Constructing a robust democratic culture means wrestling with the problems raised by the nature of modern society; not least of which is technology, not only in terms of media and communications, but, more fundamentally, in terms of education and opportunity. In order to understand this, we need to dig into the premises of democracy—particularly liberal democracy—in the modern world.
Prior to the American and French Revolutions in the late 18C, there was little idea that the masses of people should be in charge. The complexities of state were best left to those with the time and brains (breeding/blood lines?!) to handle them. In a world where basic literacy, much less awareness of public issues was low; this was hard to argue with as a practical matter.
Modern representative democracy has always been aspirational; that is, its theory was well ahead of its practice. Ideas articulated in the American and French revolutions (“We the people”, “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality”) were immediately tempered by the well-known constraints built into the US Constitution (separation of powers, “checks-and-balances”), the exclusion of women, slaves, native Americans, and most white men with little wealth. In France, the Great Revolution of 1789 led to eighty years of bouncing back-and-forth between regime structures, adding monarchy to the set of American problems. British structures also excluded women, most men (for economic reasons), as well as all the natives of the far-flung Empire who were subject to Parliament in London. Progress towards the ideal model of democracy was incremental across the 19C and much of the 20C, chipping away at formal and practical impediments.
The essential premise of democracy is that people know enough to exercise sensible judgment about the issues of governance. This shows up in the millennia-long fear of mobocracy whose passions overrun reason. The modern response to this problem was built first on the idea of representative democracy, under which “leading men” chosen by the populace, would deliberate on the issues. The rise of public education in the late 19C was a further answer to this: a hope that “ordinary” folks could be educated to participate sensibly in the democratic process.
So far so good, at least in those countries with the social cohesion and wealth to accomplish it (notwithstanding their inbred aristo/oligarchic distortions). Parachuting democracy into societies lacking that cohesion (Central Europe following WWI, the decolonized empires following WWII) almost always went awry, usually producing regimes that were adept only at the forms and nomenclature (e.g., the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”). Outside of the “West” (Europe, the former British white-run dominions, Japan), democratic success was rare (India?), even against a standard that disregarded the racial and gender short-comings of the nominal exemplars.
The rise of modern democracy was coincident with the rise of the “middle class,” itself the product of education and the shift in labor markets to produce enough wealth, leisure, and “stake in the system” to give these “middling sorts” a sense of self-confidence, social prominence, and economic clout sufficient to ameliorate the remaining embedded power of traditional elites and the latter’s concerns about the relinquishing of domination.
The opportunity to join the “middle class” (aka the “American Dream”) was sufficient, too, to secure the buy-in of those whose current circumstances were inadequate; built on the intertwined strands of education and economic improvement.
The late 20C shift to a post-industrial economy and increasing inequality threatens all this. Not only are “middling” jobs evaporating, but education-based opportunity is thereby left with 1) few targets of opportunity, 2) reduced resources to support educational infrastructure, and 3) the expansion of those included in the rising group who lack either the family, social, or early-educational support to perform at the level formerly expected by those in the higher educational levels. On top of this, our culture promotes college education predominantly as a pre-vocational activity, diminishing attention paid to basic analytic and communications skills, as well as substantive knowledge of the nature of our democratic society.
Though itself a product of these broad socio-economic forces, the crisis in education puts the entire theory of democracy at risk. But resolving the educational crisis would only expose an underlying problem: democracy requires not only capability (educated citizens able to understand issues and interests), but also motivation.
Most people have limited perspectives on life or have little interest in spending time on public issues. Education would not turn us all into noble sages; nor would some miraculous techno-economic revolution in which everyone becomes a member of the leisure. Modern complexity, bureaucracy, and alienation are large deterrents. Yet we are all entitled, under democratic theory, to participate. Again, representative democracy provides some solution, at least to the problem of governance. But as to the problem of culture and participation, big gaps remain and no good solutions are in sight. Mandatory voting produces participation, but not necessarily informed participation.
A bit over one hundred years ago, Vladimir Lenin said:
“If Socialism can only be realized when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see Socialism for at least five hundred years.”
His answer, of course, was to assert that he and other leading thinkers had to assume control of Russia in the name of the people and Socialism: An all-powerful elite, the withering-away of the state, the (eventual) triumph of the masses. We all know how that turned out.
My own approach is to teach; to help students/citizens to participate more effectively: to understand and communicate their interests and beliefs, to assess the arguments of others (ideological diversity being inevitable), to resolve differences through discussion and negotiation and to awaken a sense of stake and interest in the process and outcomes for themselves, their communities, and society as a whole.
Others work to awaken citizens to their rights to vote. Others work on specific issues. What is clear is that personal participation is not enough. We have to take some responsibility and action in support of wider engagement. The fundamental premise of democracy is community, a shared commitment to each other to work out our differences and deal with the evolving world. To whatever degree you were appalled by the scene at the Capitol three weeks ago and the precarious state of our body politic up to then, you can see that sending in your ballot every two/four years is not enough and will be cold comfort if the next crisis turns out worse. This is not a partisan issue. The Democratic majority in Congress is precarious and, as I have noted elsewhere, is hardly a panacea to our broad range of social ills.
The Constitution starts with “We the people”; there’s no one else to do it.