Democratic Process

Richard Barke
Richard Barke
Associate Professor & Director of Undergraduate Studies

How would you describe Democratic Process & Good Governance?

The starting point for understanding the American democratic process and the concept of “good governance” in the US is the ideas of the Framers of the Constitution, of course. Much has changed since 1787, but arguments such as those of James Madison in Federalist 10 are as valid today as nearly 230 years ago. Democratic principles are to be embraced, but democracy through widespread public participation directly in the policymaking process was considered to be a mixed blessing. Most citizens were likely to be poorly-informed and easily misinformed; those with very strong opinions or interests are most likely to participate; groups will form that might or might not have the public interest in mind; and “refining” the public’s views through elected representatives is one of the surest ways to overcome temporary or local prejudices. At the same time, especially at the local level, direct participation in agenda-setting, the formulation of alternatives, and decision making certainly can be useful, even essential. But the US and other nations continue to struggle with the balance between public participation and technical expertise, especially as policy matters become more complex.

Likewise, “good governance” has always been a challenge, as the Framers anticipated. People and groups will disagree about the purpose and proper role of government. To some, “good governance” means active public involvement in rectifying injustice wherever it occurs; to others, there are important separations between pubic and private spheres of interest and action. Madison and others described the protection of “liberty” (security under the rule of just laws) and “the protection of diversity” of people’s interests and opinions as “the first object of government.”

How these broad concepts of government purposes and processes apply to issues of sustainability is controversial because this topic raises difficult questions about the balancing of current and intergenerational interests, about the definition and measurement of costs and benefits across a huge range of issues and interests, and about deep ethical questions that force us to confront the tradeoffs between individual autonomy, altruism, collective responsibilities, and, for many, religious and cultural beliefs. Sustainability asks us to think about our trust in each other, in “others,” and in our institutions; it demands that we consider whether progress (technological, economic, or moral) is inevitable or dependent on our individual and political choices; it challenges us to compare alternative futures that are a mixture of the mundane familiar and the utopian or dystopian unimaginable.

How is this big idea applied to sustainable communities?

How do policy makers make policies when they know that they have insufficient causal models or data to make very reliable predictions about the outcomes of their actions? Given the complexity and temporal scale of many sustainability issues, this is a very germane question, but policymaking systems in the US and other countries have found the means to try. My research on cognitive capacities, political mechanisms, and institutional designs -- in the public and private sectors -- for long-term decision making usually revolves around questions of "good governance": who decides, and on what basis? Whether examining how the century-old National Park Service has adapted to change, the decision of a CEO to include social responsibility in a business strategy, or the shaping of local or global climate change policies, the balancing of short-term and long-term benefits and costs is a central question in my research.

Learn more:

James Madison. The Federalist, No. 10. An essential short essay on American government by one of its creators: how do we design a self-restricting system that promote democratic ideals but avoids dominance by the majority or harmful factions?

Gregory Kavka. 1982.   "The Paradox of Future Individuals,"  Philosophy and Public Affairs, 11: 93-122. A good introduction to the ethical questions of what we owe to people who haven't been born yet.

Lawrence Summers and Richard Zeckhauser, 2008. "Policymaking for Posterity," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 115-140. Can standard economic models, including the discounting of goods and risks, be applied across intergenerational time scales?

Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress, New York: Basic Books, 1980. Are "sustainability" and "progress" compatible? Nisbet never mentions sustainability, but his study of the roots of the idea of "progress" are enlightening: how does the concept relate to religion, freedom, power, equality, and justice?