Is democracy the best societal avenue for humans to go down? That’s a question many of us in democratic countries don’t typically ask. The assumed answer is: “duh.” But democracy does indeed have its drawbacks. Tyranny of the masses is no small concern.
That said, the underlying point of democracy is sort of straightforward: Humans have a tendency to greedily accumulate power if they can. If they accumulate a lot more power than others, they may well do unfriendly, harmful, immoral things to less powerful humans in order to keep growing their power and wealth (the wealth typically goes along with the power, of course). The more that the whole population can put a check on power and keep it from too much, the better for the masses, the majority of society.
However, implementing that democratic ideal requires a few things. For one, it requires that people be engaged enough that they participate in democracy, and at least vote. It also requires that they have good and fairly comprehensive information on topics that matter. If you think for a minute about how the latter is achieved, you probably recognize the importance of an independent press. Independent media is critical to providing the important and accurate information a healthy democracy needs.
As I’m fond of pointing out, Thomas Jefferson saw independent media as more important for democracy than government itself:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Thus, it should come as no surprise that dictators demolish or take over the press, undemocratic leaders control what the press says or doesn’t say, and countries that are going through a shift from a high level of democracy to a low level always see brutal attacks on the media, on journalists, and on voices that speak up in an influential way against the people in power (who are continuously consolidating more power).
Dictators attack the media on the rise and take it over once in power (often known to murder journalists as well as political opponents).
I’m sure you’ve considered by now the infamous political head most recently known to attack the media, a certain Donald Trump. Fake news? Well, “fake news” became a hot topic in late 2016 as it was discovered and getting shared with the public that true fake news originating from Russia had been used to promote Donald Trump. But Donald Trump didn’t like that narrative, so he started calling any news critical of him “fake news.” It was absurd, disturbing, laughable even … but much of the American public somehow ate it up. “State media” (aka Fox) ate it up and spit it out as if it was thoughtful commentary. And lest we forget, Fox was the nearly fake news media network that led to Trump’s rise.
A new report from The Economist Intelligence Unit examines where democracy stands around the world today, and how that has changed over the past year. If you support the idea of democracy, you’ll be disappointed to find out that democracy has been declining globally. You also shouldn’t be surprised to find out that the USA is not in great standing and actually sits in Freedom House’s second tier of democracy (not “full democracy” but “flawed democracy”). This is the second year in a row that the USA is in the second tier. Attacks on the media by Donald Trump and his fake or pseudo cronies are a big reason for that. I imagine Republican Congressional unwillingness to put a check on Trump’s power and undemocratic preferences plays a part as well — it’s approximately as disturbing as the attacks on the media if you are a fan of democracy.
The United States dropped to the second tier in last year’s report, which might have shocked most Americans if it had happened 5 years ago, but probably does not shock many of us who have been paying attention for the past two years. Unfortunately, rather than getting better, the situation seems to have only gotten worse in the past few months.
Another new report from Freedom House, Freedom in the World in 2018, runs with the theme “Democracy in Crisis” this year. Again, there is much discussion of Donald Trump’s and the Republican Party’s attacks on core institutions and the press. “The United States now receives a score of 86 out of 100 points. While this places it below other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, it is still firmly in the Free category. Nevertheless, a three-point decline in a single year is rare for an established democracy. In particular, Freedom House is closely watching President Trump’s verbal attacks on the press and their potential impact on the public’s access to free and independent news media.”
Democracy has been under attack and in a hobbled position in several other countries as well. And a notable change that I’m curious to see discussed further in next year’s reports and elsewhere is China’s recent decision to nix presidential term limits.
What’s the point of all of this discussion?
One point is to be reflective about the broader society we are a part of, and to participate in democracy to at least a limited extent in that regard. As a member of the media, we also think it’s important to emphasize the role and value of solid, independent, thoughtful media in achieving the broader goals of society. The media world has shifted tremendously over the past decade or two as the Internet and various electronic devices have become ubiquitous. “Democratized publishing” has led to a lot more publishing (and sites like this one), but that abundance of publishing also brings down the value of eached published page to the average consumer. (Why pay for content when there’s so much free?) And it certainly contributes to the TMI (too much information) age we live in. Information overload is a genuine problem for society.
I think the realities of today’s technological and publishing landscape combined with the needs of democracy open up a few key avenues we need to walk down if we want democracy to progress rather than proceed. Here’s my recipe:
- We need consumers to better learn how to evaluate the depth and trustworthiness of a website’s reporting and analysis. (How we can do that en masse is a question I have no answer to.)
- We need media outlets that are more independent from political and corporate influence.
- If mass media outlets cannot provide the necessary expertise on certain subject matters (like energy), we need niche websites to rise to the challenge and become known and used sources for such topics. (Ahem.)
- We need citizenry to somehow stop believing one-liners and headlines without digging deeper and understanding the logic and evidence behind the claims. We need to maintain an open mind until we can look at the underlying logic and evidence at least somewhat thoroughly. (How we can do that en masse is a question I have no answer to and don’t expect to happen.)
- We need people on all sides to support free, independent, unfettered journalism and investigation, especially into the most powerful people and companies on the planet.
I have to say — the future of democracy doesn’t look bright at the moment. However, the attacks on the ideal also generate backlash. The increasing centralization of wealth and power also generate backlash … to some extent.
Will enough humans get off of smartphone games and Facebook for a few minutes each day to engage in their democracies in more thoughtful ways and turn these ships around? It’s hard to say. Humans by and large seem to be addicted to mental escape and to easy avenues of inaction. The “democratized” options on the table for that today just seem far too interesting for people to bother with real-world matters and democratic involvement in politics and government. Where that leads — especially as the effects of global warming and climate change ramp up — is anyone’s guess. My guess is not optimistic, I feel inclined to admit.