Democracy in Decline

An article, steeped in American history and in condemnation of a corrupt, dishonest president of doubtful legitimacy, which thoughtfully examines the breakdown in trust between American citizens and their government…

by: Arthur Hoyle

With our White House occupied by a corrupt, dishonest president of doubtful legitimacy, our Cabinet offices filled with appointees serving special interests, our Congress exacerbating wealth inequality by giving tax cuts to the rich, a Senate disdainful of the Constitution, and a Supreme Court stacked with partisan judges, Americans are now witnessing the demise of democracy. How has this come to pass, and can it be reversed?

In Democracy and Truth: A Short History, U.S. historian Sophia Rosenfeld traces how our democracy has evolved through a dynamic tension between the authority of an educated elite empowered to impose its version of political “truth” on others, and the will of a majority of the people (the common man) empowered through suffrage to assert its common sense wisdom gained not from books and councils of the learned but from ordinary life experience. From this tension policy (the “political truth” of the moment) is arrived at through debate and analysis and then implemented. This dynamic began with the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century when philosophers like Immanuel Kant urged individuals to pursue knowledge (“truth”) that might contradict received wisdom. Before the Enlightenment, monarchs claiming Divine Right decided what was “true” and upheld it through force.

Monarchs relied on “experts” (councilors) — men trained in various disciplines of knowledge beyond the reach of the common person —⎯ to give them guidance on matters of state policy. As the Scientific Revolution unfolded in the seventeenth century, giving primacy to reason and inductive thinking over tradition and dogma, the role of these “experts” became more prominent. When Enlightenment ideals broadened the scope of individual capability to inquire after “truth,” the door to democracy was opened. But the public, as we think of it now, did not participate in the search for the “truths” that would guide policy. That privilege was restricted to elites⎯men of wealth who had the leisure to educate themselves in the arts of statecraft and to exercise it while the less fortunate produced the food and material goods that sustained society. 

The founders of the United States recognized that democracy, to work, required a tension between the power of a knowledgeable elite who would decide policy and govern, and the power of the common man whose wisdom would serve him in the choice of governors. This tension is institutionalized in the two chambers of our Congress: the House, with its numerous membership drawn from local districts around the country, captures the wisdom of the people; the Senate, smaller, more prestigious with its six year terms and greater power, comprised of the elites who represent not small local districts but entire states. This distribution of power intentionally favors the elites, because the founders feared the irrationality of poorly educated masses who spent their waking hours at toil. 

Initially, suffrage was granted only to men of property. Yeomen, women, blacks, and Native Americans had no say in who would govern them, or what policies would be enacted. Only gradually, as education raised the public’s political consciousness, was suffrage extended to all of society’s adults, politically empowering the common man, and making populism possible as a political force.

Democracy needs the tension between a knowledgeable elite and the common man with his common sense to remain healthy and functional, just as two nearly equal weights on a seesaw keep the mechanism in dynamic equilibrium. If one political group gains ascendancy over the other, rendering it impotent and ineffective, society becomes vulnerable to authoritarian rule, either by technocratic experts who “know better” or by a demagogue raised up by the common man. The signs that demagoguery is now ascendant while expertise is in retreat are all around us in our present government, especially evident in a contempt for science and scientists.

In a properly functioning democracy, the friction between the knowledge elite and the common man is lubricated by trust⎯the shared belief that both sides are working for the common good and bringing to bear on policy matters both technical knowledge and expertise, and common sense. The breakdown in trust between the common man and the experts that is manifested in cries of “fake news” and rumor fed conspiracy theories has created space for a demagogue such as Donald Trump to emerge. In this new space, our political conversation has degenerated from reasoned, respectful discussion to insults, lies, and mutual contempt. As a result, our society is paralyzed, unable to agree on solutions to our pressing social and environmental problems, and vulnerable to the erratic whims of a leader who disdains truth and holds the common man in contempt all the while pandering to his fears and insecurities.

We need to ask, what has brought on this breakdown in trust that has put our democracy in crisis? 

Throughout the twentieth century, we witnessed an ebb and flow of the trust that binds citizens to their government and to each other. Trust between citizens and the institutions of society was badly damaged by the Great Depression, only to be restored by government intervention in the economy through the New Deal and the nationalistic unity brought on by World War II. It fractured again during the McCarthy era, then was healed by the soothing leadership of Dwight Eisenhower. During the 1960s, a period of violent cultural turmoil, a series of shocks stunned the nation and left people disoriented and feeling unmoored. The assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy removed heroic figures who held together large communities of people and left voids that have yet to be filled. The Vietnam War polarized the country over issues of patriotism and imperialism, while the civil rights movement in the American South vividly profiled our racial divide. Some commentators found the same streak of evil in our violence towards the people of Vietnam and Americans of African descent. These wounds still fester. The Watergate scandal lifted the curtain on the dirty tricks that politicians play on each other in their pursuit of power. Fraud is the province of both political parties, as Robert Caro’s account of Lyndon Johnson’s first campaign for Congress in Texas attests. Machiavelli would not be surprised.

Disillusionment leading to distrust has not been confined to the political sphere. After years of being reassured by tobacco industry shills (medical doctors and prominent athletes) that cigarette smoking was a harmless pleasure that increased sociability, we learned that cigarette smoke is carcinogenic and causes lung cancer. We also learned that cigarette manufacturers deliberately increased the nicotine load of their cigarettes to strengthen addiction, despite knowing the health hazards of their product. The pharmaceutical industry gave women thalidomide to relieve pregnancy nausea but instead gave them monstrously deformed babies. Almost daily we read stories of industrial activities that pollute the environment on which our well-being depends. The fossil fuel industry has for thirty years waged a disinformation campaign to discredit the findings of thousands of climate scientists around the globe that human activity is warming the planet and altering its climate in ways that threaten all forms of life, including human life. These abuses breed cynicism and distrust in the populace.

Breakdowns of the norms that guide our shared expectations about communal life have occurred in all areas of our culture, including the justice system, sports, and education. A jury set former National Football League star O. J. Simpson free despite overwhelming evidence that he had murdered his ex-wife and her lover. The U.S. Senate seated men accused of sexual harassment on the U.S. Supreme Court. In its Citizens United decision, this court found an equivalence between money and speech. Even in sports, a major recreational outlet for millions of people, idols have fallen, bringing down with them our faith in the idea of fair play. Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Mark Maguire, and others, have used performance enhancing drugs to achieve the levels of excellence that brought them adulation, fame, and money. An entire baseball team, the Houston Astros, gamed the rules on its way to a World Series title. Sports also played a major role in the bribery schemes that have corrupted the admissions process at several major U.S. universities, and stained the reputation of higher learning. Need I mention the pedophilia tolerated by the Catholic Church?

Given this litany, it seems only fitting that our current President cannot be trusted to speak the truth to the people he has taken an oath to serve. He has made lying the new normal for civil discourse, spreading distrust and uncertainty across the land. Polarization and suspicion of “the other” are rampant.

There have been a number of troubling consequences from this widespread breakdown in trust. One is a growing skepticism about the authority of experts, and a readiness to dismiss or dispute the facts and the knowledge on which expertise rests if our accepted beliefs are threatened. Deductive, ideologically driven narratives about the nature of reality are presented as challenges to theories based on empirical evidence that has been subjected to rational analysis and verification by other observers. It’s as though the Renaissance debate between the Ptolemaic and Copernican versions of the universe has been refashioned for modern times. 

Several factors have converged to undermine the authority of experts whose knowledge and experience, because it was trusted, was accepted by the people as a guide to the formation of policy and a basis for decision making. In the last half century, the American people have learned that their government lies to them about important matters of state, and that the mass media — the fourth estate that is supposed to protect democratic norms — has been co-opted. The release of the Pentagon Papers exposed the complicity between journalists in the mass media and government officials in misleading the American people about the causes, purposes, and justifications for the war in Vietnam. We learned that the Gulf of Tonkin incident that triggered our involvement was a ruse, and that though the military came to the realization that the war was unwinnable and launching it had been a mistake, it pressed on with escalation that took more American, and Vietnamese, lives. A similar deception was foisted on the American people as part of the rationalization for the invasion of Iraq. News outlets reported government lies about weapons of mass destruction as though they were facts, when the fact was that the government was not telling the truth.

A cultural movement known in academia as “post-modernism” (a nonsensical term in itself; how can anything be postmodern?) also played a role by promoting the idea that truth is not fixed and knowable, but is instead relative to each individual’s socio-cultural framework. The pronouncements of credentialed experts — be they social scientists or astrophysicists — reflect not objective truth but personal biases and prejudices that must be excavated through a process of “deconstruction” and not taken on faith. All truth thus becomes personal and subjective. This notion gained wide currency though the Internet, which allowed anyone with a computer to set up a website or a blogging platform and offer himself or herself as an authority on some subject. Followers lent authenticity and credibility to these self-appointed oracles, never mind how the followers might have been obtained. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon predates the Internet and is found in the talk radio program of Rush Limbaugh, whose virulent opinions continue to inflame millions of stupefied listeners. Awarding him the Medal of Freedom may turn out to be the nadir of Trump’s presidency.

The Internet has greatly diminished the role of professional gatekeepers whose social function is to vet and curate the content published for the edification of the people. Absent barriers to publication on the Internet, we are all gatekeepers now, to paraphrase Sarah Palin, free to utter whatever nonsense comes to mind and offer it to the world with a click of the mouse. So we have students telling learned faculty members what curriculum they prefer and rating their performances by God only knows what standards. And we’ve had a Senator from Oklahoma carry a snowball into the hallowed chamber of the Senate and offer it as evidence that global warming is a hoax.

The Internet, of course, has done much more to erode trust than simply to enable pseudo-experts to spread their flimsy opinions. The absence of gatekeepers on the Internet has permitted misinformation, disinformation, paranoid conspiracy theories, and hate messages to circulate freely. Virtual communities gather around these illusions, opening more and more fissures in the body politic by furthering tribalism.

By far the most serious consequence of the current relativism under which facts and “alternate facts” vie for our attention and loyalty has been the weakening of scientific authority and the discrediting of the scientific method. The chief culprit here is the fossil fuel industry, which thirty years ago launched a disinformation campaign against climate science that pales the deceptions of the tobacco industry to the equivalence of a schoolboy’s white lie. This campaign, funded and orchestrated by petroleum and coal barons, has forestalled meaningful international action to stem global warming by casting doubt on the evidence, and the conclusions that follow from it, through studies written by hired hacks. Now that the genie of doubt is out of the bottle, all science becomes suspect, as witness the Trump administration’s pogrom against credentialed scientists in key government agencies such as the EPA.

This assault on science coincides with an assault on democracy. Democracy grew out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment Movement that was parented by the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. There is an intimate link between the spirit of science and the spirit of democracy. Both rely on the freedom of the individual to pursue truth through reasoned analysis of the observable world, unfettered by ideological dogma. Both value experimentation and openness to innovation. Both are, theoretically at least, classless. Both flourish from the free exchange of ideas. Both are anti-authoritarian. Both accept the inevitability, the necessity, of uncertainty, as experimentation continues. Enlightenment values of tolerance, respect, curiosity, and freedom of thought underpin both science and democracy. They are mutually reinforcing methods of conducting human affairs. These values also favor capitalism. Is it mere coincidence that the bible of capitalism, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, was published at the height of the Enlightenment, just four months before our Declaration of Independence?

It therefore comes as no surprise that the anti-scientific tendencies of our time are accompanied by anti-democratic maneuvers from the faction in our society that regards science with skepticism if not outright hostility. Its most obvious face is the efforts by the Republican Party to weaken the linchpin of democracy, the ballot, by creating obstacles to voting and electoral fairness through both gerrymandering and various voter suppression tactics. The agenda of this Party, comprised as it is of a shrinking minority of less educated, rural, white males, is clearly to disenfranchise the “outsiders”  — Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans — who are now demographically ascendant.  Republicans reject the “melting pot” version of America. In its place, they seek to obtain and perpetuate minority rule by their chosen representatives, men like Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, who co-opt blue collar whites fear of marginalization with demagogic rhetoric while giving tax breaks to the very people who have marginalized them socially and economically. Some people might call this fascism.

Our citizenry has passively yielded to the slow but steady erosion of our democratic principles and the Enlightenment values on which they rest. Distracted by the constant entertainment on our screens, whatever sports league is in season, asleep in our comfortable consumerist lifestyles and preoccupations, we have largely abandoned our most important social role, to act as the gatekeepers for democracy. Benjamin Franklin anticipated this risk when he told his fellow citizens that the founders had given them a Republic, but it was up to them to keep it. We have become complacent, and turned the machine over to the experts⎯digital technocrats  — but the experts have either betrayed their trust (think Facebook and Google), or been indifferent to the abuse of their technology by anti-democratic forces.

What’s to be done?

A reawakening is needed that can only come about through a process of education⎯self-education through thoughtful selection of responsible information sources, and institutional education from well-trained journalists, scholars, and teachers in schools, colleges, and universities. Certainly some form of regulation of the Internet is needed to curb the abuse of free speech (it’s not OK to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater unless there are flames). It would also be helpful if the Fairness Doctrine could be reinstated and applied to media outlets like Fox News and talk radio programs that dispense misinformation to wide audiences. Though many of our social institutions have become moribund, they can be revived through the dedicated efforts of individuals who care about the welfare of the community. It’s up to us.

 

Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, published in March 2014 by Skyhorse/Arcade. He has also published essays in the Huffington Post and the zine Empty Mirror. His second non-fiction book, Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, is now available.

Arthur Hoyle is also the author of “The Cassandra Syndrome: Prediction, Uncertainty, and Fear of (Climate) Change,” an in-depth look at the warnings of climate scientists in the context of historical revolutionary scientific theories that met strong resistance from guardians of the status quo which was featured at Across The Margin…as well as “Socialism Now?” Both essential reads!

 

Sources

Burke, Peter. What is the History of Knowledge? Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016.

Ferris, Timothy. The Science of Liberty. Liberty, Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

Keen, Andrew. The Cult of the Amateur. How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

Nichols, Tom. The Death of Expertise. The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Rosenfeld, Sophie. Democracy and Truth. A Short History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019

Schroeder, Ralph. Social Theory After the Internet. Media, Technology, and Globalization. London, University College London, 2018.

Simpson, Patricia Anne and Druxes, Helga, eds. Digital Media Strategies of the Far Right in Europe and the United States. New York, London: Lexington Books, 2015.

Southwell, Brian, Thorson, Emily, and Sheble, Laura, eds. Misinformation and Mass Audiences. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018.

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