Over the past century or so, progressives championed the creation of expert-staffed regulatory agencies that have been central to many of the policy successes of the period. Financial regulations developed during the New Deal to combat the fraud and speculation that fueled the crash of 1929 led to decades of financial stability, while improvements in workplace safety, drug quality and environmental standards all depend on the efforts of regulators.
This progressive vision of government has rested, particularly since the New Deal, on a faith that neutral, objective technocrats are the best policy-makers. But it also rests on an implicit skepticism about democracy and populism. Rather than being directly accountable to the public, regulators are loosely subjected to presidential and Congressional oversight. In theory, this insulation enables regulators to address the complexities and merits of an issue rather than heeding the demands of interest groups and lobbyists. But it also magnifies the dangers when regulators are biased, influenced by special interests or simply ineffective. Financial regulators, for example, were among the biggest culprits in the 2008 financial crash.
Yet, progressives continue to appeal to expert regulators, relying, for example, on the Federal Reserve and a new super-regulator, the Financial Stability Oversight Council, to prevent future collapses. But proposals like the Volcker Rule to limit proprietary trading are already being watered down, thanks to financial-sector lobbyists—while Wall Street continues to post huge gains amid a still lagging economy.
The right has skillfully harnessed fears of such regulatory failure to dismantle government. The progressive response should be to make regulatory agencies more participatory. By giving people a direct voice in shaping regulations, we can make agencies more responsive and accountable, and give citizens a direct stake in policy-making, beyond just voting every four years.
First, progressives should organize citizens at the grassroots level instead of relying solely on DC policy wonks and professional lobbyist groups. Even the best policy will be ineffective or unsustainable without the support of engaged citizens who can ensure it works for the common good. Occupy Wall Street helped change the conversation on income inequality, while organized labor mobilized thousands in Wisconsin. Imagine if such moments of civic engagement were more common, helping citizens to voice their concerns on a range of issues while countering the influence of special interests.
To pressure regulators and hold them accountable, citizens must also have access to decision-makers. Thus, a second task for progressives is to provide citizens with guaranteed contacts with regulators, and the power to shape regulations or to pressure agencies that are slow to act.
Agencies already employ a number of mechanisms to engage with the public—such as soliciting written comments on proposed regulations or convening occasional town hall meetings—but regulators are generally not required to respond to the points raised in these comments or meetings, nor are there systematic requirements for when and how such meetings should take place. More important, most citizens are unaware of these channels, leaving them at a disadvantage against sophisticated and well-resourced lobbying groups that know exactly whom to call to influence policy. Progressives should standardize procedures to give citizens more direct influence on regulatory policy, for example, requiring agencies to convene regular town halls and stakeholder forums; making it easier for citizens to voice their concerns in person or in writing; requiring agencies to respond to citizen comments; and expanding the legal rights of citizens’ organizations to challenge agency actions in court.
Finally, progressives must revive and empower local government, where citizens can more easily voice their concerns in person and monitor the results of their efforts. Many progressives see local government as ineffectual, but city governments are often at the forefront of developing new policies. Long before the 2008 crash, cities like Oakland were combating predatory lending, only to have their efforts voided by federal regulators who had exclusive power on the issue. The same story plays out routinely on everything from gay rights to gun control to the minimum wage. If cities had more leeway to innovate policies, there would be greater scope for citizens to play a direct role in shaping public policy at the local level.
Consider how these approaches would change our response to the financial crisis and the recession. Imagine if financial regulators were required by law to consult homeowners, pensioners and workers who, through grassroots mobilization, could pressure these agencies to act faster and with tougher responses to the kinds of fraud and risky trading that continue unchecked on Wall Street. Or what if the stimulus in 2009 had been allocated not through the decisions of expert regulators but through participatory budgeting at the local level, where citizens identify their community’s needs, draft a budget with the advice of experts and then ratify it by a vote of residents? Citizens would have a direct stake in governing, counteracting the influence of special interests and making policies more responsive and legitimate.
In 2008, Obama galvanized voters with a vision of an empowered citizenry remaking America. But for the most part he has governed in a technocratic tradition, leaving many of his policies hamstrung by anxieties over regulatory failure. Yet grassroots support was crucial to achieving financial reform and passing healthcare reform. From the Farmers Alliance and the early labor movement in the late 1800s to the movements for civil rights and, more recently, consumer protection, the history of progressivism is also the history of citizens mobilizing at the grassroots, pressuring policy-makers and reforming institutions to give them a direct role in government. Since the New Deal, many have been wary of this approach. But to revive modern government, progressives must revive this participatory tradition.