Democracy’s Paradox

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 is 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—as in that one has a responsibility to hold true, opposed to false, beliefs.

With our current president, we have the most obvious display of would be politicians trying not to lead voters in a direction that challenges or asks more from them, but acquiesces to their currently held beliefs.  The same is true for the far left of the political class. Appeasement, not leadership, is the new game. At least during campaign season.

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

Politics Are Local

In state and local elections it’s been widely reported in voter data that older voters vote more often and reliably than younger voters; that minority groups vote in smaller percentages and less frequently than Caucasian voters; and that Republicans vote more frequently and in higher numbers than Democrats. Why does this happen?

Some explanations may focus on work schedules or conservative principles of civic duty. I want to discuss the differences in ideology or philosophical outlook, and the experiences and perceptions different voting blocs have toward federal versus local government and why that matters for voter turnout in non-federal elections.

First, it seems fair to say that the conservative creed is more suspicious of the federal government than they are of local government. They’re also much more suspicious than more progressive voters. As such conservatives, and hence Republicans, are more active in local government because that is where they believe more governmental legitimacy should reside. Furthermore, they are more vocal about, and resistant to, their property taxes and this is managed at the local level.

Contrast this with some experiences of minority groups. Many do not own property, but they also have a history of more negative experiences with local government, not federal government. The Civil Rights Movement needed to be a federal movement to protect minority groups from discrimination that was often carried out by the will of the local and state governments. It was the federal government who were the good guys. More recently, while local and state governments have made progress toward racial equality, the most intimate interaction many people have with local government tends to be the police. This relationship is still, to put it mildly, strained.

One may think this would make minority voters more likely to turn out for local elections, but I think the opposite may be true. Due to feeling alienated by their local governments they opt not to participate as they won’t feel represented anyway. This leaves the door open for conservatives to participate without equal opposition and therefore elect the officials they want to enact the policies conservatives desire.

Along this line, there is an argument, by Peter Beinart from The Atlantic, that Democrats tend to be more international and cosmopolitan about human rights than many conservatives. Liberals seem more suspicious of the idea of American moral exceptionalism than conservatives. This would help explain why liberals or Democrats feel there are bigger issues involved in federal elections than when discussing an election for a local police chief, mayor, city council, or even state governor.

If Democratic constituencies want to see more change for the good of their communities and lives, they need to get more involved locally. By abstaining they’re ceding the policy agenda to Republican or conservative interests.