Sunday, December 27, 2015

Losing Faith in Democracy

For decades now Americans have had little faith in most of our institutions -- Congress, unions, big business, etc. -- and this has now begun to erode our faith in democracy itself. Vox summarizes the polling:
For Americans born in the 1930s, living in a democracy holds virtually sacred importance. Asked on a scale of 1 to 10 how important it is to them to live in a democracy, more than 70 percent give the highest answer. But many of their children and grandchildren are lukewarm. Among millennials — those born since the 1980s — fewer than 30 percent say that living in a democracy is essential. . . .
Among Americans born since 1970, more than 20% rate democracy as a "bad" or "very bad" way to run America. The number of Americans who think it would be better if the country were run by the military has climbed from 5% in 1995 to 15% today.

Rich Americans are especially down on democracy, more than 40% now saying that we would be better off having a "strong leader".

I don't view any of this as an immediate threat to democracy in America -- or in Europe, for that matter. What would we do instead?

But I do think that this shows our actions and our words matter. Over the past 15 years western democracies have failed in some major, significant ways -- in preserving peace, preventing terrorism, and organizing the economy to help ordinary people. If politicians want the respect of the people, they need to make government work better. In America we also have the problem of increasingly rigid partisanship, in which both parties exert themselves as much to keep the other side from achieving its goals as to accomplish their own, leading to grim gridlock. Right now the notion that everyone in the government should work together to help Americans seems ridiculously naive.

America's public discourse has also shifted away from the center. The sort of bland nationalism that we were fed by Time magazine back in the day has slipped into the background, replaced by Rush Limbaugh and the Daily Show. One of my favorite facts about contemporary America is that more Americans tell pollsters they would be unhappy about their children marrying someone from the opposite political party than someone of a different race.

On the right especially, but also to some extent on the left, the tone of politics has become less rational and more apocalyptic. Politicians talk more about losing the America they grew up, or even losing America altogether, than about the great things we will achieve in the future. I was struck to hear Sean Hannity, no great optimist himself, pausing during the last Republican debate to wonder what had happened to Reagan's "city on a hill." That sort of optimism is hard to find in contemporary America.

I think the rise of libertarianism is particularly destructive. The notion that we are lone wolves struggling for personal advantage in a dark forest is both wrong and damaging to democracy. Our future depends absolutely on our ability to work together and take care of each other, and the existence of millions of people who deny this has become corrosive. You can see this especially among the rich, who have started to believe in the lie that they achieved everything by their own efforts and owe nothing to the rest of us. They are wrong, and if we are going to preserve the liberal world we inherited, a world that takes democracy and human rights for granted, we need to answer them.

If we care about democracy, we need to argue back against the oracles of selfishness, the prophets of doom, and the sirens of resentment. We need to stand up for reason, for humanity, for our common weal. Because our free, democratic world, for all that ails it, is our greatest creation, and we absolutely should not let it slip away. Hold fast to the light.

1 comment:

Miriam said...

excellent post John! I completely agree about the libertarian thing--it's really odd, but at least in my experience, those who are most comfortable with the idea of complete individualism are almost always those who have always enjoyed a level of privilege that means they've never had to think hard about coalitional politics or thinking in terms of communities--even small ones.

Curious--your summary here sounds rather Hobbesian--too much ancient history & 17th C?