At the core of democracy are a few key assumptions: One is that humans will make better decisions if everyone has some power. Another is that citizens will be informed. And yet another is that citizens will be engaged.
Let’s skip the first point for now. That’s a rather philosophical question, but not entirely, but anyhow, it’s one I’ll come back to in a future article.
The second point is huge. It’s also one reason why Thomas Jefferson said the independent media was more important to democracy than government itself. Independent media that uncovers important stories whether they are convenient for powerful people or not is absolutely critical if you want to prevent power from centralizing too irreversibly and if you want citizens to have correct, useful, “complete” information before making decisions.
We could get into point #3, but what’s the point at this stage? You can see the problem, right?
Looking at the US, what percentage of Americans understand the point of balance of power or checks and balances? What percentage of Americans can name 5 members of Congress? What percentage of Americans can name their own representatives in Congress? What percentage of Americans can tell you where their representatives in Congress stand on 5 major issues, or what their voting record is? What percentage of Americans can explain why the president shouldn’t be allowed to fire the FBI director(s) investigating him? What percentage of Americans can tell you what legislation is being debated in Congress, or what legislation would actually help the issues they care about?
Yes, this is the problem with our democracy. Russia spotted it a thousand miles away. “Hey, look at how easy it is to manipulate voter understanding and opinions. Look, a bunch of fake news on Facebook is all that much of the population needs in order to favor this candidate over this one. Look how easy it is to get Americans fighting with each other!”
This is another matter — the inability to debate, and the totally screwed up underlying rules of debate. There is an idealistic idea that long and thoughtful discussion of a topic taking advantage of various points of view will eventually bring out the truth. But that relies on the idea that people want to actually get to the core truth, that they aren’t going to illogically swing the debate toward a conclusion they have a vested interest in, that they haven’t already chosen sides and will filter information in a way that brings them to one conclusion and one conclusion only (the one they started with before investigating), and that they won’t play dirty and mislead the debate on purpose in order to “win.” Alas, when the debate does not take place with an open mind and good faith, it is bound to lead to nowhere — or worse.
How much of current political “debate” — or more importantly, policy debate — is undertaken in good faith, with proper underlying rules, and without hugely vested interests warping public understanding to an insane degree?
Before we get too cynical, let’s acknowledge a few things: there are journalists who work hard to uncover objective facts and truths, there are media outlets intent on revealing the full picture in a realistic and societally helpful way, there are Congresspeople who are simply there to serve their representatives and the United States as a whole in an unbiased and objective way, and there is some number of American citizens who treat their civic duty as members of a democracy very seriously.
However, we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t say that we’re often trying to surf on land — and it’s just a fundamentally flawed attempt.
One question at this point is: What are the best options forward?
Give up on democracy? Well, that doesn’t seem too helpful — that just puts more power in the hands of people who aren’t interested in doing political and government work for the benefit of the masses.
Play dirty as well? Well, that just further erodes democratic principles and pushes the country toward corruption, inequality, and an overall societal breakdown.
Try to serve the country in a thoughtful, open-minded, and patriotic way? If good people don’t do this, who will, and who will run the show?