Home/Alan Jacobs/Dialogue On Democracy, Part 1

Dialogue On Democracy, Part 1

A. It’s time to accept a simple and yet profound fact: democracy is a failed experiment. People throughout the Western world — well, hold on: let’s just confine this discussion to America. Democracy in America is a failed experiment. Americans have demonstrated conclusively that they are too ignorant, thoughtless, and selfish to be trusted with self-governance.

B. Ignorant, thoughtless, and selfish! What a trifecta! Hyperbole much?

A. It’s not hyperbole. Let’s take my charges one at a time. Surely I don’t need to recite the dark litany of polls and studies that demonstrate how grossly misinformed Americans are about the basics of our political system, current laws and policies, the most elementary facts of world geography—

B. No, no, you don’t have to recite that litany — I have it by heart. But do you think that’s a new thing? Are you under the impression that our ancestors were learned and wise, spending their evenings discoursing on the subtleties of recent Supreme Court decisions?

A. I’m tempted to say yes. After all, they weren’t sitting around watching American Idol or hammering out wrathful comments on YouTube videos. They attended lectures and chatauquas, they participated in town halls and debating societies —

B. “They” did? You mean a handful of the wealthier and better-educated white men did, I think.

A. As I said, I’m tempted to say yes — and I really do believe the situation was more complicated, and better, than you have suggested. But for now I’ll waive the point. Let’s posit that Americans today are at least as knowledgable as their ancestors were. Okay?

B. Well … okay. For now. I reserve the right to debate this point later.

A. Fair enough. So what I want to say is that ignorance today matters more than it did in the past, because the role of government in our lives is so much greater. A hundred and fifty years ago it was possible to live a full and happy life with minimal experience of government. About a hundred years before that it was possible for Samuel Johnson to write, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Such innocent times! Now “laws and kings” have insinuated themselves so deeply into all our lives that ignorance of their power and influence can exact horrifying costs.

Plus, we have so many more educational opportunities than our ancestors —

B. Hang on, hang on — this is a dialogue, remember?

A. Sorry. Please go on.

B. Thanks. I think you need to stop and reflect on the fact that there is so much more to be ignorant of now than there was 150 years ago — and the increased complexity of government is a function of the increased complexity of the world. The transportation and communications technologies that arose in the 20th century have created a “global village” the very existence of which creates a need for wide-ranging knowledge that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined — to blame today’s people for —

A. I’m not blaming anyone.

B. Well, you kinda are.

A. I’ll try not to, because it’s not necessary to my argument. People may not be at fault for being too ignorant for self-government — but they still are too ignorant for self-government.

B. But isn’t that why we have a representative democracy? People elect representatives who can devote their full time and energy to mastering the complexities that we aren’t able to master.

A. Try watching C-SPAN for a while and tell me if you think those are people capable of “mastering complexities.”

B. Well, I have watched a good bit of C-SPAN and I have seen some pretty wonky Congresspersons — I think your critique is a lot more applicable to the politicians who make a point of saying and doing things that will land them on CNN and in the big newspapers.

A. Okay, that’s a fair point. But I think there are two other points you’re neglecting. First, even the wonky members of Congress tend to be selectively wonky. They have their one little area of expertise — or what they flatter themselves is expertise — and in other matters they just take their direction from their party’s leadership. And second, look at what actually gets done in Congress: certainly not intelligent and reasonable laws crafted by deeply knowledgable people to whom their colleagues defer! Rather, it’s pork-laden overstuffed monstrosities stitched together in order to please the whims of party leaders, big donors, and lobbyists for the hyper-wealthy corporations to which both major parties are equally indebted.

(to be continued…)

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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