New York Times columnist and NPR/PBS pundit David Brooks (5/19/14) has a solution to the problem with American democracy: We should have less of it.
Surveying the evidence around the globe, Brooks is worried that that democracy isn't up to the task of managing the present. "Democracies tend to have a tough time with long-range planning," he laments. "Voters tend to want more government services than they are willing to pay for."
So what's beating democracy? Brooks-and others-call them "Guardian States," places like China and Singapore, where the safety net is smaller and elites have more say over economic policy. They don't do everything right, he admits, but clearly their schools and pension systems are better than you'll find in the United States.
As Brooks sees it:
American politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction. Unrepresentative groups have disproportionate power in primary elections.
He's not saying who these activist groups or lobbies might be, but the suggestion is that the blame is to be spread around more or less equally.
So what's the fix? Let smart elites run things for us:
The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson/Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms. The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms-on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc.-and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through.
Well, that's an easy fix-remember how well the real Simpson/Bowles commission worked? And for a guy who has several national media platforms, I think he has certain people in mind who will be counted on to "rally establishment opinion."
So what are these elite populists going to do for us? They will advocate policies
which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, healthcare, to spread power to consumers.
Wait, what? I thought populism would advocate policies that were, well, popular. It's not clear that expanding charter schools is an especially popular idea. It's not all that clear what moving more poverty programs to "local charities" would even mean, though it's the kind of rhetoric popular with Paul Ryan Republicans.
More "market mechanisms" in our healthcare system-does that sound like something anyone who wasn't "unapologetically elitist" would rally behind? There's plenty of polling out there that suggests the public would favor the opposite, via a single-payer system.
And "entitlement reform"-i.e., cutting Social Security and Medicare-is pretty much the definition of a policy that's both anti-populist and unpopular.
And Matt O'Brien of the Washington Post's WonkBlog (5/20/14) argues that "too much democracy" isn't really the problem with a dysfunctional Congress. The filibuster and the Republican "Hastert Rule" prevent passing bills that have widespread public support.
It's not surprising that a pundit like Brooks would think that the solution for American democracy is to put people like him in charge of crafting policy, and to have other people like him rally the public behind their policies. But it's surprising-sort of-that he'd actually publish that idea.