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Stealth Democracy

Americans’ frustration with the federal government is at or near all-time highs. Peter R. Orszag, President Obama’s former budget director, expresses a similar sentiment. In a article for The New Republic, he argues for taking power away from a gridlocked government and giving it to “independent institutions” that will make decisions without undue pressure from politicians or voters.

As Mr. Orszag is well aware, this approach is hardly foolproof. See Catherine Rampell’s response for a good critique.

But I want to note how popular the plan is. It might be less unpopular than you would think.

In their book “Stealth Democracy,” the political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that many scholars and commentators overestimate Americans’ willingness to participate in politics and commitment to certain democratic ideals. In fact, many Americans are notably willing to endorse proposals like Mr. Orszag’s.

In a 1998 survey, respondents were confronted with this statement:

Our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people.

Almost a third (31 percent) of respondents agreed with this statement. A similar number agreed that government would run better “if decisions were left up to successful business people.” Altogether, almost half (48 percent) of respondents agreed with one or both of these ideas. And this was in an era, unlike today, where trust in government was relatively high.

These ideas are tempting, Mr. Hibbing and Ms. Theiss-Morse say, because the public largely agrees on fundamental goals, like economic prosperity, and sees the achievement of those goals as a “management problem.” The public does not understand why politicians cannot simply overcome their differences and work toward those goals — a belief evident in recent polls that find the majority of Americans want politicians to compromise instead of sticking to their beliefs.

When politicians cannot compromise, at least some Americans are willing to look elsewhere — even to a system of “stealth democracy” where decision-making is carried out largely outside of the public’s view and by people that the public did not elect.

John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is one of the authors of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”