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The poverty of democracy

Jesse Posl Rhinehart
Opinions Editor

In political science, we distinguish between several different forms of democracy. The form I like best roughly corresponds to the form democracy took in the beginning of the 19th century. For Alexis De Toqueville, democracy of this type was characterized by civic engagement, membership in multiple voluntary associations (such as The Freemasons, churches, charities, etc.) and active participation in government, both local and national.

Basically, it is the idealized form of democracy Americans cling to, made up of informed middle class entrepreneurs working together to expand individual interests along with those of the community. This dream ended with the onset of monopoly capitalism, industrialization and the beginnings of mass society in the early 20th century.

The structural changes brought on by modernization have left many theorists to alter their definition of democracy to fit the realities of modern life: Citizen participation is reduced to casting votes with increasing infrequency, civic engagement is diminished as people are increasingly enjoying only negative freedoms, while participation declines with the propertied middle class.

What have not declined are our ideals. Undoubtedly, most Americans still believe in equality. We still believe people should have the right to say whatever they want, regardless if we agree with their sentiments. We believe that we should have the right to elect those who govern us, even if each our subsequent election choices seem increasingly limited. But, what happens when our ideals and our routines no longer mutually support one another? Simply enough, our ideals become subverted.

Personally, I see the conflict between ideals and daily practices emerge most forcefully with regard to free speech. Our ideals tell us that we are all equal and have an equal right to be heard. The problem is the emphasis on civic engagement and being informed has not kept pace: people feel entitled to give their opinions even if they have no idea what they are talking about. This entitlement means that the most idiotic notions gain traction and actually pose themselves for consideration on a daily basis. For example, a recent article in the Guardian (link attached below) showed that over 50% of Americans believe or would not deny the existence of a New World Order—a cohesive group of people in powerful positions throughout the globe who are planning to take over the world. Or even better, the polled showed that 25% of American’s believe or would not deny that Obama is the anti-Christ.

As a political science student, I can tell you that if your interested in the idea of an elite group working to control the world, you can find the answer in a book written fifty years ago—C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite. It will quickly disabuse you of any such notion with the aid of real facts and verified statistics; rare accompaniments in any debate these days. As to Obama being the anti-Christ? Please, make your own assessment—hopefully you won’t need much help. My point? Our ideals have turned on us because we have not continued the practices which made them ideal in the first place.

Free speech and equal participation are wonderful things, but not without actual civil engagement and informed citizens. Democracy has left us a legacy that proclaims we all have an equal right to make our opinions heard. But what if these opinions are so abundant and so idiotic they keep us from addressing real problems? For example, why did we even have to discuss Obama’s citizenship during the election season? Could that time not have been spent discussing how the hell we are ever going to balance the budget?

It is simple common sense to realize that if you don’t know about a topic, you should not attempt to weigh in on it. Americans, in my opinion, need to take this lesson to heart. After all, you don’t go to a doctor for advice on your taxes do you? We need to remember that all men created equal does not mean that we are all equally informed, nor is it a sign of stupidity or weakness to admit that we may not know anything about a particular topic. A little bit of humility and silence could go a long way towards escaping the quagmire of misinformation that pervades American public discourse. With that, I’m shutting up.

Link to article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/02/americans-obama-anti-christ-conspiracy-theories?INTCMP=SRCH

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About Jason Johnson