‘Ten million want to quit ‘overtaxed’ UK”, shrieked the lead of one of Sunday’s papers. A huge majority of Britons, a survey had found, want to see cuts in income tax and inheritance tax, a conclusion that, the story predicted, would raise panic in both Tory and Labour high command.
Maybe it did. But only in the small print was it pointed out that the poll was carried out on behalf of an obscure organisation called the Taxpayers Alliance. On its garishly old-fashioned website, the Taxpayers Alliance boasts 5,000 supporters, but as you can register your support simply by sending an email address – as I did, just for the hell of it – it hardly amounts to a revolution.
The truth is that the Taxpayers Alliance is yet another a lobbying organisation that represents us without taking the trouble to ask for our consent. A clue to its origins can be found in the work of the Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol. In her recent book Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, Skocpol draws our attention to an arresting but barely noticed paradox in contemporary western societies: that there are more organising groups around than ever before but with fewer real participants. Political influence, she claims, has ebbed away from communities and voluntary associations towards professionally managed advocacy groups.
In a forensic analysis of US political history, Skocpol notes that membership of organisations such as trade unions and churches dominated civic life in America from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th. Such groups oiled the wheels of democracy in more ways than one, she argues: they opened up spaces where ordinary people could debate the issues and trained their members in democratic procedures like conducting elections and serving in office.
All that changed in the 1960s, however, when those groups began to be replaced by “memberless entities” or “mailing list organisations” that saw little need for democratic participation and in which membership meant no more than signing a cheque or ticking a box. Democracy was kidnapped by professional managers and lobbyists, and diminished as a result.
What made it happen? Skocpol points to the proliferation of watchdogs and regulatory agencies and the growing role of law in politics over the 1960s and 1970s, which made mass involvement cumbersome and unnecessary. Who needs members, after all, when you can hire underlings to write legislation, lobbyists to befriend parliamentarians and PRs to spin your cause to the media?
“America,” argues Skocpol, “is now full of civic entrepreneurs who are constantly looking upward for potential angels, schmoozing with the wealthy.”
It is not all bad news. Some argue the grassroots politics that were trampled by insiderism and professionalism can be refurbished with new social movements based on the web – the so-called net roots. Liberal activist group MoveOn.org in America, with nearly three million members, is often floated as an example. Clicking with a mouse, however, is scarcely more credible a form of democratic deliberation than posting a cheque. Worse, both mailing list organisations and net-based movements tend to favour the cash-rich, time-poor, who are more likely to enjoy this kind of participation by proxy.
Skocpol’s intriguing suggestion is that if more organisations asked ordinary citizens to actually do something, they might be pleasantly surprised. Meanwhile, it would help if mailing list organisations such as the Taxpayers Alliance came clean – and admitted that they are representative of no one but themselves.