My last Tidings column reflected on certain implications of the enduring values that separate Americans in our ongoing political dialogue. This piece explores several challenges that confront the American public as those citizens collectively address the responsibility of sorting through the portent of such foundational claims for democratic decision-making. I make no pretense to comprehensiveness but the issues treated here merit thoughtful consideration even though they do not constitute all possible relevant factors.
One of the reasons democratic forms of governance found few partisans among political theorists and philosophers until the modern period was that democratic experiments historically were subject to two oft-evidenced forms of tyranny. Either single individuals bent on power could corrupt democratic processes and gain control to rule by fiat or, worse in its way, a majority could deprive a minority or minority groups within a nation of their freedom, rights or standing on the basis of whatever characteristic gained the majority’s support (tribe, race, ethnicity, nationality have all been used). Avoidance of these twin possibilities seemed unlikely to many thinkers who did not trust that a majority would forbear blame-casting and scapegoating or so control its natural emotional inclinations as to avoid being misled by talented manipulators and demagogues who might engage in such efforts.
On reflection, this stance still seems reasonable today. Prevention of tyranny of either sort rests on the relatively thin reed of a population sufficiently self-disciplined that it will not deprive some in its midst of their rights on the basis of one or another attribute. And, of course, our collective record in this respect is decidedly checkered. Many citizens of our nation and indeed, many of its governmental institutions, have in varying ways and at varying times, discriminated against individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. The interesting question is not whether human beings can be whipsawed by powerful emotions and claims to assail their fellows, even to the point of yielding freedoms to others to do so for them, but what can prevent them from pervasively doing so and thereby undoing the possibility of democracy.
Our nation’s Founders famously sought to use institutions to check against such potential democratic excesses. Congress was fashioned to be bicameral, the national government’s legislature, executive and judiciary were created to share power and each thereby served as a countervailing force on its counterparts. And federalism allowed states to check the potential excesses of the national government. But the Framers recognized that these steps were not sufficient to fend off potential tyrants and they imposed franchise requirements, too, in an effort to ensure that those who voted had a sufficient stake in the regime that they would not be swayed easily by freedom-enervating claims. Nonetheless, and despite this legitimate concern, our nation’s history has rightly witnessed the broadening of the franchise and a reduction of the requirements necessary to secure it. We are now doubtless a more thoroughly democratic nation, and that broadened franchise requires “average citizens” to make informed, judicious and deliberative choices of their leaders and when involved directly via referenda, directly on governmental policies.
Yet, there are reasons to be concerned that our enlarged voting citizenry is increasingly ill prepared to bear the responsibilities now assigned to it. Moreover, it must do so in an era in which the issues confronting governance are ever more complex and the processes by which public services are rendered are similarly complicated. Additionally, campaigns are now carefully scripted affairs designed by handsomely compensated professionals who market candidates around “images” and “values” and when they are lucky and have the right candidate, a “brand.” Speeches are crafted to elicit emotions and to persuade while “driving up the negatives” of the other side whenever necessary to prevail, or in some cases, whenever possible. Researchers have amply documented the alarming trend of Americans’ dwindling knowledge of their nation’s institutions, history, current policy debates and concerns. Levels of political awareness and knowledge are low and interest in voting, while it has improved at the national level of late, remains discouragingly low. Overall, and on average, the nation’s historically large pool of enfranchised citizens who evidence comparatively little knowledge of its institutions or of the tensions inherent in its policy challenges, are now subject to a multi-dimensional ongoing imperative:
To understand at least the fundaments of a range of enormously significant and complex issues including many involving thorny political/economic tradeoffs and tensions such as climate change and international trade and economic policy
To sort through and place in context the well-crafted and very often subtle emotionally freighted messages of campaign pollsters and consultants whose primary interest is not effective public policy, but power/office for a party or for a candidate
To do the same as they evaluate the pronouncements of their elected lawmakers and executives who now rely increasingly on that same “advising” industry as they undertake their official roles and responsibilities to help them craft “sound bites” for public consumption
To exercise their citizenship responsibilities when their own values have complicated governance to a very significant degree. This has occurred to address an ongoing desire for public services that is coupled with a strong skepticism that those services can be offered efficiently and effectively by government acting alone. In practice public service delivery often now involves nonprofit and for-profit institutions, such as in weapons development and the prosecution of war, in transportation and highway construction and maintenance, in social services programs, in energy industry monitoring and policy and in international development initiatives.
To recognize the consequences of their own ambivalent values for how governance occurs and for how much more difficult it is to establish accountability when several contracted agents or levels of government deliver public services than when such services are delivered by a single public entity.
This list of challenges is daunting and if anything, exceeds those the Founders had in mind when they bent so much effort to secure democracy against the potentials of individual and majority tyranny. Citizenship is the result of complex acculturation processes that involve families, schools and civic institutions. But, if one is to believe frequent polling data, increasingly these are not producing individuals motivated to understand the warp and woof of governance or even to monitor it actively. Many voters instead are lured by well-formed plaints designed to persuade that “the other” (however defined, but more and more, along partisan or “native” versus “immigrant” lines) is to be reviled or worse for their views or characteristics or both. The result is a nation increasingly sharply divided along its enduring values fault lines with diminishing capacity to conduct a deliberative dialogue about pathways to the future. What this portends for public deliberative capacity about policy and governance complexity is that neither set of realities is likely to receive thoughtful attention for its own sake.
Proponents of democracy must soon find ways to educate and encourage the American citizenry to participate in civically engaged deliberation while preserving their individual freedom to choose for themselves. Not to pursue such an agenda vigorously to secure this result is to run an increasing risk of the emergence of tyranny, however subtly it may evidence itself. No partisan of democratic self-government can desire that outcome. Notably, however, and perhaps appropriately, citizens ultimately will control this outcome. Americans must collectively address this enduring and foundational claim of democratic self-governance.