Saturday, January 28, 2012


A local reporter, Dan Crowley, had a page-one story today about patronage in the local court system. I felt moved to add my two cents on the internet version and, since it will probably go unread, decided to save it here as well:

Nice job, Dan Crowley! Your story brought to mind ....

A number of years ago as a news reporter, I took it into my head to explore what it was that the phrase "participatory democracy" might mean. I found the phrase both redundant and smarmy and yet it was common coin at the time, flung around without examination in the same way that the word "terrorism" is today.

"Participatory democracy" at the time (and perhaps now?) suggests that everyone will get an equal vote. More broadly, it suggests that the best-qualified person will be given the job. Patronage -- the hiring of friends and family, however badly qualified -- is a no-no in the lexicon of those who employ "participatory democracy" with a straight face.

In the course of calling up those who might be able to shed some light on "participatory democracy" and its nemesis, "patronage," I got through to Anthony Scibelli, then chairmain of the House Ways and Means Committee, and arguably the most powerful politician in Massachusetts. Scibelli's power was exemplified, at least in my mind, by the fact that he would answer questions truthfully -- a quality not often associated with politicians looking forward to re-election.

So when I asked Scibelli what he thought of "participatory democracy" and the accusations of those who suggested he and his colleagues had a long history of patronage appointments and were therefore foiling the one-man-one-vote, democratic will of the people, he didn't get angry. Instead, he was good-natured and affable, as if speaking to a small child. Yes, he agreed, the perversion of a meritocracy was unfortunate. Yes, he agreed, his detractors had a very good point. Yes, democracy was a wonderful thing and deserved a robust defense.

But then he delivered the coup de grace: If his detractors, those who swooned for "participatory democracy" and the installation of the best-qualified candidates for any given position, were truly committed to their principles and prose, "let them go out and get elected." Talk about a knock-out blow for the white-whiners ... me included!

The conversation lingered in my mind. Democracy is not, in fact, democratic. It does not assure that the best-qualified will win. There are loopholes (think Congress) aplenty and sometimes it's enough to make anyone weep. Anyone with two brain cells can imagine improvements and cite awful mistakes.

But in the end, I guess we're all stuck with Winston Churchill's observation: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest."

-- adam fisher


  1. Actually, I think even the use of the word "democracy" is thrown around in such a way that we all think we know what it means, when in fact one needs to be a devoted student of political science to even begin to understand what that term means. No where have I found in any description of the term, any suggestion that the best qualified person gets elected (perhaps referred to as "meritocracy."

    My and, I assume, many others' first encounters with democracy were class elections, I don't know about others but in my case from primary school through college class elections were merely popularity contests. Anecdotally and personally speaking, every single class president was a good looking person who had a number of "friends" but who was useless in terms of getting things done or even in expressing a view about this or that perceived injustice clearly held by the majority of the class. (And that's even when the administrators were not involved in manipulating the process.)

    My own limited experience makes me wonder about what things were really like in ancient Greece the supposed birthplace of so called democracy. That governance seems to me to have been in fact a "participatory plutocracy" insofar as the 1-percenters of their day gathered to make decisions.

    Coincidentally this was in my inbox when I checked my email this morning:

    How Swedes and Norwegians Broke the Power of the ‘1 Percent’‘1-percent’

    BTW -- The closest we have come to meritocracy in this country is the civil service system, people need to note how the one-percenters from Bloomberg to Bill Gates to the Koch brothers and Scott Wilson all want to destroy civil service (disguised as union busting).

  2. Fred -- Thanks for the link. Interesting reading, although, as always, the 'struggles' of any movement seem relatively easy in hindsight.