We don't like to be "nudged."
That's the lesson I draw from the decision by Philadelphia reformers to press for a relatively large tax on sugary sodas to pay for universal prekindergarten. The Upshot explains that local jurisdictions (aside from the People's Republic of Berkeley) have repeatedly failed to pass tiny taxes while arguing for the health benefits of making soda more expensive.
So how about leveling with the voters -- proposing a more substantial tax to pay for something people actually want -- and if it can be passed, winning the health gains, and a visible public benefit, and creating an instance of government doing the job people want? That is, after all, how democracy is supposed to work. Philadelphia's mayor is giving this strategy a shot.
Public policy that derives from "nudge" theory is technocratic. Somebody thinks they know best and can change others' behavior without enlisting the subjects' conscious assent. Sure, lots of nudge interventions do achieve some of their goals. But when leaders choose to nudge, rather than to try to win majority agreement for their policies, they are being profoundly anti-democratic.
This was reinforced for me by an interchange on Facebook about my post here yesterday. A good friend explained one aspect of her discomfort with Hillary Clinton like this:
My emphasis in the interest of clarity.
I'm sure my friend would agree that politicians who actually listen willingly to grassroots uproar are few and far between. Most pols have struggled to get where they are, have jumped through extraordinary hoops to win and hold their prominence -- why should they have to put up with noisy outsiders who don't understand how much they've done already and how well they understand what ought to be done? But sorry, that's part of the job in a democracy.
For what it is worth, I should mention that Bernie's not perfect about listening either. Nobody with the grit and ego to campaign for that job is going to be.
In response to my friend I raised a point about Hillary Clinton that she shares in some measure with Barack Obama. Both of them came up in politics out of a background in Alinsky-type community organizing. And this approach to politics can be as anti-democratic as the technocratic prescriptions of nudge theory.
A couple of years ago I tried to explain how this seemed to be playing out in Obama's presidency.
I think we see the same limitation in Hillary Clinton as I wrote on Facebook:
Politicians have to be taught to value democracy. Watching them jump the awful hoops that are an election, one of the questions I ask about them is, if they come out on top, will they listen to community concerns and grassroots distress? None of them listen as much as we might want, but this does seem a right question. In elections, we get a chance to teach them the necessity of listening.
The photo shows Clinton on her book tour interacting with the stuffed squirrel Republicans sent to dog her appearances. I'd say she'd got the upper hand of this interloper.