of choice, particularly in education, which has further complicated the relationship of lived community to the institutions that provide public services. To the extent that new policies (often under the banner of “neoliberalism”) have implemented “choice” by decoupling public funding from public management, private corporations have moved in to become more prominent providers of services ranging from schooling to prisons to veterans’ health care to defense and national security.7Sidney Tarrow, War, States, and Contention: A Comparative Historical Study (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).
→Linda Weiss, America Inc.? Innovation and Enterprise in the National Security State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).
→Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008). In combination with complex tax expenditures and convoluted contracting arrangements, the result has been a state in which no one is capable of answering the question “what are my tax dollars doing for me?”
This analysis is thoroughly bittersweet. The far-far-from-complete effort to achieve political equality and inclusion has come at the cost of a diminished experience of local democratic control. On the right, the pairing of resistance to civil rights and demands for personal or local control echoes through to the present moment in American politics. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” demanded the Tea Party in 2009.8Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 7. Occupiers of a wildlife refuge in Oregon proclaimed that “these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government.” So what is it about the organization of democratic governance that has produced such disheartening and toxic results?
Results of political detachment“In the absence of a felt sense of influence over government, these residents oppose expansive public programs.”
The corrosive dynamic at work is illustrated by studies of two places separated by a state line but worlds apart. In Wisconsin, the population clusters in the southeast third of the state, in Milwaukee and the state capital of Madison.9Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016More Info → Everything else, to the north and the west, is “out-state.”10Cramer, The Politics of Resentment, 55. Out-state residents deeply believe rural areas receive less than was fair from the state government, that public employees (regardless of where they lived) are unduly well-paid representatives of a government that was inattentive and dismissive of the needs and values of those outside the state’s two major cities. In the absence of a felt sense of influence over government, these residents oppose expansive public programs; because “the government must be mishandling my hard-earned dollars, because my taxes keep going up and clearly they are not coming back to benefit people like me. So why would I want an expansion of government?”11Ibid., 146. Despite the fact that rural counties receive a higher proportion of both state and federal taxes in relation to what their residents paid than did more urban counties, those who live “out-state” understand themselves as disempowered and deprived in their relation to the government.
This dynamic is not limited to the gas stations and diners of the rural Midwest. In a richly detailed study of violence in one Chicago neighborhood, Robert Vargas illuminates how a lack of political traction feeds into dynamics of community decline and violence.12Oxford University Press, 2016More Info → The analysis focuses on Little Village, a now predominantly Latino neighborhood on the mid-South Side. But, although there is a single name for the neighborhood, this part of the city is crosscut by the boundaries of multiple aldermanic wards and “never had a real opportunity to obtain political power.”13Vargas, Wounded City, 63. The western portion has long constituted most of the 22nd ward, a city council seat that has been occupied by Hispanic representatives for decades. Residents of the western portion of Little Village could see their concerns translated into small improvements in their community: a surveillance camera here, a street there reconfigured to obstruct easy entrance to or exit from a residential area. Working in the compact 22nd ward, Mexican American activists “carved out a position of power within the city’s political structure” and, with that power came (admittedly inadequate) resources that made “gang violence . . . more manageable than the violence in the east side.”14Ibid., 58. The eastern portion has been divided up among multiple wards as a consequence of gerrymandering and judicially-ordered redistricting in response to gerrymandering. The eastern portion has markedly higher rates of homicide and aggravated assault as well as more volatile relationships among gangs. Asked “where do you go to complain about the violence,” one resident of the eastern part of the neighborhood replied “We don’t know. . . . When I call the police to complain about damage to my property, they just tell me to call my insurance company. We have no other way to voice our complaints. . . . Even if there were community meetings, we wouldn’t know where to find out about them.”15Ibid., 37.
For all the many differences between “out-state” Wisconsin and Chicago’s Little Village, something of the same political logic is at work in both places. Whether outweighed by the population of Madison and Milwaukee or fragmented by repeated redrawings of ward boundaries, residents express uncertainty about how to exert leverage on political decisions that would generate the reinforcing dynamic between political participation and benefits long central to models of rational voters and pocketbook politics. The (mis)alignment of social and political geography contributes to a felt sense of disempowerment and, in some cases, to substantial differences in the allocation of resources, political authority, and a sense of respect from fellow citizens. These two studies point to the multiple ways in which the alignment of social networks and electoral jurisdictions is at odds with easy assumptions about the nested operation of federalism and representative politics in the United States. These misalignments between places where citizens live and the frameworks of representative government are intensified by policy shifts that make it less obvious how government services benefit citizens even in the place where those citizens live.“Whereas the Chicagoan was unsure of where to go, the residents of Louisiana distrusted the agency with jurisdiction to respond to these dangers.”
The resulting dissonance is palpable in Arlie Hochschild’s account of her years of fieldwork with political conservatives in Louisiana.16The New Press, 2016More Info → Seeking to disentangle political and racial motivations, she deliberately focused on a “keyhole issue”—environmental protection—which spoke to the powerful love for the landscape voiced by many of her informants; yet, it also activated their often deep hostility to a federal government understood as an ally of those who seek to cut in line—women, African Americans, immigrants—and thereby to get ahead of those understood to be deserving and hard-working. This distrust carried over to other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency. Faced with the persistent damage of toxic pollution of the lake where they lived or, more dramatically, the catastrophic destruction of a bayou when drilling punched a hole into a salt dome below, homeowners responded in ways that echoed the response to the question Vargas posed to residents of the east side of Little Village: “Where do you go to complain?” Whereas the Chicagoan was unsure of where to go, the residents of Louisiana distrusted the agency with jurisdiction to respond to these dangers.
These rich studies of the present moment—all published in 2016, but conceived and completed before last November’s election—require us to think deeply about the sources of democratic anxiety. What might be involved in re-imagining forms of meaningful and vibrant democratic control that do not reproduce the lines of racial exclusion, business dominance, and economic inequality that have been the targets of expansive federal policy over the long arc of the twentieth century? Looking up from these books, we also need to think expansively about these dynamics as varieties of populism take hold or gain strength across a wide range of political regimes.
This analysis has been firmly centered on the American case. Yet, the fragmentation and reconfiguration driven by antistatism, federalism, and repeated redistricting in the United States have clear parallels abroad. Since the 1970s, as Mabel Berezin has argued in the cases of France and Italy, the rise of neoliberalism and the weakening of systems of social support can be understood as caused—rather than purely consequences—of the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments and racialized political conflict.17New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009More Info → The elaboration of the European Union as a governing framework can be compared to federalism within the American case. Bureaucrats in Brussels have long seemed distant and insulated from electoral accountability,18Verso, 2016More Info → but the politics of austerity have intensified a second move within national polities, relocating significant authority from ministries led by party members to central banks and military authorities. By exploring one particularly complex and influential case, we should gain some understanding of the shared sense of democratic fragility that infuses contemporary debates.
→Linda Weiss, America Inc.? Innovation and Enterprise in the National Security State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).
→Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).