This week, as the British Parliament unraveled and more nonsense spun out of Washington, an academic paper about the death of democracy made headlines. The paper, by Shawn Rosenberg a political psychologist at UC Irvine, was discussed in Politico under the headline, “The shocking paper predicting the end of democracy.”
Rosenberg suggests that we are not smart enough to govern ourselves. He says, we “lack the requisite cognitive and emotional capacities” to sustain democratic institutions. Studies show that we are narrow-minded, self-interested, emotional, prejudiced, and lacking in empathy. Rosenberg concludes, “democracy is likely to devour itself.”
Such warnings are not new. Two hundred years ago John Adams said, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.” Two thousand years before that, Plato warned that the ignorant multitude will gladly give power to a tyrant who panders to the mob’s self-interest.
The solution is two-fold. We need a stable written constitution that includes a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. We also need the virtue, knowledge, and wisdom to govern ourselves.
Our constitutional system is not perfect. It has been tinkered with in various ways. One hundred fifty years ago, the 14th Amendment guaranteed equal protection under the law for previously enslaved people. The 19th Amendment turns 100 this year. It allowed women to vote.
No system of government is ever perfect or complete. The same is true of we, the people. An Annenberg poll shows that only a third of Americans can correctly name all three branches of government. The Pew Center reports that only 17% of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing most of the time.
The combination of distrust and ignorance is dangerous. It is difficult to trust what you don’t understand. And things you don’t trust are dismissed as not worthy of understanding. Distrust and ignorance create a death spiral, a destructive hurricane of cynicism.
Democracy depends upon trust and understanding. It also depends upon a common sense of objective truth. If truth is defined by self-interest, then we will dismiss news we don’t like as malicious and fake. We will even distrust the weatherman who warns about the coming storm.
Skepticism can be healthy. We ought to question authority. But ignorance is not skepticism. And a cynical dismissal of objective truth is not critical thinking.
Ignorant people are attracted to the dogmatism and demagoguery of those who offer simple solutions to complex problems. This temptation afflicts all of us, regardless of political party affiliation. We like those who flatter us and pander to our self-interest. We cheer on those who give voice to our grievances and make us feel righteous and proud. We change the channel when we don’t like the news. We redraw the weather map to fit our own desires.
These problems are not new. History shows us that governments eventually collapse. The law of entropy points toward chaos. Things fall apart. Nothing good lasts forever.
But we can choose how we respond to that unhandsome fact. Naïve optimism won’t stop a hurricane. But despair saps energy and defeatism does not imagine a solution. What is needed is pragmatic effort. When the storm comes, pile up sand bags. When the storm passes by, get busy rebuilding. The world is not perfect. But it won’t get better if we don’t work to make it so.
Thomas Jefferson said that if the people are not enlightened enough for self-government, the solution is to educate them. Education, Jefferson said, “is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
To prevent democracy from devouring itself, we must discipline our appetites and enlighten our understanding. Education for democracy must include basic knowledge of the history and structure of our institutions. But knowledge without character is dangerous.
Democratic education must cultivate the virtues that are essential for self-governance. Those virtues include wisdom, courage, justice, moderation, and compassion. Hope is also a democratic virtue. This is not a utopian hope that denies reality. Democratic hope is pragmatic. It understands that to survive a hurricane you have to understand the weather and build a house with firm foundations.
Constitution Day at Fresno State
The Constitution is the focus of a special day at Fresno State on Tuesday, Sept. 17. The five freedoms and key amendments dealing with voting rights and racial issues will be highlighted. Events begin at 11 a.m. and continue through 5 p.m. A schedule is available at http://www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/ethicscenter/documents/Constitution%20Day%20overview%20flier.pdf