Start listing, in your head, the problems with American democracy. You might come up with a list that looks like mine: the magnified influence of moneyed interests, the endless supply of ethically-challenged candidates, petty grifting and self-aggrandizement, the short attention span of the voters, the media’s fixation on the horse-race, the way long-term issues get lost in the shuffle of immediate concerns, the structural inequity of gerrymandering, the revolving door between K Street and the Capitol, … I don’t need to be exhaustive here.
To a certain extent we can all admit that democratic politics is messy by necessity, and that even in every healthy government the existence of both structural and cultural problems such as those listed above are pretty normal and not necessarily indicative of true decay or decline. If things were entirely clean and left undebated, we would likely become suspicious of just how smoothly things were going – after all, it is the most corrupt entities that seem to appear the most orderly.
But the sheer scope of the problems, and the tonnage of their dead weight on what should ideally be an enlightened dialogue about our collective future is corrosive to the republic. And the trajectory of those problems toward worsening is particularly relevant. We have to challenge ourselves to see if they’re not all just the symptom of causal problem, one closer to the root, the neglect of citizenship. Perhaps we don’t see ourselves as the problem, but hey, have you met us, the Americans, lately?
How many of the things on the list of problems with American democracy would decline in significance if an actual majority of our residents practiced diligent and rigorous adherence to the principles of democracy? We have a nagging little habit of describing ourselves only by remarkably narrow slices of what citizenship even means: voters, taxpayers, patriots, constituents. That habit probably originates from a type of semantic laziness, but I suspect there’s some actual laziness in there too – the unspoken hope that all it takes to be a good citizen is to go vote every couple of years. Sure these things are important, but we all know that they are merely nuggets of the full scope of expectations we should have of ourselves to make this whole participatory democracy actually run on all cylinders.
Citizenship is a verb, it must be done, it requires effort, it requires us to all be democrats (with a small letter d). This means embracing and encouraging dialogue. It means participating in our communities and civic gatherings, serving on committees and juries and councils, sharing our opinions publicly and being open to the scrutiny other reasonable democrats might have of those very opinions. We are majestically bad at this, and probably getting entirely worse at it as a nation.
So, for the sake of our own elucidation, let’s discuss that frighteningly minimal act of citizenship, the exercise of the voting franchise. Very few of us even do that. In the 2014 federal elections, turnout was the lowest it has been in 74 years, with less than half of the eligible population even bothering in 43 of the 50 states. In the three largest states the problem was magnified tremendously, with less than a third of eligible Californians and Texans voting, and a stunningly low 29% in New York (and they even had some state races appearing on the same ballot – along with 27 House races). The turnout across the country was a dismal 37 percent. That’s a rate so low that the only election with worse turnout was in 1942 during a massive world war deployment.
This isn’t even the worst part, not even close. In state and local elections, voter turnout is even more awful. When Muriel Bowser won the DC mayoralty, she won a contest with the lowest participation in more than 30 years. When Bill DeBlasio won the New York City mayoral race, he won a contest with the lowest participation in more than 50 years. According to research at the University of Wisconsin, only about one in five eligible voters even bother to go to the polls in municipal races.
Sure, strong voting traditions are not necessary for government to operate, but they are necessary for government to be representative. As Robert Putnam noted in his legendary tome about the massive recent withdraw of Americans from civic engagement:
“If we think of politics as an industry, we might delight in its new “labour-saving efficiency”, but if we think of politics as democratic deliberation, to leave people out is to miss the whole point of the exercise.”
If so few of us are even bothering to vote, what percentage of us are doing more than that bare minimum, like say, educating ourselves about government and politics?
A study at Tufts University concluded that most states do not emphasize civics education in the curriculum. Only 21 states require a social studies test in High School, and only 9 states require passage of such a test to graduate.
In a survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a full 35 percent of respondents were unable to name even one branch of the U.S. Government. Only 36% could name all three. Nearly 75% did not know how many votes it takes to over-ride a Presidential veto, and when asked which party had majorities in the House and Senate barely one of every three respondents were able to guess correctly.
Ideas are a manifestation of learning and experience, but they are also a currency. The sharing of ideas, the export and import of them between people are the main way that ideas are able to be polished and bettered. The product of idea sharing is the strengthening and improvement of ideas through the rigors of scrutiny and deliberation. Through this, we make the condition of one another stronger, and we make better choices in our democracy. We used to be able to rely on media to assist us in this obligation.
Unfortunately the provincialism of new-media has infested the dialogue with loads of bias. The increasing vacuousness of television media has caused us to become distracted by missing airplanes. The abandonment of (boring!) print media has caused us all to miss most of the relevant and rigorously accurate information. And the insulating effect of social media allows us to shun disparate points of view. The practice of idea sharing still takes place sometimes, but not for debate, instead it’s for the warm fuzzy feeling of having our biases confirmed, for the likes and re-tweets we can get from other like-minded people. Dare to be counter-intuitive, dare to try and dialogue on something, and you disrupt that constant chain of warm fuzzies and are blocked or unfriended. In the offline world we actively discourage any consideration of politics at all – forbidding discussion of political ideas at work, at church, at the Rotary Club, and the supermarket, and especially at family gatherings because it makes us feel uncomfortable to disagree in person.
We are deeply uncomfortable with our own role in the governmental system. It make us feel icky. Our responsibility is intimidating and politics feels like a gross endeavor, especially when it necessitates dialogue that might cause rifts, feuds, or quagmires to develop between us and the people we care about. The result is that since we learn through our interactions, and we have so few of them on politics, we are a remarkably uninformed people.
35% of Americans think that sexual orientation is a choice. Only 5 years after 9/11, a full 30% of Americans could not remember in what year that attack happened. 29% cannot find the Pacific Ocean on a map. More than one third of Americans can’t name the current Vice President. 27% could not say who was in charge of the Executive Branch.
It gets worse, though. Those are at least minorities of the population right? Majorities might be even dumber. More than half of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the United States Constitution. Most Americans don’t know what the letters GOP stand for. A whopping 80% of Americans don’t know how many United States Senators there are.
By any reasonable measure, these are not high-level questions. These should not be difficult questions for “the people” charged with the enormous task of self government. We need folks to be thinking about the tax code and budget priorities, not still stuck on the basics! We are failing ourselves through ignorance, which is precisely what Jefferson feared:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” — Thomas Jefferson
We need to re-calibrate our proud individualism to include more than just a nod toward the communitarian precondition for democracy. Being a part of a group effort brings with it a sense of camaraderie, friendship, and loyalty that can only be forged when one works alongside others. Sharing moments with others increases the passion of feelings and emotions, and magnifies those moments far greater than they would be if experienced alone. A major accomplishment is sweetened through mutual cheering, and a major setback is softened through being taken as a mutual rather than individual burden. We must ask ourselves to what extent we owe the coarsening of our culture on the mass retreat from shared space and our unwillingness to view the making of a better society as an individual role.
The failure of the average man and woman to participate in the public sphere leaves that sphere to the people that are not average. It leaves that sphere to the inordinately ambitious, self serving, profiteering, ill motivated and uninspired individuals. The public sphere provides and protects the very things that bind us together, and the very things that save us from anarchy and despair. Yet, incoherently, we neglect it, ignore it, and see its maintenance as an afterthought or worse: somebody else’s job. Politics has become a game to us – a horse race about who is up and who is down. A war not of ideas, but of idealogues. A battle not of merit, but of tactics and strategy. To get out the base instead of to persuade. Fundraising, media savvy, and the construction of a narrative have come to trump – in terms of utility in winning elections – the construction of sound policy proposals, solutions to long-term problems, and personal integrity. Voters may blame politicians for modern complacency, stalemate, and stagnation in Washington – but voters (and especially non-voters), ultimately, are complicit in the creation of a quagmire ridden political landscape. If the American people truly wished to punish legislators for failure to compromise, failure to fairly negotiate, and failure to make sound policy – then they do a remarkably poor job of punishment.
We have an affirmative obligation to self-educate on issues of political concern. Failure to do so should receive something more critical than some side-eye or excuses on their behalf. This means treating even the smallest form of participation, the vote, with due respect rather than an afterthought. It means forming political views through a conscious effort rather than through secondhand information, a product of the rumor mill, a product of interactions only with like minded individuals. It means seeking out new ideas, new directions, weighing them against each other, and arriving at an educated conclusion. Anything less is government by the ignorant. Anything less is government by accident. Government by meager effort or no effort at all.
The whole concept of republicanism, where we elect representatives and those folks in turn make decisions on our behalf, relies on some level of effort on the part of those doing the selecting. Collective responsibility is a part of the social contract, but the principle of the social contract is neglected in common education – the concept of citizenship is neglected. Instead, the focus lately has been on self sufficiency and not relying on others, rather than making yourself the type of person folks are willing to rely on, and making yourself open to the idea of relying on others for the common good. We have been taught not to trust our fellow voters, but to mistrust them. We advocate for term-limits precisely because we mistrust the decisions of our fellow democrats. What does that say about democracy? We have been taught not to become more educated about the issues, but instead, to become as independent from the mess of society as we can – the ideal is always seen as private, whether that be living in a private gated community, sending our kids to a private school, getting private healthcare insurance, etc. The public space is neglected and seen as the space for those less fortunate. The ideal, insanely, is seen to be above politics instead of in the mix as someone trying to fix it. We actively disparage those who spend a life in public service – even without looking at what may very well be noble intentions.
A recognition that politics is broken would logically seem to cause a renewed interest in fixing it. Instead, Americans have chosen a second path: altogether abandoning it. To use a metaphor, the barn is on fire – and instead of putting out we are letting it continue to burn, continue to engulf, continue to make things worse for future fixers instead of jumping in to save it now. Our short term thinking, to save ourselves the trouble and indignity of getting our hands dirty in political work and dialogue, is going to inevitably cause things to get worse before they get better. Waiting for political wrangling to hit rock bottom (waiting for the barn to be nothing but ashes) before we find it in ourselves to renew civic participation. This is wrongheaded and foolish – potentially disastrous to our standing in the world as a superpower, our economic might, our respected place at the top of the international food chain, and to future generations – our children and their children. We must ask what kind of legacy we want to leave. We must ask the same questions they inevitably will wonder: Mom, dad, when the government was imploding in on itself, where were you? When all we needed was good people to soften the radicalized edges of politics, to bring sensible thought back into the public space where were you? Why did you let the extreme poles fight each other to the death of the republic?
A focus on institutional legacy and institutional pride, longevity, the supremacy of law over man – used to be celebrated and held in non-ironic high regard. Today we might see a lofty quote above the entrance to a courthouse that in today’s political climate is more likely to inspire and eye roll more than a heartfelt sense of democratic awe. We used to build schools to look like iconic landmarks, we used to build courthouses to look like cathedrals. There was once a sense of pride in self-government. Today an announcement that you might want to help a person run for city council is more likely to be greeted with confused looks and the question: “What’s in it for you?”
We need to fight for common things again. The intangible things that surround us but inevitably improve the quality of life. Infrastructure, education, reliable systems of justice and deliberation, healthy engagement on environmental and resource issues, all the things that are too easy to leave to those with self-interest at stake – they have to be balanced out with the participation of those with less immediate self interest. That’s the only way this will work.
It’s the only way any of this will work.
Image by SarahPAC-USA