Why Democracy Is Breaking

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Here’s the problem.

Democracy depends on an informed citizenry: people who read, people who are educated about how law and government work, people who are well informed.

As democracy made slow progress in Europe and later in what became the United States, political power—most obviously, the right to vote and to hold political office—was restricted to property-owning men. The merchant class, who had wrested these rights from the nobles (after the nobles had wrested them from the kings) fiercely resisted expanding them to larger groups. 

On the one hand, this sort of limited democracy ensured a relatively well-educated, well-informed cohort of voters and office holders by severely limiting the power of the poor and working classes. In the U.K., only gentlemen could become Members of Parliament, and only men could vote them into office. In the U.S., the House of Representatives was more broadly democratic, but the Senators were elected by state legislatures (until the 17th Amendment changed that provision of the Constitution in 1913). 

These arrangements (and others like the U.S. Electoral College) did ensure a relatively well-educated electorate. On the other hand, they were clearly undemocratic attempts by an elite ruling class—white men of property—to hold on to their power. Such men, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leading thinkers of the early United States, argued that a pure or complete democracy was nothing less than an invitation to mob rule. Give every ignorant, unwashed working man a vote? Unthinkable. The new nation, they insisted, would be a republic, not a democracy, and the republic would be controlled by men of education and property. Or at least, men of property.

Since then, political power has slowly, grudgingly, and imperfectly been given to previously excluded groups—first to all white males, then to women, then to people of colour. But this expansion of political power has not been accompanied by an expansion of political education. It reminds me of the reform campaigns against the horrific mental institutions of fifty years ago, which were sometimes little more than medieval prisons for the mentally ill. Public sentiment against these institutions grew until, during the Reagan years in the U.S., they were largely abolished. The poor souls previously confined so cruelly were set free. Freedom! But freedom alone meant that most of these people ended up homeless, living on the streets, with little or no care at all.

The expansion of political power without an expansion of education and social justice has had a similar result: millions of voters or potential voters who do not read, do not understand how law and government work, and who are woefully uninformed or misinformed about the facts. Such an electorate is laughably vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. 

But it’s worse than that.

The propertied middle classes, who live in decent neighbourhoods and send their kids to decent schools, are turning into the same kind of ignorant, uninformed, easily manipulated voters that the Founding Fathers and Edmund Burke feared when they warned about mob rule. 

Years ago I read an essay by the Canadian-American novelist, Saul Bellow, in which he warned that the U.S. was turning into an “amusement culture.” The phrase stuck with me, and I kept noticing ways in which it seemed true. In older cultures people defined themselves by what they made or did. In the culture I saw around me, people defined themselves by what they bought. And what they bought, overwhelmingly, was entertainment. Amusement. Stimulation. Relief from boredom. I noticed, too, how closely this quest for entertainment resembled drug addiction: the dose that initially produced quite a strong effect gradually lost its power, and so had to be increased—a process whose logical end is overdose and death. 

Saul Bellow’s description has now been superseded. We no longer merely live in an “amusement culture.” We now live in an addiction culture.

TV, sugar, junk food, shopping, pro sports, pop music, Hollywood movies—practically all of the major features of popular culture function as addictions. People even say “I need a fix” to explain why they must watch a TV program or eat a donut. Meanwhile, the literal addictions to alcohol and other drugs continue apace and have been multiplied geometrically in recent years by the opioid crisis. 

But it’s worse than that.

The neo-Romantic idealists and geniuses who brought us the Internet and, shortly thereafter, “social media,” believed that their inventions would usher in a new era of freedom, empowerment, and global communication. Like Mary Shelley’s idealistic, naive dreamer genius, Victor Frankenstein, they have created a murderous monster. Someone should write a 21st-century version of Shelley’s novel and title it Zuckerberg, or The Modern Frankenstein. The internet has not only added to our list of popular addictions such things as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. It has also created a propaganda organ of instant, almost worldwide scope. No longer do demagogues need to print pamphlets or travel from town to town making speeches. A “tweet storm” or a series of inflammatory Facebook posts can do the work infinitely faster and better, as all of us have seen in the Age of Trump. 

There are, of course, pockets of resistance. Some people do read books, exercise, eat healthy foods, avoid popular culture, play musical instruments or paint or write, go on long walks, etc. They are a small minority, vastly outnumbered by the millions of avid participants in the Addiction Culture. And since the Addiction Culture is not only self-perpetuating but self-multiplying and almost completely empowered, there’s no end in sight. No way to turn this ship around. 

Which is why democracy is breaking. 

If history is any guide, nothing short of a violent crisis can change the trends, and if such a violent crisis comes, it is as likely to make things worse as it is to make them better. And if after all of this pessimism you think the world is worth saving and want to give it a try, I suggest that you become a teacher and inspire your students to read, think, and become well-informed.

Coda: If becoming a teacher is out of your reach, or not enough, try working on one or both of these essential problems: 1) Ensure that access to large sums of money gives zero advantage to a candidate for political office. 2) Establish an independent, publicly-funded news service that does not need to compete with commercial media.

3 thoughts on “Why Democracy Is Breaking”

  1. An insightful piece, Mr. MacKnight.

    It is indeed an uphill battle. As long as we are still bonded by our short-term, self gratifying “I want it, and I want it NOW” mentality, “freedom” will continue to be the tokenistic term that divides our societies. If you do decide to elaborate in a sequel piece, I’d be keen to read more on what you have to say about education as a sustainable fix to our “addiction culture”.

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