Q&A with Demos President Sabeel Rahman

by Udit Thakur, Open Markets Research Associate

K. Sabeel Rahman is the president of Demos, a dynamic think-and-do tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy. Rahman is also an associate professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, where he teaches constitutional law, administrative law, and courses on law and inequality. He is the author of Democracy Against Domination (Oxford University Press, 2017), which won the Dahl Prize for scholarship on the subject of democracy, as well as a new book Civic Power (co-authored with Hollie Russon Gilman, Cambridge University Press 2019), about strategies for building and institutionalizing bottom-up democratic power.

Sabeel joined Open Markets researcher Udit Thakur this week to talk about the pitfalls of managerialism in policy-making, and what a truly democratic think-tank ecosystem might look like. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.

UDIT THAKUR – You make a big distinction in your work between laissez-faire and managerialism, and their shared antagonism towards democracy. For people who haven’t had a chance to read your book, how would you describe the difference?

SABEEL RAHMAN – So I think in American politics we’re used to thinking of political and policy debates in a binary, right? Liberals want more government and more regulation, and conservatives want free-markets and less government regulation. But what’s missing on both sides of those equations is the question of democracy.

One of the examples I talk a lot about in the book is the financial crisis. Coming out of the 2008 financial crash, the worst recession since the Great Depression, the fault lines in the policy debate began to emerge along these lines.

On the back foot were the laissez-faire types who were still arguing for deregulation, claiming that the reason for the crash was that the government was too involved in the mortgage market and making it too easy for poor people to get loans. There’s some nuance, but that’s basically the argument. Another view was that the problem was new forms of systemic risk and complicated new financial instruments. The mainstream liberal response was to double down on managerial expertise. “Let’s give Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve more power to make sure the big banks don’t do bad stuff!”

What we didn’t do, what some people argued for but what didn’t carry the day, was asked, “why do we even have so much concentrated financial power in the first place?” And what we didn’t talk about at all in 2010 was, “well who’s on the Fed, actually? Why is the Fed made up of mostly bankers and economists? If the Fed has so much power over our economy, over the lives of so many people, shouldn’t the Fed be democratic?

A lot of people who follow the Fed would be terrified by that prospect.

UT – Safe bet (laughs)

SR – I think that’s when we need to say, well if you actually believe in democracy, then you should think about how to democratize the economy. And if you don’t believe in democracy, fair enough, lots of people in the history of the world have not believed in democracy. But you don’t get to claim that you believe in democracy.

UT – I appreciate the candor! So I can’t avoid the opportunity to ask about the world you currently inhabit. What has surprised you the most about the structure and culture of the think-tank ecosystem, and what needs to improve?

SR – These are great questions. A critique of technocracy has stayed with me. We need to base our visions of economic and political change in a moral vision that can motivate people. At Demos, we think of ourselves as a think-tank of the movement, and our theory of change and orientation is about bringing the muscles and resources of a think-tank in terms of research and policy into the service of visions of change that come from and empower those most affected themselves.

But to your question about the field, part of what I think is really interesting, and what has me optimistic, is that we’re over a decade removed from the financial crisis. And actually I think that context has been really helpful for the think-tank non-profit landscape. When you look at a lot of organizations; the Roosevelt Institute, Center for Equitable Growth, Community Change, and obviously Open Markets recently, I think the intellectual center of gravity has moved a lot since 08-09.

I would argue that we’re in a moment where the progressive critique of neoliberalism has started to gain a bit of an upper-hand. Most of the conversations I have with partners and organizations is exactly about this. We have a strong critique, we have great ideas, but we need to build the power to actually implement them. Not just over the opposition of the right, but over the opposition of the traditional center.

UT – So how much do experts share the blame with major corporate executives, “monopolists” as we like to say here at OMI, for the present state of our democracy?

SR –  I’d say a lot. But it’s also about the ideas infrastructure we’ve set up to determine who counts as an “expert” in the first place. What are the ideas that have the legitimacy of expert “common sense” and why do they win out over other ideas also backed by forms of expertise? What would it look like if you actually had an ideas infrastructure that served the interests of average people?

I believe in viewing expertise in a small ‘d’ democratic way. The promise and faith of democracy is the idea that it is the people themselves who are experts of their own lived reality. The burden on the ideas infrastructure is to do policy in a way that is authentically, genuinely committed to those affected communities and the vision they have for what a good society is.