Sunday, June 15, 2008

The End of Democracy?

Dave has a good post on truth in campaigning that details yet another example of how we are being lied to everyday. So, why do we let ourselves be manipulated in this manner? Partly, I blame it on the perceived complexity of life in general. Thirty years ago, I would spend many an afternoon tuning up my car. I could change the points, plugs and rotor and change my own oil. And I could do it by climbing into the cavernous space that held the engine. Today, my Passat is computerized, and even has the engine compartment effectively sealed to prevent me from accessing anything beyond the oil dipstick and the washer fluid reservoir. Now, I have to take it to a mechanic who has the proper computer testing equipment to read what the fault codes are saying. I have surrendered to the experts, which is not a bad thing in this case.
But politics is different. We seem to have forgotten that we the people are the sovereigns, not the government. All power flows from us, and is used to our benefit by the tools that we have chosen: Our federal, state and local governments. The fact that we have forgotten how this relationship is supposed to work is leading to the downfall of participatory government. We simply hand off responsibility for our lives to our elected representatives, who declare themselves to be our "leaders" when they are really just our representatives.
So, what caused our abandonment of our responsibilities? One thought, is that the use of the Internet has resulted in widespread ADD in the general populace. Because we no longer have to actually stop and think, we search for that which confirms our views, and disregard anything which contradicts us. One example is the large number of people who believe that Obama is really a secret Muslim, another would be Mark T.'s assertion that somehow, McCain was not really tortured, and that it is all made up. Both are demonstrably false, yet they are spread about with the same sense of urgency as any truth could be.
And somehow the people who vote are just as likely to succumb to the glib falsehood, as to any considered argument. I see it all the time when I campaign that many people agree with my positions, but will simply refuse to vote for me, because I am running as a Republican. This sort of thinking is just laziness, in that they have identified with some group or organization, and ceased to think beyond what they are told to believe. It allows them to swiftly change their deeply held convictions and to in effect, drink the Kool-Aid. It certainly saves time and effort. If you know that this or that group is inherently evil, there is no need to consider their positions on the issues and ask the question of why someone who seems rational would have a completely different view of a situation. This results in our Internet conversations becoming teaching sessions where no discussion is actually held, but instead, in a chiding manner, we expect any opponent to see the value of our logic and facts, and if they disagree with us, we consign them to the hopelessly inept, bereft of common sense or intellect. While childish, it does have its adherents.
The question now is, what are we to do about this shortfall in critical thinking? We could rely on professional journalists to keep us fully informed, but that presumes that they actually can honestly and dispassionately tell us the necessary facts without manipulation, and who won't actively campaign for someone who sends a shiver up their leg. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen.
What is to be the future of our democracy then? My prediction is that we will withdraw further and further into our isolated perceptions as delivered by our chosen advocates. Substantive issues are going to be reduced to nothing but sound bites. And both sides are guilty of this. From the "tax cuts only for the wealthy", to "tax and spend liberals" we are going to be segregated farther from any real truth.
And the real truth, is that it will be our own fault.


Mark T said...

I'm pretty sure this passes for thoughtful.

I linked to a wen site where professional soldiers and veterans are questioning McCains creds. He's so obviously a politician that I do so automatically. And if you know me, which you don't, you'll know I was no fan of Kerry, but I do note that you talk about critical thinking yet only seem able to apply it to critics of McCain, and not elsewhere.

You're a poor example of anything.

The fatal flaw of democracy is that it means we are ruled by money. Your allusions to a time when it was otherwise are naive. The only time I'm familiar with where money took a back seat to the general good is the post WWII period, which lingered on until 1980, when you and your cohorts began to bring it down. Don't talk to me about critical thought our rule by the intelligent. You're on the wrong side of that equation.

rgc said...


At bottom, what you are actually complaining about is the ignorance of the masses, which in and of itself is not really a problem, since the masses, almost by definition, have always been ignorant. But that ignorance does become a problem in any political system that allows just about anybody to vote.

One can easily imagine a graph showing an inverse relationship between the extension of the franchise and the quality of political leadership. As the franchise is extended to more and more classes of people—the landless and poverty stricken, blacks, women, non-English speakers, the uneducated and retarded, felons, aliens, and so forth—the quality of political leadership plummets; for it goes without saying that it takes no deep understanding of economics, history, international or military affairs or any other discipline associated with statesmanship to persuade the rabble. Only a cunning sense of the hopes and fears that animate the masses is required.

Likewise, the same inverse relationship exists between the extension of the franchise and the quality of media coverage. As the right to vote descends into lower and lower levels of society and the number of “qualified” electors subsequently increases, media that formerly addressed themselves to the thoughtful few transform themselves into media for the lowest common denominator, i.e., the masses. Thus, logical contradictions and ancient fallacies can be cavalierly passed off as proven truths, emotionalism supplants reason, and eventually innuendo, rumors, and lies become the standard currency of the mass media.