On February 20th, I attended the New Haven Board of Alders meeting, which meets publicly every month. New Haven has a Board of 30 Alders, each one representing a specific section of the city. Demographically, the Board is comprised of predominantly Latino and African American aldermen, roughly reflecting the racial composition of New Haven.
I expected public debate on local resolutions or laws, but instead found it to be a series of “points of personal privileges”, whereby aldermen would take turns advertising upcoming local softball tournaments (in the case of Ward 15) or a jobs march (in the case of Ward 27). The meeting lasted only about 25 minutes, and after speaking with the Alderman for Ward 1 it was clear that the public meeting (or lack thereof) reflected several flaws in the democratic system.
We can loosely define democracy as a system whereby the government strives constantly and consistently to be responsive to the demands of the majority of its constituents via elected officials. In representative democracies, such as the US, it implies each official is charged with the responsibility of upholding values of transparency, accountability, and forbearance to the law.
Prior to the public meeting the Alders (either Democrats or Republicans, similarly to Congress) gather for their own partisan caucuses. The idea behind separate caucuses is to debate away from the press, so that aldermen avoid criticizing other publicly. Currently, however, all Board members are from the Democratic Party; one singular caucus is comprised by everyone on the Board. Therefore, Board meetings tend to be procedural and brief, since everything has been previously agreed upon in the party caucus, which is closed to the public. Theoretically, participation by both parties in the public Board meeting would allot room for debate, in front of citizens, on passing a particular law in order to obtain consensus. When speaking to the alderman for Ward 1, however, he expressed that “since [he] has been on the Board, we have never had one public debate about what to do with a motion.”
In conceptualizing Democratic Backsliding, Ellen Lust and David Waldner outline key qualities of electoral procedures, including limited duration of terms, constitutional checks, and, more relevantly, “uncertainty, such that office holders and the outcomes they pursue cannot be known for certain ex ante.” (2) Furthermore, in their discussion of accountability, they pose that “Answerability refers to the obligation of public officials to provide information about their activities and to justify them; to offer both facts and explanations…” (3) According to their arguments, if any of these legs fail to manifest themselves, democracy backslides.
My biggest concerns about the dynamics of caucuses versus those of monthly meetings, especially after speaking to some Aldermen, were the questionable “democratic” procedures in eliminating potential opposition. What happens in the public eye is minimal in comparison to what happens behind curtains, which is where actually policy is made, and where any potential for debate or contestation could exist. The relationship between debate and public transparency is almost reversed—every opportunity for contestation occurs only in places where the public will not be able to observe it. Is it democratic for representatives to agree on virtually every topic before going to the actual meeting, in a caucus closed to the public? Eliminating discourse and argumentation between competing points of view may represent a threat to democracy, since everything that passes will likely carry important partisan ties.
Similarly, the role of the council president (currently Tyisha Walker Myers) represents severe roadblocks to an open “democratic” system. Alders vote to elect the council president, but do so in their respective party caucuses. They essentially know who the president will be long before formal voting takes place publicly. The Alderman for Ward 1 also noted, “The president is in office for 2 years, and is able to vote on laws like any other Board member. If the president is not your friend, Alders will have a very difficult time passing motions, because she decides what is put on the agenda for each meeting. She can keep pushing back your proposals to later meetings if she does not want to talk about them.”
Though the agenda for each meeting can be found online prior to each reunion, citizens are not allowed to participate in debates, even in public meetings. They can only participate in the “public caucus” held immediately before the Board meeting. In evaluating the quality of democracy, it is also important to examine the role of the public in asserting their right to transparency and holding representatives accountable for their decisions. In New Haven, it leaves much to be desired. Citizen attendance is usually low for any kind of publicly available gathering, especially if the agenda will cover non-contentious topics. Those who do attend tend to be older in age; young people are rarely seen. Government takes effort, both from the people and those they elect, in order to function correctly, transparently, and as close to the “ideal models of democracy” as possible. The fact that participation and involvement is so low not only makes it easier for any opinions they have to be swept aside, but also shows the public can be held party reesponsible for the “undemocratic” dynamics of the meeting. As a full-time student, I understand that direct involvement demands high commitment that is sometimes unreasonable to ask. Thus, an important question becomes how to reconcile public involvement with feasible requirements for their participation.
How great of a variable is public contestation to democratization? In Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy, he argues that governments should consider their citizens as political equals, and respond continually to the peoples’ demands. In order to do the latter, “all citizens must have unimpaired opportunities to formulate their preferences, signify them to their fellows citizens and their government by individual action, and have them weighed equally in the conduct of the government.” (2) His vision for democracy holds institutions responsible for providing for citizens, accurately and effectively representing their concerns. (5) It implies not only accepting public contestation, but also allowing the potential for it to exist in the first place. If New Haven residents are structurally and formally denied a space to participate in debates that will ultimately affect them more than anyone else, they are stripped of their right to “signify their preferences”.
Ultimately, democratic erosion is a slow, barely perceptible, gradual process that subverts government from within. The dynamics I observed in the New Haven Board of Alders meeting present important examples of concerning processes, namely in the complete monopoly of the Democratic Party over council membership, and the implications it has for muting opposition, silencing public debate, barring citizen participation, and determining outcomes before they are formally voted upon. Some of these issues may be due to the construction of the Board rules as such, and others due to officials misconstruing the letter of the law. Though it can be argued that academic models for democracy tend to idealise the ease with which a highly democratic system can be both built and reinforced, they nonetheless provide a standard with which to compare our own political systems. It can also be argued that the Board of Alders should be considered “undemocratic” as opposed to “democratic erosion”, but if over time multiple councils develop similar dynamics, towards the direction of either party, it may be worthwhile to analyse their implications on the quality of national democracy.
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Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
Lust, Ellen & Waldner, David. 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC: USAID. pp. 1-15.