By: Noah Keeler-Seiser ’20
The United States prides itself for upholding reason and popular rule, with a governmental system that allows everyone to give their two cents. Our executives and legislators are chosen according to their merits, elected by careful, considerate citizens across the country. This is America, the seat of democracy, where the voice of the people reigns supreme.
That’s the elementary-school narrative, at least. But it isn’t true. Democracy is fragile.
The intellectuals of ancient Greece, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution were visionaries, but they were visionaries who suffered from myopia. They could not have foreseen the conditions of the modern world which threaten the very essence of democracy. Communication networks are expanding. Technology is advancing. Media channels are fragmenting and specializing in response to a growing population of people who are finding it increasingly hard to provide for themselves.
The result can only be disaster.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” But when information is rapidly-spread, contested, distorted, and changed, our ‘currency’ has lost its value. Democratic theorists assumed that people are logical creatures who make careful decisions in their best interest, but psychology and history have proven that not to be the case. We are social, impressionable animals, and without the proper mindset, we are bound to be manipulated, exploited, and abused.
Careful decisions are not a mainstay of everyday life. The average person doesn’t have the time or resources to think about foreign policy or abstract concepts like ‘trickle-down-economics.’ More often than not, they’re trying to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Families of middle to low socioeconomic status, working-class youth, and landed immigrants all fall into this category. And as national wealth accumulates in the hands of a shrinking minority, it’s only getting worse.
In spite of hunger and austerity, the workers and the wage-slaves find time on Election Day to choose their preferred candidate, filling governmental offices at the local, state, and federal levels. Through majority votes, representatives are appointed, and it’s assumed that they have everyone’s best interests in mind. On a fundamental level, this system is not flawed. Not until we account for the essence of political decisions themselves.
Average Americans don’t make decisions based on policies. The world at large is too complex to acquaint yourself with. The information environment is too imposing. Voters prioritize the issues that media-outlets suggest are important, even when they aren’t, and negotiate between opinions, identities, and candidate appeal. These factors far exceed the power of reason.
We are psychologically biased toward our opinions, denying contrary evidence. We shape and mutilate ourselves according to the identities we hold, which are becoming increasingly conflated with political affiliation. We look up to candidates who appeal to us, not only with their branding, but with the story they tell. In the end, we don’t vote for policy change. We vote on the future image of America we’d like to see. The candidate is just part of the package. We pick the campaign that had the best story, and the most concise message, and hope that everything else will work itself out.
Technically, the people are still in charge. Is that democracy, though? A populace that’s been raised on questionable information and conflicting narratives is not autonomous. Even the more rational voters, who fit the theoretical mold, can be swayed by information that is false, further exacerbating the democratic crisis. More frequently, the voters don’t act rationally at all, but are bullied into conformity and complacency by increasingly intrusive, identitarian politics.
If this is supposed to be the model of the free world, I have a few concerns.
There are challenges facing democracy- challenges which we don’t want to address. Whether one colors themselves a liberal or a conservative; a socialist or a capitalist; or some hybrid in between, they should agree that the route to a better America—and a better world—involves the accountability of media outlets and government offices. These are the sources of information on which our ‘democracy’ relies. But as information inflates, it loses its value. And when the value of information is lost, we are left to fend for ourselves against clashing identities, religions, interests, and whims. In such a scenario, democracy is doomed to collapse.