08/04/2021

Bureaucracy vs. Democracy

The daily detonations from the White House are diverting our attention from deeper flaws in modern American government. Donald Trump was elected for a reason: many Americans are fed up with Washington. They see Washington as a kind of alien power, dictating policies and behavior without regard to the feelings or needs of real people.

Neither party has gotten the message of this voter revolt. They continue to rely on the lack of credible political alternatives to take turns in power without taking responsibility for changing things. Instead of presenting positive visions for change, the parties stoke voters’ passions by pointing fingers. Pulling out of this downward spiral more than just new leaders; it requires a new vision.

But where can we find this new vision? “There is only one sure way to quiet our populist distempers,” argues the recent Niskanen Center report The Center Can Hold: “that is for . . . democratic institutions to deliver effective governance . . . through successful problem-solving.” Political scientist Francis Fukuyama digs deeper, in his new book Identity, into the innate human needs for belonging and self-respect.

These and other diagnoses of voter alienation converge at one point: a sense of disempowerment by Americans, at every level of responsibility, to make practical and moral choices. Almost without our noticing when it happened, bureaucratic structures have crowded out human agency. Nothing much works sensibly, I argue in Try Common Sense, because no one is free to make it work. Of course Americans are angry: Washington is inept, and makes us inept, by entangling public choices in a jungle of red tape.

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