Talking It Through: Puzzles of American Democracy
Northwestern University Law School
Robert W. Bennett, TALKING IT THROUGH: PUZZLES OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, Cornell University Press, January 2003
American democracy is commonly described as "majoritarian" by a wide range of commentators. This book exposes the impoverishment of the characterization first by developing a "vote-centered" model that likely inspires it and then by discussing the many inadequacies of the vote-centered model.
The book then turns to a much more useful "conversational" framework for understanding American Democracy. The incentive structure produced by a competitive electoral system makes all modern democracies engines for producing conversation about public affairs directed to essentially the entire adult citizenry. And a large number of central features of American democracy act as special spurs to wide-ranging conversational interaction between governmental actors and media of communications, on the one hand, and the citizenry on the other. These American features include a separately elected executive, bicameralism, federalism, localism, single member geographically-defined legislative districts, loose political party discipline, and heightened constitutional protection for speech and press. The book argues that the resultant democratic conversation plays an important role in holding the enterprise of American democracy together and in inducing fidelity on the part of citizens to actions taken in its name.
This conversational account also illuminates facets of American democracy which have heretofore "been blurry, if visible at all." Four perplexing puzzles of American democracy that can be "solved" through this conversational account are given extended treatment in the second half of the book. These puzzles are the lack of concern with the apportionment of the United States Senate; the inattention to the anomalous political treatment of children; the fixation of law professors and others with the "counter-majoritarianism" of judicial review in enforcement of the United States Constitution; and the much discussed "paradox of voting," why it is that so many people vote when their individual votes have almost no chance of changing election outcomes. The book finally treats methodological questions of just what makes theories of complex social phenomena (like American democracy) more and less successful.
JEL Classification: A13, D72, H10, H11, K39, Z13
Date posted: October 21, 2002