Democratic Engagement and Governance: Part I

William H. Young

In the Kettering Foundation’s Annual Newsletter, Connections 2012: Educating for Democracy, research associate David W. McIvor reviews A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, the report of a National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement released on January 10, 2012 at the White House. I addressed various aspects of A Crucible Moment in earlier articles, Education and Democracy.

The Kettering review praises that report’s call for democratic engagement that includes participation in community “deliberation and public action.” It sees that higher education’s actions and actors:

could productively function as part of a larger effort at fostering a civic ethos and advancing public action in local, national, and global context….The real challenge is to make democratic engagement and citizenship pervasive phenomena…within the broader polity.

In this two-part article, I will contrast one result from my government experience with that from Kettering forums on energy in 1992.  I will then examine one of Kettering’s latest endeavors stemming, in part, from A Crucible Moment —the conduct of forums on more than sixty college campuses on the subject “Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?

The Charles F. Kettering Foundation  conducts research and public activities based on the motto “what does it take for democracy to work as it should?” It “works primarily through joint learning exchanges with citizen organizations, communities, and institutions that are experimenting with ways to strengthen democracy. Through its National Issues Forums Institute , Kettering has, since 1981, sponsored forums that it considers models for deliberative democracy in which decisions are made through a surrogate public voice.

Kettering’s president is Dr. David Mathews, also president emeritus of the University of Alabama. In his book Politics for People (1998), Dr. Mathews calls our government “post-Madisonian”—representing interest groups rather than the public. He and others see the need for new “mediating structures” between direct citizen control and representative government to make the system work—new public deliberative processes in which our people, not our institutions or their leaders, define needed solutions and give direction to government. Such an approach, he argues, can develop a republican consensus of all diverse elements of a community through connections, associations, and relationships.

A 1994 NIFI brochure titled “National Issues Forums” proclaimed:

No government can define the public’s interest, decree the purposes that reflect those interests, or set the direction for the country. Only the public can do those things. And the public does that by making choices—issue by issue [in public forums].

That approach is directly contrary to the principles upon which the Founders established our republic—democratically elected representatives, not the people in some collective capacity, govern by deliberation and laws. This is so fundamental that Madison, based on his analysis of why past republics failed, says explicitly in The Federalist, “Number 63,” the true distinction between classical republics and American government “lies in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity, from any share in the latter.” The emphasis is Madison’s.

My own experience provides a good example of what Madison feared: the undermining of government action taken, by legislation, for our people as a whole. The first Bush administration, in which I served, issued a National Energy Strategy after receiving public comment in hearings conducted by the Department of Energy in regions across the country. I developed the nuclear energy part of that strategy, including new provisions to license the construction of advanced standard-design nuclear plants. Those provisions had to be converted into legislation, to make the first change to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 in 38 years.

In 1992, Democrats held large majorities in both houses of Congress. I worked with leading senators—Johnston (D-LA) and Wallop (R-WY) of the Energy Committee and Deputy Majority Leader Ford (D-KY)—to include the new nuclear provisions in an energy bill passed first by the Senate. In the House of Representatives, we feared becoming bottled up in the committee process and decided on the high-risk strategy of introducing the Senate nuclear provisions as a floor amendment to incorporate them in the House bill. This required an explicit up-or-down vote by all House members on nuclear energy itself.

Among the reasons why we thought that approach would succeed was our polling, which indicated that, at the time, about two-thirds of the American people—and of grass-roots environmentalists—believed that nuclear energy should play an important role in meeting our future energy needs. Electric utility companies strongly supported the bipartisan Clement (D-TN)-Barton (R-TX) amendment. At the same time, the national environmental movement (including groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and others) carried out an extensive lobbying effort against it, claiming, of course, to represent the interest of  “the public.”

I watched the House floor vote on May 20, 1992 on a television monitor in the Minority Leader’s office, along with Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-GA). He told me that we had squeaked by earlier that day when the Rules Committee voted by only 7‒6 to allow the amendment to be offered. When the roll call ended at about 8:45 p.m., the Clement-Barton amendment was passed—by a margin of 254–160. About two-thirds of the representatives voted in favor of nuclear energy, showing that they were in touch with the opinions of their constituents, including grass-roots environmentalists. They had seen though the spurious claim that the national environmental movement’s anti-nuclear stance represented the public’s interest.

The Energy Policy Act of 1992 was passed overwhelmingly by the Congress. Its provisions were utilized by the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012 to approve the construction of new nuclear power plants.

Ironically, in the course of some consulting work undertaken in 1994, I had occasion to look back at how Kettering handled the public forums on energy it conducted across the country in 1992. The energy policy legislation passed by the Congress was not even among the choices presented by Kettering for consideration. The omission reflected the philosophy of an independent role for citizens relative to government and the agenda of the foundation’s energy advisor, the Worldwatch Institute, which prepared the material used in the forums. The Worldwatch Institute is an activist environmental organization, a leader in the now-campus-centered sustainability movement that vehemently opposes nuclear energy.

The Kettering Issue Guide cited a Harris poll showing that 60 percent of Americans opposed building new nuclear plants; extensively discussed the impacts of the accident at Chernobyl, involving a type of reactor never used in the United States; and argued that new nuclear plants could not be built in time to avoid imminent catastrophic global warming. The Guide’s penultimate framing of the issue read:

The question is whether we are willing to live with the possibility—however remote—of accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the vulnerability of nuclear plants to terrorists and saboteurs, and the production of nuclear waste…

The forums’ results were manipulated to a preconceived conclusion—rejecting the future use of nuclear energy—a position exactly opposite to that taken by the representatives governing our nation. This example illustrates how collective decision making by the people, in processes led by purportedly nonbiased facilitators, is easily led down a path against the public’s interest.

Deliberation by elected representatives—not a surrogate public voice reflecting activist agendas—remains the better way to reach decisions in the interests of the moderate central majority of our people. Madison’s Federalist wisdom and our Constitutional provisions for representation are still our best answer.

Yet fostering democratic engagement and collective decision making in the problematic sense described here has become the mission of the academy. Kettering has prepared the Issue Guide for the campus forums and activities stemming from A Crucible Moment and companion reports and has become an enabler of that mission, the subject of my next article.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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