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The Decline of Representative Democracy.

Every now and then a book appears that uniquely captures the essential character of an era. it becomes a benchmark for understanding what has gone before. It illuminates the era's most important personalities, issues and forces. Alan Rosenthal's The Decline of Representative Democracy does all of these. Success here raises a question: Will it also set the terms of debate about the future?

Rosenthal writes with passion and concern about contemporary state legislatures. He is unapologetic in his belief that they have been and remain essential institutions in American democracy. He makes a convincing argument that over the last three decades they have become more democratic and more representative, they have do more, and have dealt with a wider array of policies and issues.

He describes the ways state legislatures have grown and developed, looks at how capital cultures have changed, considers the effects partisan and interest group competition has for the legislative process and examines the distribution of power in legislatures and in the larger political contexts of states. This is, in short, a comprehensive discussion of the contemporary legislature; no mean feat considering that the last time anyone attempted such a Herculean task was two decades ago. And that effort was also his, Legislative Life (1981).

A colorful and deeply textured book on the "inside baseball" details of the state legislative process, it is distinguished by Rosenthal's grave concern about the chasm between the undemocratic, unrepresentative and unethical legislature pictured by the press and viewed by a hostile and cynical public, and the legislature he has observed. "Participatory democracy... has been growing in strength at the expense of representative processes. Government is no longer conducted with the consent of the governed, according to the original Federalist plan .... The decline of representative democracy, as the states had experienced it for several centuries now, is underway. Whether we are comfortable with the situation or not, that is the conclusion that follows from this account of contemporary state legislatures."

The signs of this decline are many: initiatives and referenda restrict what legislatures may decide, term limitations increase member instability, longer and more contentious battles occur between parties and groups, public cynicism and distrust grows. Rosenthal is especially critical of press coverage that fixates on personality and scandal, know-nothing talk radio and sound-bite journalism. He laments the loss of the once relatively reliable coverage that newspapers gave to legislatures as modern dailies become more like their electronic competitors.

Even with this assessment Rosenthal pens an optimistic book. He takes encouragement from the past and proposes that legislatures take greater responsibility for "civic education." This would go beyond issues and programs. It would alert the public to the "dangers of democracy," which, if carried to excess, damage the legislature's ability to function. It would emphasize the complexities of the political system and what representative democracy entails: generating popular consent, fashioning compromises, balancing political power, allocating scarce resources, providing leadership and developing policy alternatives.

Throughout there are surprising gems that Rosenthal holds up for admiration. In his consideration of the effects of the decreasing significance of political parties, especially among voters, he describes how party structures within legislatures, "legislative parties," have organized in several states to fill the void in candidate recruitment, training, issue orchestration and campaign management. He writes an elegant section on the new budgetary systems that legislatures have put in place -- giving them not only greater oversight of state funds and agencies, but also the authority to direct and evaluate federal grants that come into states (formerly a task left to the discretion of governors.)

There are books that ought to be judged not on sales, popularity or their classroom adoptions, but on the impact they have on the thinking and perceptions of the people and institutions they are about. Rosenthal's contribution here defines the last two decades and could be the one that confidently launches state legislatures into the 21st century.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Peery, George
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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