For some time now, I’ve felt my near-religious faith in the American democracy gradually slipping away.
It’s not that I am deluded that there is a better form of government. There isn’t. It’s that our representative democracy doesn’t work untended. It demands things of our people and institutions – things we seem incapable of providing.
1. Democracy requires active participation of its citizens, but of the more than 231 million Americans eligible to vote this year, 100 million decided it wasn’t worth the bother. Donald Trump was elected president by just 28 percent of those eligible to cast ballots.
2. Democracy requires a public that is informed by a free and independent press, but news organizations no longer adequately fulfill this responsibility. The decline of newspapers has been catastrophic, and nothing is on the horizon to replace them as honest and comprehensive brokers of news and information. As newspapers have faded. Americans have turned to cable TV networks and websites that confuse news with entertainment and that – by design — specialize not in information but in misinformation, many of them nothing more than naked propaganda arms of political parties or extremist groups. The more that people are exposed to them, the more MISinformed they become.
3. Democracy requires citizens who not only consume but UNDERSTAND news and information and who can make rational judgments based on it. Increasingly, far too few Americans seem capable of this responsibility of citizenship. Part of the problem, I believe, is that our educational system is more concerned with training people for the workforce than preparing them for citizenship. Hence, the shockingly large number of Americans who can’t name the three branches of government or who think that Judge Judy is on the U.S. Supreme Court. Part of the problem is that the world is complex and becoming more so. It’s not easy for most Americans to understand and make informed judgments about the science of global warming, the operation of the Federal Reserve, or the intricacies of international trade. But much of the problem, I think, is widespread indifference to public affairs or just plain laziness. Compare the sophistication of people who call in to political talk radio with those who call sports radio talk shows. Most of the former are absurdly uninformed, but may of the latter speak with remarkable sophistication about the arcane metrics of sports performances and the complexities of salary cap regulations. And mostly they are the same people.
4. Of course, one can’t be expected to understand everything. That’s why we need experts – the scientists, economists, biologists, and others with specialized knowledge who can help us navigate an increasingly complex world. But the very notion of expertise has grown suspect, largely because of years of cynical assaults upon it – sometimes from the left but mostly from the right. The result is a public vulnerable to crackpot ideas and dangerous conspiracy theories – that vaccines cause autism, that government employment figures are lies, that global warming is a hoax spread by the Chinese . . .
5. Representative government cannot function without compromise. Each side to an issue (it is simplistic to think that most issues have only two) has to give a little to gain a little. Without compromise, little or nothing is likely to get done. But we now live in a political environment – both in Washington and in the country as a whole – in which compromise is a dirty word. Obstruction has replaced the business of governing.
6. Democracy requires a measure of civility, goodwill and respect for those with whom we disagree. But in today’s America, political opponents are widely seen as enemies. And even traitors.
7. Democracy also requires that those in the majority protect the civil and human rights of those in the minority. Minorities come in many varieties – political, religious, economic, racial, ethnic, sexual preference and more – and all of us find ourselves both as part of a majority and part of a minority – often at the same time. But one of the great tragedies of American history is that, despite the words embedded in our founding documents and the many civil rights laws on the books, we have never been all that good at protecting minority rights from oppression by the majority. And both the tone set by Donald Trump and the ugly rhetoric of some of his supporters have made all sorts of bigotry more visible – and even fashionable – in 2016.
The failure of our people and institutions to meet our citizenship responsibilities led directly to the election of Donald Trump. A narcissistic, misogynist, racist, xenophobic demagogue who spews insults, has no respect for the truth, demonstrates little knowledge of either domestic or foreign affairs, and shows no curiosity about what he does not know could not have been elected in a healthy democracy.