MASSACHUSETTS IS rightly proud of its “revolutionary tradition,” but according to democracy scholar Danielle Allen, the health of the state’s democratic structures isn’t all rosy in practice.
“A healthy democracy depends on a couple of critical values,” Allen, a Harvard professor of political philosophy, ethics, and public policy, said on a live episode of The Codcast. “There’s the value of inclusion, really achieving full inclusion, the value of engagement or participation, and then the value of competitiveness. And on each of those dimensions, we can see room for improvement in Massachusetts.”
Allen is focused on what she calls the work of “democratic renovation,” in part through her role as president and founder of Partners in Democracy. The organization pushes for reforms to bolster running for office, voting in elections, and making government systems more transparent. Allen herself made a short-lived bid for governor last year, pushing for many of these reforms.
Broken democratic systems – signaled by “red alerts” like low confidence in elected officials or low voting rates – are often experienced on the personal level as a total disconnect between what the government is doing and what a citizen knows.
At a recent community meeting, Allen said, “I heard a gentleman say, ‘The worst thing is just the not knowing.’ The worst thing is, suddenly something happens in your town and you didn’t even know anybody was thinking about it, and it’s actually something that affects you. You had no idea this was coming, you had no chance to have any input in it. … So I think it’s that sense of disconnection, that experience of opacity, not being able to kind of connect the dots, or see where there’s an entrance point for oneself to make a contribution.”
US Census data finds Bay State voter registration numbers below the national average for all communities of color, so “even though we have automatic voter registration, somehow we are not actually achieving full inclusion,” Allen said. State elections are uncompetitive, elected bodies are not demographically reflective, and strong affection for individual representatives is usually paired with more lukewarm feelings for the Legislature as a whole.
Part of the engagement issue is party registration, Allen said. In deep blue Massachusetts, where Democrats dominate most elected offices, only 29 percent of voters are registered Democrats and about 9 percent are registered Republicans. Some 61 percent of the state’s voters are unenrolled, though most have a general lean toward one party or the other.
It’s not that there is a problem with people who would like to be unaffiliated with any party, Allen said, but the decline nationwide and statewide of party affiliation often comes along with poorer communication channels for the unenrolled or independent voter.
“If you spend your time out and about in Massachusetts and try to figure out who knows what’s actually happening in the State House or in city government, it is much more likely that somebody who is participating in one of our parties will have that knowledge than everybody else,” she said. “So when people are not enrolled, that’s fine, but they’re really missing out on a very important part of their own civic capacitation. That’s where the concern comes in.”
Massachusetts could take cues from states like Alaska and Connecticut – and even Allen’s native California – in lowering the bar for seeking public office, creating non-partisan elections systems, or tackling campaign finance reform. The trouble is, as MassINC Polling Group president Steve Koczela wrote this week in discussing the new CommonWealth Beacon poll, legislators rarely face reckonings from their own voters.
“I’m a big believer in the idea that there’s lots of ways to change up a game, to retrain yourself, get ready for new conditions and so forth,” Allen said. “And I think those of us who seek these reforms would be happy to help incumbents think about the modes of running in new ways and new conditions. That kind of coaching should be a part of the whole package, but I think that’s just challenging. It’s challenging for anybody to change up their game if they’ve been practicing it one way for a long time.”