All posts by Bruce Cain and Emily Zhang

Schmitt on Reform Skeptics and Romantics

Mark Schmitt has written a thoughtful piece about democratic romanticism in the recent edition of the journal Democracy ( In it, he identifies “an increasingly influential group of scholars and journalists” who form a “school of skeptics” about the thrust and assumptions of contemporary political reform. He includes in this group Rick Pildes, Jonathon Rauch, Jason Grumlet, Ray LaRaja and me. He could have also mentioned Francis Fukuyama, Frances Lee, Nate Persily, Nelson Polsby and many others as well.


Indeed, there are a growing number of skeptics about the effectiveness and goals of contemporary US political reform. The reason is that some of these reforms have to a degree contributed to the current polarized politics situation. This is not to deny the importance of deeper contextual causes, but only to say that some political reforms have made a bad situation worse in unintended ways.


Since Schmitt’s piece is generally sympathetic to this skeptical critique, it may seem a bit petty to take issue with Mark, but I will incur that risk for the sake of greater clarity about a couple of key points. While I suspect that others in the skeptical cluster may agree with me, I can only speak with certainty about my own views.


First, Mark mistakes our realism about second best solutions for party nostalgia and romanticism. In some ideal reform world, perhaps, the Supreme Court would have taken a less strict view of the accepted justifications for campaign spending restrictions, but we have to take their decisions as a constraint for the foreseeable future. These decisions have proliferated independent spending and dark money by outside groups. Perhaps the best long-term strategy for those who do not like the status quo is to work for changes in the Supreme Court’s composition. But failing that, we should be open to a second best strategy that tries to redirect more of the money flow into the regulated and disclosed channels and away from independent spending. The Court has recently made that task somewhat easier by lifting the aggregate limits on contributions to parties and candidates, but there is more that could be done to allow larger donations to the party organizations and leaders that prioritize winning over purity. This may prove to be wrong advice, but it is not nostalgic or romantic. Nor is it the same reason the American Political Science Association endorsed responsible parties many decades ago.


Secondly, Mark is essentially skeptical that Republicans are rational actors, or that the electoral system will punish the Republicans for extreme behavior. I know a lot of Republicans, and while I do not always agree with them, only a minority are nuts. Most like being in office. Most like having power. Many are frustrated about the purists in their ranks. As a Democrat, Mark will remember that his own party has gone through phases of seeming irrationality. Let us not forget the endless Democratic Party reforms from 1968 though 1992 and the struggle to balance activist and professionals that culminated in creating super-delegates for the party conventions. American political parties go through phases when they sometimes get captured by purity politics, but they eventually get the pragmatic message.


Mark is also too quick to dismiss the median voter incentive. How does he explain the fact the establishment candidates have so far prevailed in winning the Republican Presidential nominations, or that Speaker Boehner relied on Democratic votes to pass the debt ceiling and DHS funding rather than give in to the Tea Party demands for obstruction. The Republican Party establishment recognizes the folly of purism, and could use some help from campaign finance reform. If there is a better way to put money in the hands of the pragmatists who prefer power to purity, I am “all ears.”


And let’s not forget that some of the purity problem that both parties have to counter is due to previous reform efforts to democratize the parties through primaries and caucuses. This has accentuated the voice of party activists, who tend to dominate the nomination processes when average voters stay home.


Finally, it is important not to focus on Congress alone. There are important problems at the Federal agency level, and in the states and local governments. A purely Washington focus discards lessons that have been learned in other parts of the country. The American reform challenge is complex and varied. In some cases, we need more democracy, and in others, less. Some parts of the system are harder to change than others. And some solutions to may lie outside institutional design. But that should not stop us from doing what we can to tinker with the system to mitigate the problems to the degree that we can.


Bruce Cain

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All Too Familiar: The Brookings Response to Transparency Critics

In a recent Brookings publication entitled Why Critics of Transparency Are Wrong, Gary D. Bass, Danielle Brian and Norman Eisen take on a growing number of critics who have publicly questioned the trend towards more transparency in US politics. A healthy debate on this topic is long overdue. There is shockingly little empirical research to date in political science about transparency, open meeting laws, disclosure rules and related topics. But how we discuss and evaluate transparency matters greatly.

The Brookings article suffers in some ways that are characteristic of the reform community. For many years the implicit and often unexamined assumption behind American political reform was that more transparency, public participation, conflict of interest regulation and the like was the answer to our political problems. In my forthcoming book Democracy More or Less, I argue that decades of political science research should have undermined any naive faith in citizen capacity and made us aware that pluralist realities often overtake populist ideals. A more realistic reform agenda must take more seriously the role that formal and informal intermediaries play and design the “stakeholder” side of democracy to be more fair and effective.

The Brookings paper ends with an extended, unnecessary argument against imaginary critics who apparently think that transparency has no role. As if serious scholars like Sarah Binder, Frances Lee and Frank Fukuyama would ever make such an argument. The right argument about transparency is not whether it is an important democratic value that promotes accountability and good governance. Rather, it is about how much transparency is needed for holding governments accountable and at what point in the decision processes it is needed most.

The authors concede at several points that transparency demands cannot be absolute. For instance they say: “Where there are legitimate problems with openness laws and procedures, we should fix them;” “We are all for deal-making in order to get things done…we do not oppose private communications; ” and “Deliberation in front of the cameras doesn’t always produce the best public policy.” But in every instance they quickly hedge their concession with such caveats as: “But the need for that balance is already widely agreed upon and it has by and large been struck (all too often with a decided tilt towards secrecy),” or “but we should recognize that secrecy brings serious risks, and that transparency is required to hedge against those risks.”

I applaud their attempt to bring data into the discussion with their test of whether televising Senate deliberations affected its productivity, even though the test itself is pretty weak and questionable in its choice of variables. However, their empirical assertion that government disclosure tools are frequently used by the public” is misleading. Citing the heavy use of FOIA by seniors and veterans neglects the important distinction between citizen requests for information about their own government benefits versus requests for information about government policies. The latter, not the former, relate to democratic accountability, and they are largely made by the press and other intermediaries (see my co-authored chapter on transparency in the volume Democracy Transformed co-edited with Russ Dalton and Susan Scarrow for details).

At several points, they defend the status quo by heralding the fact that transparency laws are weak. Apparently, Binder and Lee are wrong because strict open meeting and FOIA laws do not apply to Congress. And critics of agency sunshine rules miss that notational voting is allowed. But they do not say whether they would favor reforms to fix these omissions. I suspect that they would not but they should. In my transparency chapter in Democracy More or Less, I show that when such rules are applied strictly at the local government level, they can lead to absurd intrusions into the political process.

I also make the point in my book that one of the confusing problems about political reform is that we are often dealing with opposite ends of the spectrum. In some cases, we may have gone too far in preserving government secrecy (e.g. FISA) while in other settings we have gone too far in the transparency direction (e.g. strict enforcement of the California’s Brown Act). We also do not always distinguished between pre-decision, in process and post-decision transparency. The demand to see decisions being made is more often about giving reporters fodder for juicy stories or enabling groups to pressure decision-makers than helping voters make decisions. Voters rarely understand or pay attention to process. They care more about effects.

The authors several times refer to how transparency helps “the public” see and understand what the government is doing, but they elide over the important fact that this information brokering role is played by groups with their own agendas. The fiction that they represent “the public” is problematic. As critics of US pluralism have long pointed out, interest groups politics all too often over-represent those with intense preferences and resource advantages.

Until we rid ourselves of populist illusions and focus more consciously on the role that stakeholders, activists and other intermediaries should and will inevitably play in American democracy, we will continue to double down on failed strategies and be disappointed with the results.

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