Is Democracy Too Demanding? Political Scientist Kevin Elliott on How to Empower Busy People

Authored By 
Rick Harrison
May 13, 2024

The constitution of the United States of American with a vintage flag

On the last day of the Constitutional Convention, Elizabeth Willing Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin if the new government would be a republic or a monarchy, and he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins with “We the people.” And Barack Obama often referred to the second clause about forming “a more perfect union” in his speeches, calling on citizens to join with him and other leaders in the ceaseless hard work of striving toward that goal.

Nobody ever said democracy was easy.

Certainly not Kevin Elliott, a political scientist and lecturer in Ethics, Politics, & Economics, a program supported by the Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS). And yet Elliott’s book, “Democracy for Busy People,” approaches democratic reform from the perspective that many people do not have the time to devote to politics.

We spoke to Elliott about how to improve our political institutions so that they empower people without overtaxing their limited capacity for active participation.

ISPS: Your book details how democratic citizenship can be too demanding and difficult for busy people. Is there a big difference between the founders’ ideals and modern society?

Kevin Elliott: I think about the history of political power as a movement from highly monopolized power to something that has become increasingly dispersed. For example, from a monarchy in the United Kingdom toward the establishment of Parliament and rule through ministries with Parliament’s support. The way I imagine my project is an attempt to perfect the institutions of representative democracy — in line with the preamble and Obama’s rhetoric — toward one that actually delivers on a number of checks that the founding generation of this country wrote about. They were promises as much as anything else, not statements about how things were. They were aspirations. It was not obvious then or even today how to make them real.

ISPS: I see. So, it’s not like you don’t share these ideals. You are trying to work through the practical steps that might get us closer to them, right?

KE: The key word is “practical.” There is a line of dialogue in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” where the president is speaking to Thaddeus Stevens, who wants to not just abolish slavery but achieve racial equality. And Lincoln says that a compass will point you to true north, “but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way.” He — or at least the character in the movie — says, “If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing true north?”

In my work, I try to be informed about history, institutions, and institutional design. Those are the chasms. Presidential systems have a problem with obstacles in the legislative and judicial branches, for example. I try to take that on board to see how much mileage we can get out of our current institutions. They certainly can do so much for us that other systems can’t do as well. But we can also get closer to a government that cares about everyone and tries to protect everyone’s interests.

ISPS: Are people busier today than in 1789? Don’t we have more recreational time than ever?

KE: What I am saying is not that we are busier today but that these imperfections have always been part of our democracy. And that’s not a criticism. To me, one of the biggest challenges of the founding generations is that they were inventing new institutions. They were innovating and doing things that no one had done before. Representative democracy was very new. Great Britain kind of had one, but only for less than 100 years, and the king still had significant power. So, our founders had to grapple with questions like how to make sense of political competition. Such a dynamic can look a lot like seditious conspiracies trying to overthrow the government. But no. We learned that rival politicians and their supporters can have a shared allegiance to the Constitution, some national idea, while still disagreeing over policy.Kevin Elliott seated in his office, next to a bookcase and in front of a fireplace

ISPS: You write about people like your mother, whose daily efforts to care for a family while resting and recuperating to do it again the next day can be all-consuming. You say busy people for you are “not the jetsetters with clogged calendars full of high-stakes meetings” but “the people waging a constant battle against burnout, bills, and the neglect of their loved ones.” How can we get people like that more involved in politics? Would they even want to be more involved?

KE: The framework I am working with is thinking of life as a budget: time and attention. What I’m interested in is having politics become something in everyone’s budget. The minimum we can expect of democratic citizens.

ISPS: But only a minimum because people are busy.

KE: Right. People find their budget occupied by other essential tasks. The challenge is how to make the politics piece as small as possible. As understandable as possible. As easy to access and participate in, so it goes down as easy as possible.

ISPS: What might that look like in practice? What helps achieve that goal?

KE: For one, political parties help simplify the political environment. They make it easier for somebody to understand the stakes of the choice they are making.

ISPS: But not entirely, right? There are so many issues and dynamics at play and generally — in our current system — two parties to choose from.

KE: True. It’s hard to get a full picture in a two-party system. I think everybody has an obligation to provide some time and attention. But that also creates an obligation on the state and our system to be as accessible as possible. Because it can be hard to know where to focus your attention to resolve any grievances. For example, let’s say you drive over a pothole every day. If it’s on your city block, it’s probably your local government’s responsibility. But if it’s a state highway, you need to contact someone in state government. If it’s an interstate, that’s the federal government.

ISPS: You talk about how busyness is often “the currency of disadvantage.” What do you mean by this?

KE: It turns out there’s a lot of different ways that people face challenges in their lives, and these will parallel forms of disadvantage we are familiar with in other areas of public debate. Think about sexism and the way it manifests itself. A woman is exposed to increasing levels of sexual harassment at work. She gets upset, perhaps feels guilty or even in despair. She then must process those emotions. When she comes home, is she emotionally available to her family? Maybe not. She is rendered “busy” by being in a social milieu that imposes these costs on her. The same is true about economic disadvantage. Someone who is poor and has to work long hours for low pay is just not as available to participate in politics or many aspects of life in the same way as someone with greater financial resources.

ISPS: Racism certainly plays a large role in this dynamic.

KE: Exactly. To use a sadly too-common example, if a Black American sees another news story or a video of a police officer killing an unarmed Black person, that can instigate a degree of reflection and mental activity that renders them unable to attend to other aspects of their life. Maybe they can’t easily move this from the front of their mind, and so they are made busy by this. There are so many ways in which the world imposes burdens on us, rendering us unavailable to pursue some opportunities. And they are distributed unevenly in society.

ISPS: You express concern that democratic innovations such as citizens’ assemblies — mostly deployed in Europe and endorsed by colleagues of yours at Yale — are too demanding of people’s time. And that when governments make it hard or confusing to participate in politics, we reduce democratic inclusion. What’s the solution for increasing inclusion without excessively burdening people’s time?

KE: I articulate an ideal of minimum citizenship. How far can we squeeze down the demands so that citizens are doing what’s needful for a democratic system to continue while leaving them free to flourish in the private sphere. The key element is critical attention. Are you paying attention to politics in a way that’s somewhat reflective? And beyond paying attention, we want to make sure people have what are called civic skills — the knowledge and wherewithal that gives someone the capacity to participate. If you have critical attention, you are keyed into things that are happening. If there is a rising fascist movement in your polity, you would be aware of it. You can then use your skills and deploy them as a citizen.

ISPS: You call this “standby citizenship.”

KE: Someone can be seemingly politically passive. They are not out protesting, not necessarily being active in a transparent way. But they are paying attention and forming judgments and thinking about how they want to use the political agency they have. If they find things are dire enough, they need to step in. That’s standby citizenship.

ISPS: Doesn’t this apply to a citizens’ assembly, convened through a lottery, perhaps to address a specific policy question?

KE: First, I will say that if we are randomly selected to participate in one of these bodies, we should say yes. Democratic innovations have a place in democratic systems. But I do not believe they should replace electoral institutions. In my view, their best role is to supplement them. I think it’s important to have representatives in the political system whose claim to power has been authoritatively accepted by the people.

ISPS: Not to mention the amount of time required to serve on a citizens’ assembly.

KE: Precisely. These bodies require a significant amount of time and resources to participate. As we’ve discussed, such opportunities are not effectively open to everybody. Which is important, if we want them to be representative of the populace.

ISPS: Aren’t citizens’ assemblies less demanding than elections because most people don’t have to do anything at all? It’s just a select few who do the work, and the rest of us can remain unbothered in our busy, private lives?

KE: Sure, but that’s not necessarily a recipe for long-term success. If someone hasn’t thought deeply about politics for 20 years because their number hasn’t come up in a citizens’ assembly lottery, they will probably be unprepared to participate. Instead, what I’m arguing is that we want citizens to always have a finger in the political realm. They don’t need to follow every twist and turn. But they should be able to understand the significance of recent political events. They should maintain the minimum amount of political awareness and civic skills, all the time, instead of a large amount only when called upon.

ISPS: Do we hold too many elections?

KE: I think so. We in the United States vote more often than almost anywhere else. Depending on the year and where you live, you might have as many as six elections a year. That’s bananas. That’s extraordinarily demanding.

ISPS: What’s the problem?

KE: All these elections represent so many uncoordinated moments and combinations of issues at different levels of government. They do not allow for sustained social attention and the distributed processing of issues across civil society and the media. One of my proposals in the book is to consolidate elections to no more than one day per year. One national election day for all offices at every level, and every other day is off limits to hold any other elections. That will create a season for politics, a social focus on this one day and the weeks preceding it to help concentrate attention and debate in our communities.

ISPS: Wouldn’t that eliminate primaries?

KE: Not necessarily. There are ways of allowing a degree of what you might think of primary voting. Open list proportional representation or ranked-choice voting could effectively allow parties to hold the primary at the same time as the general election. Of course, I wish we could have more parties entering competition more easily so that who controls the parties’ nominees becomes less important.

ISPS: Why do you say it is good to limit democracy’s demands and not just why it must be done as a concession to the reality that people are apathetic about politics?

KE: People disagree about how valuable politics is. Some say it is a part of living a full life, that’s there’s something fundamentally important about understanding how to share a community and make decisions. But not everyone. Some think of it at best as a chore like any other. Like: If I did not have to rake the leaves in my yard, I would be happier not to. At the core, I believe it is good to limit democracy’s demands so that it does not burden people who have other priorities. And for those who embrace politics — at least on a minimal basis — it should be made as easy as possible to take part.

ISPS: You favor mandatory voting. What problem does this solve?

KE: One of the problems it addresses is degrading civic skills. When people are made to vote, it puts them in regular contact with political news. We have seen in countries with mandatory voting that the people who are at the lowest levels of attachment to the political system, their level of knowledge is higher than in countries without mandatory voting. It is the single most powerful tool for increasing turnout, which helps keep their civic skills fresh — their knowledge of the mechanics of voting, the parties, the issues. Voting tutors us in citizenship. It’s a recurrent reminder of the importance and salience of politics in a democracy and our role as citizens.

ISPS: Should low-information voters be forced to vote?

KE: I think it’s fairly easy to cast a responsible vote. Parties provide a reliable cue for voters. When we pay attention to politics regularly, we tend to acquire a party affiliation, an affinity. Not necessarily a full-fledged political identity, but enough for people to understand what they are voting for or against. In addition, part of my argument to establish a single election day is that it would be difficult for people not to acquire at least a little bit of pertinent information. Especially if they are expected to turn out as a mandatory voter.

ISPS: How does mandatory voting align with democratic values like freedom? Will Americans embrace and value what they are being pressured to do?

KE: Some studies seem to indicate that Americans simply won’t stand for it. But I look at Australia, where voting is mandatory and very popular. And when you ask Americans, 90% have said they believe it is their duty as a citizen to vote. Most people recognize that this is something they are supposed to do. Of course, there will be some who are very opposed to this.

I also think about freedom differently. I think about the freedom having a higher wage provides for us. The freedom granted by Social Security, family leave, and paid vacation policies. Insofar as a more egalitarian election turnout encourages policies that are advancing the interests of a wider group of people, particularly lower income people, we are likely to see a net increase in freedom of Americans. Expanded freedoms for Americans who are not currently being heard in the political system.