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Kevin Elliott on the Campbell Conversations

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Kevin Elliott
Kevin Elliott

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. It seems like we've all become busier than we were in the past, from schoolchildren up through retirees. Given that, all the information that's available on the internet, some of it unreliable, how much can we reasonably expect from our fellow citizens to engage the political system and how can we make that engagement easier, more rational and more fair? My guest today is Kevin Elliott. He's a lecturer in ethics, politics and economics at Yale University and he's the author of a new book that tries to tackle those questions. It's titled, “Democracy for Busy People”. Professor Elliott, welcome to the program.

Kevin Elliott: It’s a pleasure to be here.

GR: Well, it's great to have you, and thanks for making the time. So, first of all, before I ask you a question, I'm going to start by putting on another hat, rather than radio host and that, my hat is political scientist and not only a political scientist, but a political scientist who studies and teaches democratic theory. I just want to applaud you personally for taking on this challenge, it's a big one. So thank you for that. My first question may sound obvious, but still, I wanted to ask you anyway. Why did you decide to write this book when you did? And how did you get the idea for it?

KE: Yeah. So you know, when I was looking around, reading in democratic theory, reading in political theory and trying to kind of pick my way through the world that it depicts, the political world that it conveys. I saw an absence of one particular person and this was people like my mother. My mother was a single working parent without a college degree. And insofar as there was a place for people like her in these texts about democracy that I was reading, it was either that she was absent, that is to say that there was no place for her at all, or the place was silent and sort of out of the picture. And so one of the reasons that I wrote the book and I asked the questions that are tackled in the book is precisely to try to make sense of like, where can we locate, within a healthy flourishing democracy, people who maybe don't have a large amount of time, maybe are not particularly familiar with politics and with the kind of ins and outs of all of the, you know, what bills being heard today on the floor of the, you know, people like that. Is there a place for them? If so, what might it look like? So that was one of the big things that was sort of motivating me. This just like absence of people like my mother, of whom it turns out when we look sort of empirically, there are a lot of these people around, as it turns out, millions and millions.

GR: Absolutely, yeah, that's really interesting. So your book is broken into two main parts as far as I gathered from reading in it. And the first one is, what we can reasonably ask and expect from citizens. And the other is about changes we might make to the system to, just as you said, find a place for people like your mother, how can we make changes to the system to make active citizenship more equitable and more accessible? So let me start with the first of those, what we can and should expect from ourselves and our fellow citizens. You write about floors of expectation, and you also write about when we're asking too much. Let me start with the floor. What's the minimum? What's the minimum here for citizens?

KE: Yeah. So let me just clarify one thing about the floor. So the idea here is like, when people do a thing, you know, we typically have a sense of like, what's the minimum level? What's the minimum standard, right? What's passable, what's acceptable, right? And we commonly will mark out that there's like a difference between doing something really excellently, doing something acceptably and then doing something unacceptably like sort of like pass, fail, excel, right? Something like that. A lot of our ideas about democratic citizenship and about what we want sort of out of democracy, kind of elide that middle category it seems to me. We often will just kind of think that like, a good citizen really has this incredibly demanding set of tasks, right? That a really good citizen, being a good citizen is very, very hard and so it's very easy for us to fail. So one of the things that I've tried to do is articulate this like, a minimum, a minimally acceptable standard that will allow us to recognize when someone is being a responsible citizen without being necessarily, while leaving I should say, lots of space for someone to excel to do further, to do more than that, and then sort of demonstrate their like civic virtue or what have you. So on my account, the minimum starts with paying attention to politics, political interest. Ideally, this would be in a critical mode. So we're like observing what's happening in politics and then we're also thinking about it, we're reflecting about it, we're turning it over. Maybe we're talking about it with people that we know, again, in a critical way, in a questioning way. And then on top of that, we also want to make sure that we have the skills, the minimum set of skills that will enable us to step into politics if we recognize, step in actively into politics if we recognize that we are needed, that there's some major issue that is sort of, you know, in play. And it seems to me that when we put those two things together, we have a kind of a surveillance capacity, we're watching. And then we're also able to step in and participate actively. We put those together and you get what I call, “stand by citizenship” and that's the kind of minimum that I articulate.

GR: Okay. Now, we could probably have an hour long conversation about this next question, but briefly if you could, so that does get in to one thing that, you know, you and I know there are both long debates about, which is okay, but do people then have to participate, is it voluntary? Is it, must you at least vote? Or can you just decide to say, I'm going to watch, I'm going to pay attention, but you know what, I'm good with my life, I'm just going to let the thing go.

KE: Right. And so the book is a little bit, I don't take a very hard line on this. I tend to think that you will need to participate actively, sometimes. I do advocate mandatory voting in in the book. I do think that that is a kind of, a sort of a reasonable part of a package of the minimum, in part because voting is habitual and it's the kind of thing that we can come back to periodically. And it's a way to sort of upkeep our civic skills because I know where my polling place is, I have an incentive to touch base with the kind of what's going on in the news, what's going on in the political world. But I don't really take a very hard line on like, you must be engaged in this kind of way. I do think there is a kind of, shall we say, not being fully active that is consistent with good citizenship. One of the examples I give is like, if you sort of observe the political world and you find that people like you are very well represented, basically, like people have heard from people like you very, very thoroughly, maybe it's okay if you take a step back and don't necessarily need to be, you know, heard even more, right? Like, oh, I'm just going to echo what he said and what the seven people before him said. You know, maybe that's sort of okay.

GR: Yeah, it's like a horrible business meeting where eight people say exactly the same thing, but they're all going to say it. (laughter)

KE: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It's like yeah, we know, we know what this view is.

GR: I'm Grant Reeher. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is Yale Professor Kevin Elliott, and we've been discussing his new book, “Democracy for Busy People”. Well, let me delve deeper into this in terms of when things might be problematic in terms of our expectations, how much can we expect then? You said you want citizens to, you know, be analytical, be critical when they're taking in this world, this political world. But there's a, as I said at the outset, there's just gobs of information out there. Not all of it is reliable and some of it is deliberately misleading or false. How much can we expect individual citizens to be their own quality control agents in the information they consume?

KE: Yeah, the information environment, changes in the information environment are definitely an enormous challenge. And not just, of course, to the kind of picture that I'm painting here of democratic citizenship. And, you know, I don't have a sort of holistic response to these challenges. These are things that lots of colleagues, lots of people in media and in political science and in other corners of academia have been struggling with for a long time. So there's a lot to be said for sort of, cultivating a rich media diet. That is to say, you know, not relying on any one source. There's also a role to be played here, and this is one of the sort of themes I hope that comes out of my book that, there's a role to be played by basically wider political, the wider political system. So here I think about sort of media regulators, Congress, political parties, that is to say other actors than the individual citizen. So one of the most important insights, or I should say one of the most important points that I make, hopefully it's an insight for readers, is that it's a little bit of a mistake to think that it's up to the individuals themselves to correct for the sort of systematic malformations and pathologies of our information environment. A lot of the work that needs to be done is at the level of, let's say, platforms. So, for instance, it's my understanding Facebook recently changed some elements of its algorithm, which really kind of downplayed political news. And this actually led to an enormous collapse in traffic towards, in particular, very, very high profile sources of political misinformation. And so this was a change internal to the platform. They didn't do it necessarily out of a concern for the sort of integrity of the information environment, they had other interests, but it is the kind of thing where it's like, it should not properly be up entirely to the individuals. You know, it takes a village not only to raise a child, but also to cultivate a healthy information environment. So we as individuals, we should be trying to cultivate a rich information diet, absolutely. But it's also an important responsibility of those who are managing our information environment, who are adding to it through their role as journalists or as sort of the administrators of our platforms to also have in mind what kinds of sources do our algorithmic amplification processes amplify? Who is amplified? Where does this traffic go? Which is just another way of saying the information environment is a broader construction and so we as individuals can only be expected to have so much responsibility on us.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Kevin Elliott. He's a lecturer and ethics, politics and economics at Yale University and he's the author of a new book titled, “Democracy for Busy People” and we've been discussing what he has to say there. So before the break, Kevin, you laid out the responsibility then that the providers of information have to kind of, in a sense, sort out quality control, maybe to some degree pre-digest what it is that the citizen is getting. But of course, it brings up the huge question of what if those folks are deliberately trying to mislead us? And I'm not going to name names here, but we can think of sources in the media and political officials and former officials who have done that and are doing that. So how do we handle that? Is that just a question of those people falling down on their civic morals, or does the public sector have a role to play in trying to make sure that that works the way it's supposed to?

KE: Yeah. So, you know, one of the biggest sources of misinformation is social media. So let me say a word about sort of the structure of social media, probably a lot of your listeners will be familiar with this, but it's useful to have this little bit of a wonky, little bit of a jargony word, but it's very helpful for understanding the dilemma here and this is the word: disintermediation.

GR: (laughter) Wow! Let’s say it again, “disintermediation”!

KE: Yes, say it with me now - multiple syllables, multiple syllabic word, yeah, disintermediation. So, what social media does is it eliminates the traditional gatekeepers in media, right? So traditionally you had editors, you had journalists, to some extent publishers and what these figures did was that they stood between news consumers and the world, that is to say, the world of events and so forth. And so as we've seen, journalism when we see headlines about newspapers closing and journalists being laid off, what we're seeing is the collapse of those gatekeepers. And in the age of social media, the reason for this is because now we are directly getting information through, typically through social media channels and so this has just eviscerated the revenue model of traditional sources of media. So, this is a removal of these mediating these people who are in between, that's why disintermediation. Okay, so that's how it appears, right? And that is indeed what has happened, that is to say, traditional gatekeepers have gone. But with the rise of social media platforms, these platforms appear to be sort of invisible. They appear to be, as it were, neutral spaces, right?

GR: Right.

KE: But of course, they're not, right? They are carefully cultivated, carefully controlled and algorithmically governed. That is to say, the algorithms created by the platform or the company governing them governs the kind of material that's amplified that you're likely to see and so forth. So one of the things that we need to be thinking about, and here is where I do think there is a role for regulators is, what exactly is a platform, how should we understand it? I think we are still lacking a nice, clear firm publicly shared understanding of what exactly a platform is and what it ought to be, and thus how it should be regulated. Is it like, should we imagine it like the public square, right, in like, you know, ancient Athens or something, in which case we would want to make sure that it has also, you know, high, high amounts of neutrality and so forth? Or do we want to make sure that we have moderation policies in mind that are transparent and for which there are various types of appeal processes? If you think that you have been sort of moderated out of a platform in reasonable ways, rather in unreasonable ways. And indeed, like so Facebook has done an enormous, Meta I suppose, has created this like board that is supposed to be making these types of high level policy decisions regarding moderation practices. Here at Yale, there's been a number of kind of conversations between people in political science and people in democratic theory indeed, with some people from these platforms who are exactly trying to figure out like, what's the right model for this internal process? So this is a kind of self-regulation, right? So it's really not regulatory from the state, but in a way they're trying to like get ahead of that, right? They recognize that insofar as there are enormous problems of misinformation, insofar as violence is potentially being, and not potentially we know, in fact, right? Violence has been coordinated on some of these platforms, fast. Like we're talking about like hundreds of thousands of people have been subject to violence, killed through campaigns that have been coordinated on these platforms. They are not, they shouldn't necessarily be treated as these just sort of neutral like an email system or a phone system, right? They are something different than that. So all of this is to say that we should be thinking, we need to have a clear understanding, a publicly salient understanding. So this is an issue that our political parties should be thinking about. This is something that our elected officials should be thinking about. This is something that regulators should be trying to kind of formulate a theory that also allows us to talk about it, you know, sensibly in a public forum like this one and that would allow us to identify what kinds of rules do we not have, what kinds of rules would make for best practices for companies who might be trying to avoid the heavy hand, as it were, of government regulation, and if they can't, right, what should that heavy hand look like? What should they be seeking to establish? And so all of that is in some ways quite distant from the individual news consumer, right? The individual citizen. But in many ways, right. Like we as individuals can only do so much with the direction of our attention. We should try to recognize when news is a attracting us because it's making us feel angry. We should be sort of emotionally aware that that's, infuriating content is the kind that spreads virally. So before you re-tweet or repost or whatever, some piece of news, think about like, why am I doing that? Like, why am I sharing this thing? You know, is this really helpful, is it even true? Like, there's a lot of, there's a role for individual responsibility, absolutely. But it needs, we really want to be thinking also systematically here. We as individuals should be trying to be more controlled, we should be trying to be more reflective. We should approach our posting, as it were, with a degree of understanding that like, I am the gatekeeper, right? For the other people in my feed, other people are connected to me. And take up that responsibility in a way that is defensible.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and my guest is Professor Kevin Elliott. And we've been discussing his new book titled, “Democracy for Busy People”. I want to give you some time here at the end to set forward, like your one or two most important changes you'd like to see made in the system. But I wanted to ask you one in particular, and this may sound quirky, but it's something that I think about a lot because I teach in different programs for people who are from other countries trying to learn about the American political process. One of the things that really flabbergasts most of them when I give them a list of this is the frequency with which, and the number of different positions, I, as a citizen am asked to vote on. And so I will do a little exercise and I'll say, okay, let's see who I voted for this year, you know, and it might be like, okay, President, they all understand that. But, you know, 10 minutes later, I get down to, and the guy who is in charge of maintaining the roads in my little town, you know, and in the meantime, we've talked about library budgets and school budgets and school boards and governors and state legislators and local legislators and the list goes on and on and on, not to mention referendums, okay? So sometimes I've admired other systems for being simpler for the average citizen to understand like the British one. Do you think that we should try to consolidate these offices or voting decisions in some way and how might we do it?

KE: Yeah. So you're pointing to what I talk about in the text is sort of regime complexity, basically.

GR: Yes.

KE: So, yeah, as a voter, right? As a citizen, not just a voter, but as a citizen, if you're trying to understand, like, why did this particular thing happen? Why did this, why was this policy made? Why is this problem persisting as the case may be? And trying to kind of sort that out is quite complicated, right?

GR: Yeah, who do you hold accountable?

KE: Who do you hold accountable? Exactly. I think one of the best examples of this is like, you know, Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid. And so if you're somebody who's in a state that has not expanded Medicaid and you fall into that group of people who would have otherwise been covered under the expansion of the Affordable Care Act, who do you blame for that, right? Because, is it Congress who passed the ACA and did it in a way that allowed, or maybe didn't allow, but, right? They passed a law, the Supreme Court took a run at it and they sort of turned a thing that was supposed to be mandatory into a thing that was actually voluntary, right?

GR: Right.

KE: And then your state legislature chose or didn't choose to expand Medicaid as a result of that. So there's a bunch of different failure points there, right? To say, well, why didn't Congress fix this problem after the Supreme Court? So you could blame Congress, you could blame the court, you could blame your state legislature. And so in this way, responsibility kind of dissolves. And so you as a voter, like I'm not sure who to be mad at, right? This is actually very complicated. So for me, I think one of, you mentioned local government and this is also another feature of our system. We have not two levels of government, but three, right? And this, it's important for Americans to understand in some ways the option set available to us is sometimes invisible. If you were to say, boy, it's kind of weird that we don't understand who to blame for such and such thing. And people say, okay, but yeah, but like, what's the alternative, right? In lots of countries, you know, local governments are appointed by either the national government or a state level government, right? So what if you don't elect your mayor? What if you don't elect your sheriff, right? Why do we have these locally elected offices? It doesn't always make a huge amount of sense. And it's very important that one of the key reasons for being concerned about this is that as the ballot gets longer, right, as the number of offices that we're expected to talk about get longer, the electorate who actually selects it becomes smaller. So we should be looking to de-complexify our politics, I think, as much as possible. I think it's important to locate decisions at a place where we have accountability, where we can find electoral accountability. When we have small electorates, that is bad. When turnout is very low for powerful offices, that's not good. So we want to have accountability at a place that people can identify who is to blame. Federal government, national politics tends to be the right level for this for a lot of things because the most eyes can fall on that level.

GR: We've only got about a minute and a half left, but I wanted to give you a chance to, is there another big, important change that you could describe briefly that you would want our listeners to walk away with thinking about that would help this?

KE: One of the things that I think we want to have in the United States are strong political parties. Political parties tend to be very, Americans tend to be skeptical of political parties for a whole variety of ways. But parties are actually one of the most important institutions for making politics understandable for ordinary citizens. When we try to understand what the stakes are, when we try to understand what the issues are, when we try to understand also just where should we be looking for these important issues, where should we be focusing our political attention and efforts? Political parties help us to convey that. In the post Dobbs world for instance, we've seen a lot of activist energy in the states who have initiatives. So they've been trying to focus activist effort at the level that the change that people are interested in can occur. So I think we want to strengthen political parties. And also we would like, it's good for us to think about ways to diversify the parties that we have. That is to say, if we could have more parties in single party states, this would be a way to enrich our political conversation. And also hold our political parties more accountable. Single party states are terrible for political accountability because the party in power doesn't have to worry about being voted out of office.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. But I just want to add, there are all sorts of other important and interesting suggestions that you make. So I really do want to encourage our listeners to take a look at this book. That was Kevin Elliott, and again, his new book of his is titled, “Democracy for Busy People”. Professor Elliott, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

KE: Thank you so much for having me. It was a wonderful conversation.

GR: It was my pleasure. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.



Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.