Democracy’s Paradox

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Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Oil on Canvas, Howard Chandler Christy

After the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 it was reported in the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention, that a lady asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”  Franklin replied, “A republic, madam…If you can keep it.”

There is somewhat of a paradox in the practice of popular governance.  This afflicts not just pure democracies, but democratic republics like that of the United States.  The paradox is that with increased access to political participation, free speech and access to information in general, the responsibility required of the citizen also increases.

Fundamentally, increased access to information is also increased access to disinformation.  In some areas, experts are outnumbered by charlatans and so disinformation is easier to find if one does not know better or seeks out such disinformation.  Human psychology is prone to seek a comforting untruth at the expense of a discomforting truth. Hence, we have confirmation bias, availability heuristic, belief perseverance, etc.

This isn’t a new story.  Democratizing access to information and political participation has often led to uprisings for right or wrong.  The American Revolution is a great example. Most citizens were not versed in English Law as the learned Founding Fathers were.  They were influenced by local preacher pulpits, and an anti-establishment, anti-elitist attitude toward King George and the British Parliament.  There cannot be a revolution based solely on academic argument. There needs to be a rebellious popular will. It requires hostile emotions more than cool-headed reasoning.

The rub is that although we believe people ought to have a say in how they are governed, this freedom also demands civic responsibility from the governed.  A sad truth is that although people share the same political participation rights and access to information, not all people are equally equipped to express those rights responsibly. We may force disinformation onto people by mistaking the freedom to express ideas, even falsehoods, with the right to have a captive audience to present them to. Hence, some states in the U.S. force teaching the Biblical story of Genesis in biology, geology and astronomy classes. This may lead one to think access ought to be restricted. But, when those rights are restricted, we often get far worse results, at least in history. Hitler, Stalin, McCarthyism, Mao, banned books, etc. How do we maintain a healthy balance?

Perhaps our current situation can be viewed through this lens.  Money and special interests seem to rule politics because they have a more intimate knowledge of how to participate and influence political outcomes.  It is an asymmetry of information and access on their part with the structures of political power. The general public, on the other hand, have increased access to information and disinformation, especially via the internet and social media but before that with tabloids, radio, etc. This created a popular class ripe for rebellion against the gatekeepers. This is not an entirely unjustified development. There are, however, consequences.

As a result, many voters no longer treat politics as statecraft requiring developed skills, knowledge and experience. Those voters demand that governance becomes an “everyman’s” game. Without any official demand on individual responsibility for one’s opinions—the idea that one has a responsibility to hold true, opposed to false, beliefs.

With our current president, we have the most obvious display of a politician trying, not to lead voters in a direction that challenges their views or asks more from them but, to acquiesce to their currently held beliefs. A politician not inspiring the better angels of our nature but cultivating our worst impulses.  The far left of the political class tries in their own way to find a version of this playbook that will work for them. Appeasement, not leadership, is the new game. At least during campaign season.

We have a republic for now…If we can keep it.

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