Mark Schmitt leads the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, which is a grantee of the Foundation’s Madison Initiative. He has a thoughtful essay in the current edition of Democracy, entitled “Democratic Romanticism and its Critics,” that everyone interested in democracy reform should read. Schmitt’s piece does a commendably fair job of summarizing the perspectives of a growing number of democratic skeptics for the readers of a journal whose self-professed mission is “to build a vital and vibrant progressivism for the twenty-first century.”
Schmitt notes that:
[T]his school of skeptics is less interested in an idealized democracy…than in effective governance. They worry less that government is pulled away from the public interest by money and concentrated power than that it can’t address problems in even the messy, transactional, and imperfect way that it once did.
Schmitt’s subtitle is a provocation, suggesting that, if the skeptics are right, then “everything you thought you know about fixing American politics might be wrong.”
In the end Schmitt doesn’t go that far, concluding that the skeptics’ perspective rests unsteadily on a nostalgia for party bosses, political machines, earmarks, and the like that is itself idealized and, in his view, fails to illuminate a practical way forward. To his credit, elsewhere Schmitt has sketched out a democratic reform agenda that seeks to reframe traditional arguments railing against corruption by focusing instead on elevating the value of what he terms political opportunity.
Digesting these two pieces together provides a great vantage point on the evolving debate on political reform. Kudos to Schmitt for his willingness to listen to and take seriously the arguments of those on the other side of the reform debate and to revisit the assumptions of the advocacy community that is closer to home for him. We will need more of this kind of critic and political boundary-crosser for the work that lies ahead.