Americans have tried repeatedly and often in earnest to make their political system better, but despite some important and widely acclaimed achievements, dissatisfaction with it is as high as ever. The dominant American method has been to try to solve the problems of democracy with more democracy, a populist approach that expands citizen democratic opportunities to participate in, observe, and control government in order to remedy and prevent problems that arise with representative government.
As logical as it seems to most Americans, this strategy fails when it overestimates citizen capacity and commitment and ignores the critical role intermediaries inevitably play in any sizeable democratic setting. As a consequence, reforms intended to empower the average voter can have the opposite effect. For instance, the party primary system that was supposed to give voters control over candidate nominations is often co-opted by grassroots activists. The small to mid-range donors prioritized by campaign finance laws are often more ideological than average voters. And stakeholders, not the general public, most often utilize opportunities for public testimony at agency hearings. A generation ago, democratic theorists worried about whether American democracy properly reflected intensities of preference. Today, the concern is that the system may reflect intense and concentrated preferences too much.
Attempts to deny or suppress the realities of pluralism, then, are self-defeating. They should rather be incorporated more explicitly into political design. The goal should be to make the proxy representation of citizens by interest groups, non-profits, political parties, and other intermediaries as fair and effective as possible. This is not just an abstract, theoretical observation. It turns out that populist and pluralist viewpoints lead to different policy conclusions about future reforms.
The pressure to expand opportunities for American citizens to observe and participate in government stems from the public’s many disappointments with representative government and the higher expectations of a more educated electorate. Radical populism embraces the dream of unfiltered democracy. One clear institutional expression of this idea is the direct citizen’s initiative, which allows voters to bypass the legislature and enact laws by popular vote. For those who are frustrated by the failures of elected officials, radical populism offers the seductive possibility that citizens can take responsibility for their own governance without the wasteful interference of representation. A less radical, more common version of modern populism accepts the need for representative government, but demands more elections and novel opportunities for citizens to observe and participate in government in order to monitor and control their elected officials more effectively.
But citizen limitations pose serious obstacles to realizing both the radical and moderate populist visions. Even the most highly educated citizens lack sufficient expertise, motivation, and resources to make the many decisions required in an increasingly complex society. Faced with the high demands of modern citizenship, people either retreat into other pursuits entirely (the citizen slacker phenomenon, or what some have called rational apathy) or depend upon cues and cognitive shortcuts from political parties, interest groups, talk radio, and cable-TV celebrities to guide them through the complexities of modern government.
The pluralist reality is that the effort to gain more direct citizen control over policies and public officials cannot eliminate citizen dependence on intermediaries. Any resort to direct democracy to bypass representative government provides a new class of election entrepreneurs to in effect formulate policy and get it qualified for the ballot. Empower new citizen councils and conventions and the attendees become the new agents. Elect more representatives to check the ones that have disappointed or failed, and there are more delegations for citizens to monitor.
The original sin of citizenship is our cognitive fallibility; namely, limitations in knowledge and motivation. Representative government and pluralist design accept that fallibility, aiming for a democratic framework of competing groups and organized interests. The “more democracy” illusion downplays its importance and creates more opportunities for citizens to monitor, participate, and control government directly. When the process fails to produce the intended outcome, the inevitable disappointment merely generates a new cycle of “more democracy” efforts.
The fatal flaw in neo-populist logic is assuming too much of individual citizens. As a result, democratic opportunities created in the name of the majority all too often serve the interests of the better organized, wealthier, and more concentrated interests—the logic of collective action at work, as Mancur Olson famously named it. Efforts to increase transparency, reform campaign finance, or regulate lobbying at the national level have done little to weaken the hold of interest groups on politics at the Federal level. And watching California’s struggles, Americans sense that plebiscitary government can go horribly awry.
An alternative path to modern neo-populism is a more explicitly pluralist political reform agenda. To be clear, pure consistency in any one approach is not possible. The goal is not a consistently pluralist system, but rather to put a more explicitly pluralist design back into the picture. There is certainly room for populist initiatives, such as continued expansion of the electoral franchise or of certain types of direct democracy. There is also an important role for neutral expertise insulated from electoral influence at various phases of policymaking. But any successful reform blend must acknowledge that intermediaries are inevitable and should aim to make stakeholder competition as “fair” as possible by ensuring true contestation and compensating for collective action problems.
Pluralism assumes that citizen capacity is limited, that America is heavily invested in fractionated institutional power, and that intermediaries must play an important role in any democratic arrangement. The key to blending pluralism with the rising expectations of citizen control is to preserve, not supplant, retrospective electoral accountability, and to supplement representative government with new citizen tools and opportunities. The key to successfully mixing apolitical expertise with populism and pluralism is to provide enough protection from electoral pressures and pluralist influence to allow for rational, evidence-based deliberation while preserving the ultimate check of electoral accountability.
At the same time, neo-pluralists cannot ignore the collective-action and resource-inequality problems that can undermine pluralist designs. Because unfiltered citizen government in a large, complex society is not practical, democratic opportunities sometimes enable problematic pluralism—such as gerrymandering, interference with vote administration, or the professional co-optation of direct democracy. There is little prospect of levelling all power and influence in the U.S. democracy. A more achievable pair of goals to aim for is contestation and non-dominance: promoting open competition among the groups, organizations, and individuals who act as political intermediaries, and preventing one type of resource or interest (money, for example) from controlling all policy realms. Moreover, a more pluralist system in a large, diverse democracy should foster aggregation, compromise, and tolerance. This can sometimes mean sacrificing some degree of efficiency and effectiveness for the sake of generating consensus.
Pluralism openly acknowledges the need for intermediary agents such as political parties, interest groups, and lobbyists, and argues that the best feasible result is often the negotiated resolution of issues between these agents and public officials. The principle of political intermediation was formally expressed in the U.S. Constitution in the Electoral College and indirectly elected U.S. Senators. Rising democratic expectations have altered both. The practice of state legislatures choosing Senators ended with the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, and modern Electoral College delegates are expected to be invariably faithful to their state’s voting majority. Modern pluralist institutions—business-based interest groups, parties, advocacy non-profits, professional associations, and so forth—have no formal constitutional basis even though they are integral elements of the political system.
Again, political intermediaries are inevitable. The active few, the differentially impacted and the well organized are more likely to bear the costs of monitoring and influencing government. The normative vision of pluralism is that intermediaries can almost perfectly substitute for full citizen engagement and that this virtual representation will not result in democratic distortion. In a perfect pluralist world, citizens would not have to be well informed or actively engaged in public affairs in order to be well governed. They would take their cues from the intermediaries they trust under specific conditions. And if coalitions arise flexibly and membership is fluid, there would be no permanent winners or losers. Countervailing forces would prevent a skew and fashion a compromise.
Unguided, the empirical reality of intermediary politics does not always live up to pluralist ideals. Despite a post-World War II surge in non-profit interest groups willing to undertake the causes of the public generally, and the poor and the underserved in particular, there is abundant evidence that American interest-group pluralism often favors well-resourced and concentrated interests. Individuals and groups with these advantages tend to participate more than the less interested, inattentive majority. Individuals with a stake in policy are more likely to try to influence elected officials than those with dispersed or deferred interests. Special interest groups still dominate the lobbying arena, and a small number of wealthy donors still give more to candidates than many more small ones. Left uncorrected, as E.E. Schattschneider long ago observed in The Semisovereign People (1961), “the flaw in the pluralist heaven” continues to be various kinds of inequity in resources and political capacity.
Some hoped that political parties could correct interest group pluralism. Political parties are extra-constitutional institutions that over time have become officially embedded in U.S. government. There is no mention of political parties in the Constitution, and indeed mass-based political parties did not emerge in Anglo-American democracies until the 19th century. But ballot-access and sore-loser laws now protect the two major political parties from minor party challenges, and the process by which the parties select their nominees is subsidized by state-funded primaries and public financing for qualified candidates.
Political parties can correct some of the biases of interest-group pluralism by aggregating interests and creating broad coalitions across groups with different issue concerns and resource levels. But whether political parties aggregate interests or merely reflect them is a function of structure and circumstance. Recent Court decisions, such as Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and Speechnow.org v. FEC (2010), have enhanced the influence of party-affiliated groups that spend money independently at the expense of the official party organizations. This has provided convenient vehicles for special interest concerns to influence party nomination processes.
Moreover, the increasing dominance of money as a political resource undermines the pluralist ideal of offsetting and alternative ways to influence policy. Almost every campaign activity, not just paid media, has costs associated with it. Even so-called grassroots voter contact is guided by expensive computer-generated output and technical consultants. The confluence of wealth advantages and a dispersed network of independent Super PACs undercuts the coordination and aggregation benefits that American political parties could otherwise provide.
Moreover, the democratization of the party nomination processes through party primaries and caucuses has magnified the voice of party activists. This introduces another source of skew into the political system because party activists are both more likely to participate and to have more extreme views. The irony of new democracy opportunities intended for average citizens is that they are less likely to use them than are intermediaries.
The strengths of interest group and party pluralism are that they explicitly acknowledge the cognitive limitations of citizenship and the role that intermediaries such as the press, public figures, interest groups, and political parties play in enabling “as if “ citizenship (that is, citizens making choices as if they were fully motivated and well informed). Pluralist empirical predictions are in the spirit of Robert Michels’s “iron law of oligarchy”, but rather than focus on inevitable divisions between leaders and followers in any organization, they spotlight the role of intermediaries in helping citizens navigate the complexities of modern representative government. The pluralist ideal of aggregating broad coalitions capable of compromising differences in a diverse society is also appealing. It suggests a world capable of resolving differences fairly, without permanent winners and losers. But unless there are affirmative compensations, differences in citizen engagement and resources can transform a “pluralist” heaven into a political purgatory of rampant partisan and interest group influence. Because these behaviors are inevitable, the pluralist aspect of democratic design cannot be neglected. It won’t just happen by itself. A fairer version of pluralism needs to compensate for differences in the resources and capacities of groups to organize, moving beyond the party pluralism of Schattschneider.
The six general principles of a pluralist approach are as follows: preserve electoral accountability; supplement but do not supplant representative government; preserve in-process deliberative space for public officials while strengthening pre-process and post-process transparency; ensure fair competition between intermediaries through all stages of policy contestation; incentivize negotiation and coalition-building among intermediaries, not just elected officials; and balance procedural democracy and governance.
The first principle derives from the critical importance of electoral accountability to a democracy. This principle is shared with moderate populism. The moderate populist and the pluralist may disagree about the right amount of “electing”, with the pluralist being more attuned to the citizen’s limited capacity for effectively monitoring numerous elected officials.
The second principle separates the bold populist from the pluralist. The bold populist prefers direct citizen legislation to representative government. Pluralists and moderate populists can support referenda, recalls, and even indirect initiatives because they supplement and check representation without completely surrendering sovereignty to the plebiscitary will.
As for the third principle, while the populist believes in closely monitoring representatives at all phases of decision-making, the pluralist worries about the quality of discussion and the capacity for compromise when interest groups can look over the shoulders of public officials when they are trying to negotiate. That said, citizens and their intermediaries need to have full disclosure of critical materials used in the deliberations and also of subsequent decisions and documents.
The fourth and fifth principles address the gap between the ideals of pluralism and the unguided behavior of intermediaries. Competition between intermediaries—parties, interest groups, lobbyists, and so forth—ought to be reasonably fair. That means that in the realm of post-electoral influence, public officials should hear from opposing views, and wealth advantages should not translate into policy dominance. This will require more innovative ways of overcoming the collective-action problems that plague groups with dispersed interests.
Lastly, a large, complex society requires negotiation, compromise, and coalitions to solve problems and produce policies. Elected officials will be polarized if their core supporters and funders are unwilling to accept any policy concessions. The pluralist looks at incentives that intermediaries face to join coalitions and negotiate differences, including ways to encourage pre-electoral interest aggregation and legislative procedures that encourage a majority and minority to make deals with one another.
Too Much Transparency
The democratic imperative to expand opportunities for citizen participation and control can lead to problematic excess democracy, even as the U.S. political system continues to struggle in other areas with problems caused by too little democracy. This is because certain levels of U.S. government are more vulnerable than others to the democratic imperative. Because constitutional change is so hard at the Federal level, the too-much-democracy question arises more often at the state and local level, especially where barriers to change are weaker. That said, the democratic imperative has managed to make significant gains in policy arenas that are often the hardest to change, especially with respect to transparency and open-meeting expectations.
The populist seeks to maximize transparency about public officials. In its purest form, this would mean complete exposure of the private lives and finances of elected officials, full donor identity, sweeping Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rights to government information, including email and electronic communications, and the right to observe all government administrative and judicial processes. Since the populist goal is to ensure that government is very closely monitored, all-out transparency is an appealing means to that end.
Maximized transparency is more problematic for the pluralist. Pluralism predicts and empirical studies have confirmed that highly motivated citizens and organized interests are more likely than the average citizen to take advantage of opportunities to observe and get information from the government. Since opportunities to monitor public officials can be exploited to facilitate narrow interests and distort electoral mandates, transparency works when the press and non-profits use the same tools to exercise a countervailing force. The key element is not “public participation” as conceived by populists, but rather competition between intermediaries that virtually protects their publics.
Taken to excess, pluralists warn, full disclosure can also discourage political participation. For instance, the identities of individual campaign donors, who by design are allowed only to give at levels that do not pose a serious corruption threat, are nonetheless revealed publicly even as voting choices are protected by the secret ballot. Apart from the absence of any clear anti-corruption rationale for this, there is evidence that the prospect of public disclosure discourages some potential donors from giving amounts above the minimum disclosure threshold. Ironically, at the same time, unlimited contributions from 501(c)(4) organizations protect soft donor identity, incentivizing large donors to launder their Super PAC donations through the non-profits.
The pluralist favors disclosure boundaries and deliberative space. There are odd inconsistencies in the way we treat the disclosure of private citizens’ political activity. The vote is protected by the secret ballot to prevent intimidation and corrupt contracts. The data is semi-disclosed in the sense that a person’s identity is not displayed publicly, but precinct-level totals are reported, and in some places ballot image data without personal identifiers are also released. But the identities of those signing a direct democracy petition or donating within legal limits are publicly released. The strongest justification for identity disclosure is to promote enforcement of campaign finance laws by outside groups and political opponents. However, decentralized private and partisan enforcement of this type is distorted by incentives to exploit potential violations by an opponent for political gain, leading to exaggeration and unsubstantiated accusations.
A pluralist solution that would better protect citizen privacy is the concept of semi-disclosure. Voters and groups would be given a unique identification number to be used by Federal and state agencies to monitor compliance with campaign finance laws. Their information would be treated like census data, revealed in aggregated categories that help voters to identify the interests behind particular measures and candidates but anonymous with respect to any given individual’s personal identity.
Establishing disclosure boundaries for candidates, jurists, and political nominees who must undergo election or confirmation is a different case. The public has a right to know about the moral character of those who govern and interpret the laws, even though this information is often distorted and exaggerated in modern politics. Unfortunately, there is not much that can or should be done by formal regulation to solve this problem, other than to remind people that the temptation to ratchet up the legal requirements for disclosure to unreasonable levels can limit the pool of people willing to undertake public service. The determination of information that candidates for elected office must reveal publicly in a free democracy has to be guided by what voters feel they need to know in order to judge candidates to their satisfaction.
The pluralist concern for transparency boundaries also arises with respect to administrative decisions and policy implementation. The case for retrospective disclosure of government actions, decisions, and processes is clear. FOIA rights should be strong in this area, and rules about what remains classified should continue to be spelled out, overseen by Congress, and monitored by special courts. But some deliberative space should remain for public decision-making to limit posturing and increase the willingness to compromise. Accountability requires full transparency after the fact, but not necessarily at every step in the decision-making process.
The pluralist argues that open-meeting laws for commission, agency and legislative hearings must retain exceptions for executive sessions in which sensitive and legally vulnerable matters can be discussed without publicity. A pluralist wants to promote compromise and reconciliation; publicity can harden positions and cause participants to care too much about saving face. Working documents should have a period of privacy so that public officials can review and discuss them, and so that opinions can be shared frankly and without public posturing. As social psychology teaches, there are many presentations of self, particularly for people in the public eye. The context of a discussion can affect the quality of deliberation and ultimately the likelihood of coming to agreement. In the end, public officials have to be accountable for their actions, but they should also be given the best conditions under which to deliberate. Neo-populists want to monitor government closely because they do not trust their delegates and prefer their own opinions, however ill informed they may be. The pluralist is willing to trust the delegate to make decisions for a conditional period in return for retrospective accountability, and has less faith in pure citizen opinion to know the facts or to be able to compromise effectively.
The democratic imperative has led to election overload in several ways. First, there is an overwhelming number of elected offices in many parts of the United States. When general and special-purpose local government offices are added in, there are at least 500,000 elected positions in the United States. That means that in any given precinct, there may be a dozen or more ballot items, each requiring conscientious voters to monitor an incumbent’s record and challengers’ claims. The principled populist argument for elected offices, as described earlier, is to achieve more specific accountability on a given issue or policy area. In theory, disentangling issues gives voters more precise policy control. But the net benefit of separating offices and issue dimensions in this way increases the voter’s monitoring costs, especially for the less visible, down-ticket offices. It is far easier to be informed about the President of the United States than the State Controller or a mosquito abatement director. The electoral burden is even greater in direct democracy states like California, due to numerous local measures and explanatory ballot pamphlets the size of big-city phone books. Add in elected judicial offices, and the citizen burden in some parts of the United States can be crushing (San Francisco is a good example). It may be impossible to know exactly when the benefits of more specific accountability are less than the increased monitoring costs, but there will be some point at which the election overload is manifested by high drop-off on ballot items and lower participation rates.
In addition to the amount of electing that is going on, another cause of voter fatigue is the length of the American electing period. Election cycles have extended for a variety of reasons, partly in response to early and absentee voting. If voters are casting their ballots earlier, candidate persuasion and party mobilization activities are pushed to earlier points in the electoral cycle to ensure that messages get to those voters in a timely fashion.
The incentives of political consulting have also contributed to the lengthening of campaign periods. Campaign consultants have to deal with large swings in demand for their services. It is in their economic interest to smooth out the peaks and valleys of these cycles by being retained earlier, and, in some cases, even taking positions in the government between elections to provide strategic political advice (like Karl Rove for the Bush Administration or David Axelrod for the Obama Administration). As many have noted, American politics has drifted into permanent campaign mode, where policy and electoral strategy have fused. And when incumbents are in permanent campaign mode, challengers must get started early or risk being drowned out. The United States did not collectively decide that it would do more electing or extend the campaign season. This state of affairs evolved through separate decisions at different points in time.
One by-product of voter overload is citizen shirking—either abstaining from voting entirely or from making choices at the bottom of the ballot. Ironically, as the number of electoral opportunities rises, the participation level goes down. Low-turnout elections are more vulnerable to the pathologies of differential preference intensity. As the average citizen withdraws or votes in an uninformed way, those who might benefit or lose more directly from the outcome are over-represented, giving them an edge in policy outcomes.
There is no easy solution to the proliferation of elected offices. Since it is primarily a state and local government problem, it could theoretically be resolved by state constitutional reviews. Unfortunately, state constitutional revisions and conventions are increasingly rare. The forces opposing constitutional change are more sophisticated and more deeply invested in the status quo. Elected officials are unlikely to help reduce the number of elected offices, as it would amount to a job reduction plan for them. The only politically feasible way to do this would be for a broad coalition of business, labor, and citizen groups to take the lead by conducting citizen forums, polling, and other research about possible office reductions, and then introducing changes as separate state constitutional amendments. It would be a systematic review combined with a disaggregated political strategy that avoids the coalition-of-enemies problem referred to earlier (namely, a coalition of interests that each oppose a specific provision of change).
Direct democracy states should meanwhile consider steps to limit the proliferation of popular measures. The most difficult aspect of putting limits on the number of ballot measures is coordinating between county, city, special district, and state efforts. Secretaries of State should have the power to review and advise on ballot congestion so as to at least inform particular jurisdictions of potential logjams. Stronger still would be aggregate limits on the total number of measures on a ballot, with wait lists for bumped measures to carry over to the next election.
Campaigns should be shortened as well, but this is an even harder problem to regulate. The goal would be to shield voters from overload and burnout without giving an advantage to incumbents and infringing on constitutional rights of association and speech. Incumbents enjoy advantages such as the franking privilege and so-called free media attention related to their activities in office. Placing time limits on candidate activity poses the danger of tipping the balance even more toward incumbents. But paid media advertising imposes political messages on viewers as an externality of their entertainment habits (such as listening to the radio or watching TV). Although the nuisance factor has been lessened to some degree with the advent of the mute button on the remote control clicker, it still exists, especially since political ads have to be repeated more often due to the fracturing of the media into so many stations and channels.
Total prohibitions on political ads on TV and radio are not feasible. But we do recognize soft incentives in the form of differential rates and formal declarations of candidacy. For instance, in order to qualify for “the lowest unit charge for the same class and amount of time for the same period”, a person running for office must be an officially declared candidate and the ad must fall within a 45- or sixty-day window for a primary or primary runoff and special or general election, respectively. Those windows could be narrowed to thirty days for the sake of public sanity.
Beyond Representative Government
Some forms of direct democracy and citizen governance challenge retrospective electoral accountability and traditional representative government. Referendums, recalls, and legislatively initiated ballot measures mostly do not, nor do participatory budgeting experiments that give citizens direct input into a portion of the budget subject to final legislative approval. They all use citizen input to supplement, not supplant, representative government. The same cannot be said of the citizens’ initiative, which gives political consultants and interest groups the ability to propose statues and constitutional amendments unilaterally and gives voters the unchecked power to approve them. To the populists, there is nothing wrong with this since they believe that policy should be the pure expression of majority public opinion. The pluralist is skeptical of both the wisdom of unchecked power and the assumption that initiative votes are the pure expression of public interest.
There is a significant difference between incentivizing representatives to act like delegates and bypassing them directly. The threat of a recall or referendum can motivate representatives to adhere more closely to what voters want. A recall election makes an immediate retrospective judgment rather than delay it until the next regularly scheduled election. A referendum separates candidate from issue approval, allowing voters to keep the representative but rid themselves of the policy. In this sense, both the recall and the referendum are refinements of retrospective accountability and representative government. The experience at the state level to date is that these mechanisms are used sparingly, mainly when voters feel deeply betrayed. By contrast, the direct popular initiative overrides representative government entirely and imposes policy with little or no opportunity for public officials to amend or abandon it later. This can produce serious problems for fiscal policy in particular, tying the hands of legislators with revenue constraints and inflexibly appropriated expenditures.
One could make a strong case that there is too little supplementing at the national level and too much supplanting in certain states like California. At the national level, there are no direct democracy mechanisms. This seals off any direct expression of public policy sentiment except for electing government officials. A sensible initial step in the direct democracy direction might be advisory measures that allow the public to weigh in on important public measures before Congress. It would have the additional benefit of being a testing ground for internet-based voting systems. Given democratic distortion problems due to the American campaign finance system, the revolving door, and a powerful lobbying industry, periodic internet-based advisory voting could become a useful counterbalance to interest-group influence on Congress and stimulate more policy focus among the public.
It is also worth considering whether the Federal system’s constitutional amendment process should be altered in some way to avoid legislative vetoes. It is odd and somewhat anomalous in the modern era that the most frequently used path for U.S. constitutional amendment involves approval by elected officials at both the national and state level. It certainly makes sense that critical rule and institutional changes require supermajority votes, but giving a monopoly over reform to elected officials is problematic to say the least, and expecting conventions to work in the modern era is unrealistic. At least some part of the Federal constitutional amendment process could be given over to direct popular vote, for example a majority national advisory vote that triggers automatic congressional consideration of a proposed constitutional amendment followed by the current process of state ratification.
Some direct democracy states have the opposite problem: It is too easy to change their constitutions, and the popular initiative power is unchecked. Voters in those states to date have been unwilling to give up the initiative power, but might be more open to less drastic measures such as requiring supermajority votes for constitutional measures, allowing only indirect constitutional initiatives, or placing subject-matter restrictions (as many states already do) on technical subjects dealing with the budget and taxes. When constitutional change can be accomplished by a simple majority vote of the electorate, as opposed to a supermajority legislative vote, a political path of least resistance emerges for initiative entrepreneurs. A balance between direct and representative democracy requires rule symmetry. In general, a pluralist is skeptical of losing checks and balances. So if the direct popular initiative is to have a role, it should be limited to reforms where elected officials have a conflict of interest, and it should be decided by supermajority rules.
What can reinstating pluralist ideas into the reform mix do for us? To begin with, it might prevent us from doing more harm by opening the system up to yet more veto points and potential democratic distortions in the name of popular sovereignty. Recognizing the limitations of average citizens does not mean giving up on efforts to educate them or promoting higher levels of citizenship, but it does mean making sure that the interests of people without a direct and immediate stake in the game are not pushed aside. The competition between those with competing ideologies and material interests (such as those looking for tax breaks, regulatory relief, or trade restrictions) provides some pluralist mix, but one that is skewed on many issues compared to the rest of the electorate.
Making stakeholder democracy fairer means finding ways to offset the advantages that those with more interest and organizational resources have in policymaking. A start would be to address revolving-door problems by developing a more stable, compensated neutral career path for legislative committee staff to equalize the expertise in and out of Congress. It might also require more exotic solutions, such as encouraging public lobbyists who can draft bill language and speak up for groups without resources or voucher systems that put average citizens in the campaign finance game.
Pluralism also puts the focus back on managing partisan and ideological differences through compromise and negotiation. There is no single public interest in a large, complex society. Even if the public did fully participate and attempt to inform itself conscientiously, there would still be no guarantee of consensus on important issues. A good political system manages disagreement and forges what it can out of division and cleavages. This means taking a hard look at the incentives for compromise among political elites and officials. California was unable to pass budgets on time as long as there was no personal consequence for elected officials and when it gave the minority party a veto. Proposition 25 in 2010 eliminated the two-thirds vote requirement, as well as legislator pay for each day the budget was overdue. The consequence has been on-time budgets every year since. If the political system is not compromising, the answer is to redesign the incentives of those who hold the delegated power, not to manufacture more opportunities for citizen engagement.