One of my favorite political scientists (Elizabeth Theiss-Morse) co-authored a book a while ago entitled Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes Toward American Political Institutions (1995). The authors remind us, if we ever needed reminding, that the democratic process is slow and often characterized by compromise, uncertainty, disagreement and conflict. But the authors find in their exhaustive survey that Americans tend to actually dislike such democratic processes, including debate and publicly hashing things out, seeing it not as informed debate but rather as haggling or bickering.
They conclude that:
People do not wish to see uncertainty, conflicting opinions, long debate, competing interests, confusion, bargaining, and compromised, imperfect solutions. They want government to do its job quietly and efficiently, sans conflict and sans fuss. In short, we submit, they often seek a patently unrealistic form of democracy.” Americans, they find, want “stealth democracy”—democracy without the mess. They want, for example, both procedural efficiency and procedural equity. “Just as people want governmental services without the pain of taxes, they also want democratic procedures without the pain of witnessing what comes along with those procedures.”
Americans, it seems, are quite demanding.
I keep thinking of this work as I read letters submitted to the USFS regarding the new planning rule. I’ve now read dozens of these things. And one thing most seem to have in common is a desire for an expedited and more efficient planning process. Of course, who wouldn’t want such a thing, it’s boilerplate.
But then, in the next breath, most of these letters demand the USFS to analyze something in more rigorous fashion. This runs the gamut from analyzing ecosystem services, climate change, watersheds, restoration areas and priorities, biodiversity, cumulative effects, motorized recreational access, tribal reserved rights, and multiple possible timber production levels.
It seems that even those groups whom have complained most loudly in the past about the process predicament and various planning pathologies want the agency to study something of their interest in more thorough fashion in the future. Take, for example, the letter written by the Blue Ribbon Coalition, whom “fear we are poised on the brink of creating a fatuously self-indulgent planning process even further removed from the ground.” (btw, I’m stealing the great line “fatuously self-indulgent, just excellent).
But then, without hesitation, the letter asks the agency to study various things in more detail, like properly analyzing lost recreational opportunities. The group also wants the USFS to include in plans at least one EIS alternative that enhances the importance given to recreation in the agency’s multiple use sustained yield mandate.
I’m guilty of this too. So the question, perhaps, is whether we have a patently unrealistic understanding of democracy…and planning? And if so, what gives?