Democracy and distance running aren’t all that different in one particular aspect. Both ask, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? Because whether as citizens or as runners, what we do today must be linked to what we did yesterday and what we must do, again, tomorrow. Neither is like a bank account where interest can grow absent constant infusions of capital. In that sense, complacency and inattention are the bêtes noires of each.
America began with an ancient idea for a new world, democracy, a form of government in which the people exercised the authority of government through elected representatives.
But ideas, like people, grow old and tired and are susceptible to change, even corruption. What then of an idea as hoary as democracy in America?
As we embark upon an important midterm election in 2022, I have read several articles recently outlining ways We, the People are increasingly growing tired of our democratic form. The fate of democracy was paramount in Mr. Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address amidst America’s (first?) Civil War: “…testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
To date, this nation, under that conception, has endured for 246 years. But over the last 25 years, the number of individuals dissatisfied with democratic politics has risen from a third to more than half.
Shifts in satisfaction were often a response to “objective circumstances and events”, such as economic shocks and corruption scandals, one report said.
Felix Rohatyn, an investment banker and rescuer of a bankrupt New York City, spoke of the “huge transfers of wealth from lower-skilled middle-class workers to the owners of capital assets and to a new technological aristocracy.” Those who skip or flunk the computer will fall into the Blade Runner proletariat, a snarling, embittered, violent underclass.”
We reached that state in 2016 and since January 6, 2021, have seen embitterment and violence metastasize.
When such surveys began in 1995, more than 75% of U.S. citizens were satisfied with American democracy. The first big jolt came with the 2008 financial crisis, the report showed, and satisfaction has continued to deteriorate year-on-year ever since.
Fewer than 50% of Americans are now content with how we are governed, marking the first time on record that a majority of U.S. citizens are dissatisfied with their system of government. And this disfavor isn’t just found in America, either. Many large democracies, including Australia, Mexico, U.K. and Brazil, are now at their highest-ever level of dissatisfaction with democracy.
What’s tainted the democratic form in the USA as much as anything, has been the cynical way insiders on both sides have gamed the system. Whether it’s gerrymandering congressional districts to lock in incumbency; denying a Supreme Court nominee a senate hearing if that nominee was selected by a president from the other party when yours controls the senate, then pushing your own nominee through when you control both; the use of the filibuster to block majority rule; the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling opening unlimited corporate campaign financing that skews elections to the most wealthy among us; or the Democratic Party’s use of Super Delegates that tilted primaries to the pre-approved candidate (e.g. Hillary Clinton 2016), the powerbroker practitioners of democracy have used the levers of power to strip the system of its intended applications and tilt them to their own individual advantage, thereby extending their own cynicism to the public at-large.
But We, The People, aren’t innocent victims, either. We have allowed these corruptions through complacency and neglect. And that is where democracy has failed, in the expectation/requirement that the people will maintain diligence in vetting candidates then holding their leaders accountable, to becoming conversant with the issues facing the country they are constitutionally designed to govern.
Instead, the people have succumbed to the siren call of convenience and chosen not to pay attention as Special Interests undercut their franchises on the cheap. The responsibility to maintain attention in today’s hectored, heterogeneous society has, arguably, become too great a burden to demand or expect as the country grows both in size, political disparity, and complexity.
Perhaps it is why the founders deemed only land-owning white males to be eligible voters. Remember, it was only such men who were originally considered to be “created equal”, none others. Our inclusionary development has only come over time, and not without disruption to the system, or now, to logic.
The founders concluded that only people with a financial stake in the game would vote with a keen eye, and a close reading of the ballot, even if it was the only to maintain their own status quo.
When you open the polls to a universal franchise, the vast majority of citizens, they believed, will only skim the issues, at best, and vote only for president or other easily accessible ballot choices, and more likely from the standpoint of their emotions rather than a close reading of the issues.
This lack of interest in the proper exercise of the franchise will slowly cause the system to fall into disrepair as special interests move in to fill the void by buying up the corrupted officials who realize that nobody is actually paying attention.
As Len Niehoff, Universty of Michigan Law School professor has said, “We have become a nation of magical thinkers, making decisions based on what we hope is the case and whom we want to believe. When confronted with opposing evidence, we do not engage with it. We dismiss it and stick a label on it: “fake,” “phony,” “biased,” etc. And then we mistake that label for evidence.”
As allegiance to civic responsibility has waned, the greater the likelihood that the greed and focus of the Special Interests and their political enablers will succeed. And here we are.
Democracy, one could argue, expects more of human nature than what the Creator built in to that mortal system to handle.
Surveys indicate that regular folks everywhere have grown increasingly tired of bearing the brunt of it all, to the point where they yearned for a strong leader to cut through to the heart of their perceived discontent.
Enter the “Only I can fix it” candidate in 2016. America was in search of certainty, someone with the moxy to assert the self-assurance America craved, while caring less whether he had the skill set to actually pull it off.
In light of our contentious elections of recent cycles, America seems poised at a crossroads.
What remains true is that a strong middle-class stabilizes the nation’s politics and its economy. When poles drift too far apart, the middle gives way and eventually the Haves and the Have-Not ends bend under their accumulated weight until they come into contact below. And when poles collide, worlds divide. That’s the current danger that confronts us.
The answer, it seems, is to do what we can to re-build the middle class. Not to take from the rich out of spite or rancor, nor to redistribute to the poor out of charity, but to strengthen the spine of the nation out of necessity.
But the empire of capital has its own destiny, too. Increasingly, as Arthur Schlesinger wrote in Foreign Affairs Magazine in 1997, “Globalization threatens nation-state control, it drives people to seek refuge from its powerful forces beyond their control and comprehension. They retreat into familiar, intelligible, protective units. They crave the politics of identity. The faster the world integrates, the more people will huddle in their religious or ethnic or tribal enclaves. Integration and disintegration feed on each other.”
Unbridled capitalism, with low wages, long hours, and exploited workers, excites social resentment, revives class warfare, and infuses Marxism with new life. To move along constructive lines, capitalism must subordinate short-term plans and profits to such long-term social necessities as investment in education, research and development, environmental protection, the extension of health care, the rehabilitation of infrastructure, the redemption of the city. Capitalists are not likely to do this by themselves. Long-term perspectives demand public leadership and affirmative government.”
Yet the likelihood of finding a one-size fits all leader who can achieve equanimity are slim at best in a time of such political polarity. As frightening and incendiary as it may be, only a new Constitutional Convention convened to redraw the laws that govern a 330 million person heterogeneous society can, in any generally accepted way, address issues that confront us today that could never have been foreseen by a Constitutional Convention drawing up rules for a 4 million person, mostly homogeneous society in the 18th century, one in which the phrase “all men are created equal” literally meant ‘all land-owning, white men’. Not women, not poor whites, and certainly not blacks or Native Americans.
Studies have indicated that many right-based supporters are backers of an aggressive authoritarianism. For them, dictatorship and monarchy are much easier governing models. No need to get involved whatsoever. Just take orders. Simple.
What is incontrovertibly true is that democracy is a more difficult form of government due to its broad participatory nature and call for citizen responsibility to pay attention and exercise the voting franchise.
Everyone has a busy life, and like jury duty, self-governance can be a drain on our time, resources, and patience, especially when one party erects barriers to voting and there are so few honest brokers to help contextualize opposing claims anymore.
But what, you may ask, is the predicate for self-government? Self and responsibility and education. But ever since California passed Proposition 13 in 1978 to limit the rise in property tax rates – taxes that went to fund what was once considered the gold-standard in public education – the funding for public schools has, in fact, dried up.
Nearly two generations later, we see the results. When entire generations grow up being told how special they are, how everyone is a winner, and standards are relaxed to help assuage that false pretense, no wonder the people come to their maturity with a skewed worldview. Forget understanding. Belief in science and expertise, in general, has gone the way of the Dodo bird and the NASA space program.
Imagine the USA, the modern avatars of the democratic formulation, tired of governing itself. But by my reading, it’s not the concept of democracy so much as how it’s being run, that Americans no longer like.
Whether it was the Brexit battle in Great Britain, what’s called “authoritarian capitalism” in China, or the expanding populist nationalism of Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Phillipines, and, yes, Donald Trump in the USA – or even the anti-Macron surge in France – everywhere we look we see nations pulling back from a democratic globalist agenda as long-held systems come under strain from the twin poles of advancing technology and retreating opportunity.
Time to be honest about it and see if such a thing as federalist-based United States is still viable. Because right now everyone is reading the Constitution like Paul Simon sang in his song “The Boxer”, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”