The Fiction of American Democracy
Hidden congressional staffers shape policy without electoral accountability.
Historian Richard Brown aptly described public disillusionment in the American political system that has emerged from an agreed-upon “fiction of democracy.”
Since elected leaders cannot possibly know everything related to the wide range of complex issues they must address, we collectively pretend they are sufficiently informed with wildly unrealistic expectations about the breadth of their expertise.
When a bill passes, popular media attributes victories to specific members of Congress. And Senators and Representatives reinforce these imaginative accounts by taking credit for policy success in stump speeches and fundraising materials.
Reality is a lot more complicated, and most Americans never hear the whole story. We are largely unaware of the battalion of dedicated people working long hours, often over many years, to see a bill signed into law. Congressional scholars like Malbin have described that staffers now serve as “unelected representatives,” shaping policy without electoral accountability.
A View From the Hill
I arrived as a Senate staffer with a master’s degree in policy, but academic training did not prepare me for the job or provide a realistic sense of how Congress functions. For example, I spent my first morning marveling at how interested my colleagues seemed to be in “R&D,” assuming it reflected that they shared my appreciation of research and development (a term that broadly encompasses science policy issues). Science touches everything after all. An hour later, I sheepishly discovered they were simply referring to Republicans and Democrats.
My learning curve was steep, but in a few months I had familiarized myself with the acronyms, language, and culture of Capitol Hill. My role involved some talking, but a lot more listening to various people and groups that came through our office to make their case about how legislation should move, change, or sometimes, stay the same. I started to think of myself as one part of a much larger information pipeline connecting citizens, policymakers, and experts. It was far from perfect, and I could see it breaking down in places due to pressure, partisanship, or misinformation.
Today, my academic research focuses on senior legislative staffers who sit where I once did, meeting with people and organizations from across the country intent to sway policy. You might think of them as the gatekeepers of congressional information with outsized power to amplify or bury certain voices in the process.
Scientists in and out of academia, along with science advocates, have spent decades working to understand the ways politicians integrate scientific information in their decisions. Yet, very little attention has considered the staffers in the process. Research has largely ignored the impressions they’ve left all over the congressional record, so it should be no surprise that staffers, in turn, are frequently unaware of how science interacts with the various pressing issues they are confronted with daily.
Communicating scientific information is more than the transmission of “facts” because facts are open to interpretation and a deep partisan divide politicizes, polarizes, and twists scientific issues. On top of that, increasing populist rhetoric has promoted and normalized antagonistic attitudes by framing science and academics as out of touch elites.
The result is a Congress unable to deal with serious crises. Whether it’s a global pandemic disrupting society or the existential threat of climate change, our political system is not currently prepared or equipped to make decisions based on evidence and data to avoid the worst possible outcomes. That will only change when we understand and appreciate the staffers behind the scenes working directly on policy challenges with the power to make a difference.
My work explores how senior legislative staffers prioritize and value scientific information in the U.S. House and Senate.
What to Expect
Unelected Representative is a research-based substack about the people responsible for making choices about complex and often contentious science-related issues shaping our lives. It will weave together new academic research with theory in political science, communication, and psychology in a narrative that draws on my own experiences, as well as those of the current and former R & D staffers I study.
Posts will explore topics like motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, along with emerging challenges like the rise of anti-intellectualism. There will be first-hand accounts of how information moves through Congress and also what gets lost along the way. I will explore ideas related to fostering trust and building stronger relationships between the people in science and those behind the scenes in Congress with the influence and ability to make a difference.
Consider this an insider’s research-based account of how the sausage gets made.
Brown, R. D. (1996). The strength of a people: The idea of an informed citizenry in America, 1650-1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Malbin, M. J. (1980). Unelected representatives: Congressional staff and the future of representative government. New York: Basic Books
Morgan, M. G., & Peha, J. M. 2003. Science and technology advice for Congress. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.
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Thank you for this!
I’m looking forward to this, as an outside consultant who advised government (muni, provincial and federal in Canada) I’m looking forward to your take. When my daughter said she wanted to make an impact, I told her to go into policy development in government.