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MIT Technology Review

37 Years Ago: How to Fix Democracy

A computer scientist who saw congressional decision-making up close in 1980 found it insufficient to the task of solving big problems.

December 20, 2016

“I’ve heard many times that although democracy is an imperfect system, we somehow always muddle through. The message I want to give you, after long and hard reflection, is that I’m very much afraid it is no longer possible to muddle through. The issues we deal with do not lend themselves to that kind of treatment. Therefore, I conclude that our democracy must grow up. I’m not going to give you a magic recipe on how that will happen—I wish I had one—but I offer some thoughts that I hope will stimulate your thinking.

What’s principally lacking on the federal scene, it seems to me, is the existence of respected, nonpartisan, interdisciplinary teams that could at least tell us what is possible and something about the pluses and minuses of different solutions. Take energy, for instance. What I would love to see established, with the National Academies or any other mechanism to confer respectability, is a team that will … say, ‘Okay, there are lots of suggestions around, and most of them won’t work. But here are six different plans, any one of which is possible. We’ll tell you what each one costs, what’s good about it, what’s bad about it, how dangerous it is, and what its uncertainties are.’ At least each option would be a well-integrated, clearly thought-out plan. I do not trust democracy to try to put together such a plan by having each committee of Congress choose one piece of it. Suppose Congress designed an airplane, with each committee designing one component and an eleventh-hour conference committee deciding how the pieces should be put together. Would you fly on that airplane? I am telling you we are flying on an energy plan, an inflation plan, and so on that are being put together in exactly that way.

The present system does not work. It was designed for a much earlier and simpler age. I believe that Jeffersonian democracy cannot work in the year 1980—the world has become too complex. I’m not advocating the abolition of democracy. What l am advocating is its salvation. And the only way to save American democracy is to change the fundamental decision-making process, at the federal level, so that it can come to grips with the enormous and complex issues that face this nation.”

Excerpted from “Saving American Democracy: The Lessons of Three Mile Island,” by John G. Kemeny, from the June /July 1980 issue of Technology Review.