Five Questions with Kevin J. Elliott, author of “Democracy for Busy People”
As election season draws ever closer, many voters face the dilemma of balancing being informed citizens with everyday responsibilities that impede their ability to participate in our nation’s government. In Democracy for Busy People, Kevin J. Elliott proposes new methods on how we can make democratic citizenship undemanding. Read on for an interview with the author about his research and how our society can build a democracy that empowers people with limited time for politics.
While you were working on this project, what did you learn that surprised you the most?
Two things really surprised me in working on this project: one big and overarching and the other smaller and more specific. The big thing that surprised me was how little previous scholars had to say about the dilemma facing busy people when it comes to being good democratic citizens. Busy people often must choose between neglecting politics—making them “bad” democratic citizens—or neglecting their work and loved ones—making them “irresponsible” parents, partners, workers, etc. Not only is this a highly salient experience that virtually all of us can relate to, but, under one description or another, it has been central to political science since the middle of the 20th century. Nonetheless, the question of how busy people ought to approach this dilemma practically—and how democracy as a set of institutions should respond to it—has escaped focused study. Though I found relevant arguments here and there in many foundational works of political science, I couldn’t find anyone who had rounded them up and looked at them as a whole. Moreover, there was almost nothing that considered how to be a good citizen when you had little time for politics. And so all of this is what my book ended up being about.
The second, more specific factor that surprised me was learning that 12 of the 13 original American states held elections annually for their most important offices, and, more than that, considered annual elections an essential guarantor of republican government and of the people’s liberty. There was even a popular saying that said, “Where annual elections end, tyranny begins.” I wondered why they had this view and, in investigating it, discovered a fascinating argument for why annual elections are well-calibrated for busy people.
Put simply: when there’s a time for politics written into the annual calendar—along with all the other social practices of celebration and memorialization we use the calendar to coordinate (holidays, festivals, etc.)—it becomes something everyone can take part in because it’s what society as a whole is doing at that time of the year. Busy people don’t need to find time in their lives for politics because it’s built into the community’s calendar. For example, annual elections in early America were generally held in the fall, after the harvest, when people were gathering to buy and sell their produce. This synced up politics with the natural cycles of the seasons that shaped so much of life in an agrarian society and helped make politics natural, even for busy people. Of course, annual elections may sound like a lot to us today, but one should recall that most Americans are generally asked to vote more frequently than once a year because of primary and special elections. What if all our elections were organized into one annual election day? Politics then becomes something you don’t have to remember to think about whenever some local authority idiosyncratically decides to hold an election, but rather something we all do this time of year, when the days get shorter and the leaves change.
What makes a good democratic citizen? How does this definition account for the unequal reality between those who do and do not have the “free time” to engage more actively in politics?
Traditionally, we’ve tended to think that being a good citizen requires us to be active, engaged, and informed participants in both the politics of our communities and larger polities. But this can be a tall order, especially for citizens who are busy with, for example, work and care obligations. When we ignore this reality of unequal busyness, we blind ourselves to the ways that highly demanding ideals shut out many citizens from having a voice or place of honor in democracy. I suggest we need to rethink what makes a good citizen to accommodate people who are constrained in their ability to conform to traditional ideals of the active citizen due to other obligations.
I suggest that we should differentiate between excellent citizens and merely good ones, setting a minimum threshold that can be expected of everyone regardless of how busy they are and allowing for people to exceed that minimum and thereby establish degrees of excellence. Good citizens would meet the minimum threshold, which needs to be carefully calibrated to be maximally inclusive but also compatible with the functional needs of democracy. I suggest the minimum of citizenship consists in periodically paying thoughtful attention to politics and maintaining the capacity for active participation. Together, attention and real capacity to participate make someone what I call a “stand-by citizen,” someone who’s prepared to step into active citizenship should they see the need to do so arise.
I argue that no lower level of engagement with politics—such as apathy or ignoring politics entirely—is consistent with democracy. Then because stand-by citizenship only asks for periodic attention and maintaining the civic skills necessary for active participation, it remains much more accessible to busy citizens who lack free time than an expansive ideal of active, ever-participating citizenship can be.
But a key advance of my book is to say that it’s not enough merely to try to lower the cost of being a good citizen.
We also need to think deeply about ways to reshape democratic institutions to make the on-ramps into political awareness and action less narrow and steep through revising institutions and building up existing ones in inclusive ways. It should not be up to individual citizens to meet the burdens of being good citizens; it’s a responsibility of democratic institutions to make it easy for them to do so.
What do policies that make it harder to vote have in common with gerrymandering, primary elections, and reforms like Top-Two primaries?
What all of these policies and institutions have in common is that they help to push citizens who lack time and energy for politics out of the political realm, creating a more exclusionary politics that favors advantaged groups. They do this in different ways. Policies that make it harder to vote, such as closing voting places and mandating frequent re-registration, push out busy citizens by raising the hassle and cost of participation beyond what they can deal with. Few busy citizens have the time to wait for hours to vote or navigate obtaining multiple documents to register to vote.
Gerrymandering in the US context pushes citizens out of politics indirectly by abolishing competition in the vast majority of places where citizens reside. This lowers the stakes of elections by making citizens’ electoral input all but irrelevant. When everybody understands that voting cannot effectively change who holds power, citizens come to learn that it doesn’t matter if they vote, and the first citizens to move out of the electorate will be those for whom participation had the highest opportunity cost: namely, busy ones.
The top two primaries can also indirectly push busy people out of politics, but they do so by weakening political parties, which are among the most important institutions promoting widespread political engagement. Parties help busy people engage with politics by structuring political debate and clarifying what politics and political choices are about in a given place and time. This makes the job facing the individual citizen in choosing whom to vote for infinitely easier. Top two primaries—and, indeed, any kind of primary election—weaken parties by taking away their ability to control who speaks for the party in the public sphere, degrading their ability to make politics understandable for citizens, particularly busy ones.
Americans tend to take a dim view of political parties. I would argue this is largely because of the especially limited and increasingly dysfunctional two-party politics we are familiar with. But political parties are vital institutions for promoting the participation of ordinary citizens—at least when they are forced to compete according to fair rules. Competition between parties throws off huge amounts of information for voters through media coverage and persuasive messages from the parties. When parties are weak and cannot control who speaks for them or what commitments they endorse, they are less able to articulate clear alternatives or even to have their own distinctive voice separate from that of individual candidates. When that happens, the alternatives facing voters in a particular election can become much less clear, reducing the motivation to vote. This is particularly the case for busy people since parsing unclear choices and figuring out for themselves what it means to vote for one candidate/party over another requires much more attention and time from voters. Strong parties generate meaningful choices for voters, and meaningful choices attract citizens because citizens can more easily understand the stakes of the choice to put them in an election.
What most recent example of democratic voting reform seems most promising as a potential model for the US voting system?
For my money, multi-member electoral districts for electing members of the House of Representatives seem the most promising single reform that’s been suggested recently. This reform would join together existing House districts with the aim of having at least three, four, or five representatives elected from every district, and maybe more. To be elected, each candidate would then have to get only about a third of the vote when there are three available seats (or fewer with more seats per district), enabling groups to get some representation even where they are in the minority.
This reform would very likely encourage the viability of additional political parties in the United States, and such multi-party competition would open up a broader political agenda that can meaningfully represent and appeal to a wider variety of Americans. Many Americans see the narrow politics of Democrats and Republicans as not touching on the issues that they care about most and would like to see political leaders engage with. This is partly because the two-party system restricts the political agenda while multiparty competition would enable public discussion of more issues. When there are just two parties, the issues that divide them at any given time can only ever be few in number. More parties open more space on the political agenda for issues that otherwise would be ignored and that appeal to the concerns of a wider group of Americans. Adding new parties to the mix would create a more relatable politics that addresses more of what people care about than the abbreviated competition found in a two-party system.
Another reform that would help minor parties to form and remain viable is fusionism, which enables multiple parties to endorse the same candidate. Fusionism allows citizens to vote for a minor party they might like more than one of the major parties without throwing away their vote on a candidate who cannot win. The way it works is that voters can vote for the major party candidate but on the ballot line of a different party. This sends candidates a clear message about where their political support is coming from, and this can then affect how they campaign and what they do in office. So, for instance, New York State uses fusionism and there is a Working Families party there which often nominates the same candidate as the Democratic party. But winning candidates can see how much of their support came from people voting for them as the Working Families candidate rather than the Democratic candidate, emphasizing the importance to those voters of the specific issues emphasized by the Working Families party. By showing candidates more clearly what their voters want and opening more options for citizens, fusionism can make vibrant multi-party politics possible in the US.
Either of these reforms would bolster multi-partyism in the US, and multi-partyism makes politics more attractive to citizens because it is no longer purely a matter of settling and compromise. By having a party that more closely reflects citizens’ views, multi-partyism makes politics come alive, simulating more widespread citizen engagement in all aspects of democratic politics.
What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope that readers come to understand that building a more inclusive and equal democracy is not entirely a matter of individual action and initiative. Low turnout rates and lack of political engagement by millions of people are not the fault of democratic citizens as individuals. They are largely a function of how we build—or fail to build—our institutions to invite in citizens and put levers of power within their reach even if they are busy and fall short of the Olympian standards we often set for citizens.
Although citizens can and should do more as active citizens, our democratic institutions should scaffold that engagement comprehensively. This requires not just making it easier to vote or participate in other ways but actively encouraging them to do so such as by making turnout mandatory. More than that, however, democracy should make politics itself more interesting and understandable for busy people, such as by encouraging more political parties which will reach out and appeal to groups of citizens who are not well represented today.
Kevin J. Elliott is a political theorist and assistant professor of political science at Murray State University.