Reviving democratic citizenship – Fellows’ seminar by Bruce Ackerman

22 March 2018

“Many of our inherited civic institutions are dead or dying. There has been a disintegration of social democracy in many countries. We need an ambitious reform programme to revive democratic life — both in the US and in South Africa.”

“This is a turning point in American history. The next few years are important. If Trump wins again, we can forget it. There is, however, still a broad-based progressive movement in the US. The critical thing is to put a powerful reform programme onto the political agenda now – so that if progressives win in the coming elections, we will be in a position to act effectively after beating Trump in 2020. We are in a race against time,” said Bruce Ackerman.

Ackerman - 1
STIAS Fellow Bruce Ackerman during his seminar presentation on 1 March 2018

Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, and the author of 18 books that have had a broad influence in political philosophy, constitutional law and public policy. His major works include Social Justice in the Liberal State and his multi-volume constitutional history, We the People.

In a seminar with STIAS fellows, he discussed a four-pronged ‘citizenship agenda’ which he believes can yield a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.

“My aim is to put ideas onto the political agenda,” he said, “before it’s too late.”

The four proposals include a campaign finance initiative which grants each voter 50 ‘patriot dollars’ to fund candidates and political parties of their choice in each presidential election cycle; a proposal for a national holiday, Deliberation Day, held two weeks before each election, at which citizens gather at local community events to debate the merits of rival candidates; a system of state-financed electronic news vouchers to permit professional journalism to survive, and; a citizenship inheritance of $120,000 granted to young Americans as they start off life as adults.

“This ‘citizen-stake’ should be financed by an annual tax of 2 per cent on all family wealth over $1.5 million. Even assuming very substantial tax evasion, enough would remain,” he said.

“140 million Americans voted in 2016,’ he added. “If each also contributed 50 ‘democracy dollars’ to their favoured causes and candidates, this would amount to 7 billion dollars — roughly the same amount contributed in old-fashioned ‘green’ dollars. This would break the grip of the super-rich on candidate funding,” he said.

“It means ordinary people will be talking about politics with a new seriousness as they consider which candidate should get their democracy dollars. It also means that candidates have an interest in organising ordinary people,” said Ackerman.

“Similarly, Deliberation Day is about encouraging conversation so that democracy is not just a name. Instead, the vote would be the product of far more serious citizen discussion than it is today.”

“People would be paid to turn up at an event where they would deliberate on key issues presented by political parties. It’s about finding out what normal people think,” he added.

Turning to his proposal on enhancing independent journalism, Ackerman pointed out that the number of journalists in the US has declined from 59 000 to 30 000 and that many state capitals have no political journalists.

“It’s even worse elsewhere in the world,” he continued. “Many citizens therefore rely on international newspapers and internet sites which don’t contain local and national politics in a serious way.”

“To respond to this crisis in public opinion formation, I propose the creation of a national endowment for journalism. In the United States, for example, the endowment would receive an annual appropriation of $2 billion, which would be distributed by the decisions of individual citizens. At the end of each article they read on the web, they would be given the opportunity of checking a box that indicates their belief that the article enhanced their understanding as citizens. The endowment funding would then be distributed on the basis of clicks. This system creates a powerful incentive for journalistic co-operatives to arise to meet the new citizen demand for analysis and information.”

Fostering opportunities for youth    

Ackerman says the citizenship inheritance – probably the most controversial of his proposals – is “about giving young people a chance to shape their lives. It’s also about restoring intergenerational justice. The distribution of wealth is transparently unjust in countries like the US and South Africa. It is only fair for the wealthy to pay 2 per cent a year to give their fellow citizens a head start in life.”

He pointed out that the idea — without the wealth tax — had been tried out in the United Kingdom under the Blair government. “The Child Trust Fund provided all children born in the UK with a bank account of up to £500, depending on their parents’ income. While it was repealed by David Cameron in 2012, it has been put on the agenda by leading candidates in France, Germany and the United States (Hillary Clinton in 2008, but not in 2016).”

When asked about the possibility of individual’s wasting away the inheritance, he replied: “Of course there will be those who blow the whole inheritance in one go. But because some people make a mess of freedom is not a reason to deny others the right to shape their lives.”

“There would need to be school courses to teach people how to use the money and built-in incentives – like you only receive the money once you graduate high school,” he continued.

Turning to current South African political discussions around land redistribution, Ackerman proposed his citizenship inheritance idea as one possible alternative. “Land is one source of capital,” he said. “Cash and human capital are others. Only a small proportion of wealth is in land. The universal move has been away from land to liquid assets and human capital. The emphasis on land is not central to the life expectancy of most South Africans. Most young people are moving to urban centres where there is more liquid capital and the potential for more training. It is far more meaningful to provide each of them with a substantial citizen-stake as young adults than to provide rural community elders with land seized generations ago.”

“In many countries the institutions of citizenship – like the army and public schooling – have been degraded,” he added. “For most Americans the only time they enact their citizenship is when they show their passports. It’s a precious thing we are losing.”

“We have to reinvigorate the idea of citizenship. Make people proud to be a citizen. Give them the possibility of engaging in community without denying their individual rights.”

“These ideas are not radical in the political philosophy of activist liberalism,” he concluded. “But they require good leadership, political will and strong bureaucratic structures. It requires a state with a strong bureaucratic apparatus that works. Countries can only solve world problems by working more effectively. South Africa remains a relatively well-functioning state.”

Ackerman and his colleagues have outlined the statutory and bureaucratic details underlying these proposals in four books.

  1. Campaign Vouchers: Voting with Dollars (with Ian Ayres). Yale University Press: 2002.
  2. National Endowment for Journalism: The Decline and Fall of the American Republic. Harvard University Press: 2010.
  3. Deliberation Day (with James Fishkin). Yale University Press: 2004.
  4. Citizen Inheritance: The Stakeholder Society (with Anne Alstott), Yale University Press: 1999.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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