What do the people think should replace democracy?

Posted on August 10th, 2017 by Kathryn VanderMolen

In the first of our summer Crick Centre blogs, Kathryn Vandermolen (University of Tampa) talks about her recent research on ‘stealth democrats’. She argues that although citizens may not be happy with the way democracy works, they do not necessarily have strong or detailed opinions about the alternatives.

The commonly cited pattern of declining trust in government and its elected officials has led some to ask whether governing processes might be partially responsible. The U.S. Congress, for instance, is often a source of frustration for the public as the House and Senate were not designed to work together easily nor quickly, and these characteristics are only amplified by the increasing levels of partisan polarization. This process perspective contends that the means by which policies are made has the potential to shape citizens’ opinions about the government, deviating from the idea that opinions are primarily formed around the government’s policy outputs.

Research on processes and public opinion has produced numerous important findings with wide-ranging implications for democratic participation. One of the most impactful pieces of scholarship has been Stealth Democracy, the seminal book by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse (2002). They contend that people prefer a less procedurally “noisy” government to efficiently and objectively makes decisions with little disagreement (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002, 143-150). A government that operates by “autopilot” via non self-interested individuals, such as non-elected civil servants and others with technical expertise, is preferable so citizens do not have to participate (10).

My research specifically focuses on examining preferences for this more technocratic means of governing. Though non-elected expertise is certainly a legitimate and necessary component of democratic government, processes grounded in reliance on experts also stand in contrast to classic norms of democratic participation. The notion that citizens may want to delegate more political power to non-elected persons (such as within government agencies or to independent governing boards) has a lot of controversial implications for participatory democracy, and I dig deeper into these “stealth” processes to help clarify these preferences. Further defining their breadth and extent could illuminate whether it has the potential to shape future expectations for politicians and the government generally.

I placed a series of questions on the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study to examine some of the assumptions about non-elected expert process preferences, and my results boil down to two main points. First, in an updated look at non-elected, “stealth” preferences in the context of the United States, my results show that citizens are not strongly attached to representative democracy’s processes and norms, much like the original findings by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse and others. Preferences for more participatory opportunities and democratic deliberation are shallow, at best. The general stealth process preferences found by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse in focus groups and in their larger survey from 1998, therefore, do not seem to be fleeting.

However, the second contribution of this research highlights that stealth preferences, and process preferences in general, should be analyzed in more detail. Differentiating who supports what governing processes becomes more valuable if we understand the depth of these preferences. For instance, though preferences for abstract stealth democracy stand, by using more detailed measures of non-elected expert preferences I find that support that is inconsistent and weak—even among those who are most likely to have negative views of democratic processes. When expertise is evaluated within elected institutions (the legislative and executive branches) and contextualized in a “stealth” process that made has its way into contemporary politics (the use of non-elected, independent commissions), strikingly little seems to explain these attitudes.

The weakness of the more detailed measures is intriguing and suggests that public support for less participatory governing processes may be shallow. The weak results suggest that although citizens may not be happy with the way democracy works, they do not necessarily have strong or detailed opinions about a procedural replacement. In other words, the relative stability of stealth process sentiments may not necessarily indicate citizens are strongly in favor of reducing their own civic participation. In an era where process preferences are receiving more attention as trust in government wanes, it is important that we explore the assumptions around different types of processes to understand the depth of these preferences and their potential to change politics in the long term.


Kathryn VanderMolen is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Tampa University. Her research looks at American politics and public policy. She is particularly interested in legislative politics and public opinion.