Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Imagine that the average voter is the average sports radio caller...

Now, construct a viable argument in favor of democracy.

I've seen that premise presented in that or similar fashion and done so myself any number of times. No one can ever make a solid argument. Churchill said it was the worst of all forms of government, except for all the rest. But, as time goes on, one begins to wonder.

People are stupid. People are even more stupid in large groups that can easily be swayed by loud voices speaking words that either prey on their fears or fit with their presuppositions or both. It's even worse when said voices have an agenda that is designed to take advantage of the ignorance and/or trepidation of the public in order to use them as a tool to accomplish goals that are precisely contrary to their collective interest. In ancient Rome, they were referred to as demagogues and were reviled by the patrician class, members of the Senate, and other "right-thinking" stalwarts of society. Of course, at least part of the agenda of said rabble-rousers was to encourage the mob to seize its common rights and desires and escape the control of that very class of patricians and wealthy landowners. In modern times, demagoguery has been perfected to encourage the ignorant to forge their own chains, usually by distracting them in time-honored fashion with cheap electronics and American Idol (aka bread and circuses) or by encouraging their base fears that all of their problems are not caused by the people that own their government (who often look like them) but by the people who are "different" (who usually don't look like them.)

This has been a pretty common political strategy in the US since the Irish started getting off the boat in droves in the early 19th century, but it was brought to the fore in modern times as the centerpiece of Nixon's Southern Strategy in 1968. Taking advantage of a Democratic president's signing of the Civil Rights Act, he pushed the idea that the problems of poor,white folks were caused by the newly-enabled presence of even poorer black folks. And people bought it because people are stupid.

With this in mind, why would we want to have our government in the hands of blooming idiots who accuse the current Patrician-in-Chief of being connected to a radical Congregationalist pastor at the same time they accuse him of being a practicing Muslim? Citizenship in a democracy is a responsibility as well as a privilege. Wouldn't it be wiser to require people to assume some responsibility to educate themselves, not necessarily to opinions, but to basic reality?

Now, of course, I'm treading dangerously close to one of the fabled liberal taboos: the idea of a "voting test." This has been a tactic employed in the past to discourage the impoverished, who were less likely to be literate, from casting a vote. If we still had a decent educational system in this country, I might not even be nattering on about this. Jefferson, of course, said: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion." There are few Jeffersonian ideas with which I more wholeheartedly agree (and I agree with a lot of them.) But he was talking more about simple ignorance; a lack of knowledge. Today we face a situation that is built upon the deliberate spread of disinformation and a political sphere so polarized that any suggestion to the contrary is immediately dismissed as heresy.

So, how would such a test take place? What would be its parameters? Would it be as simple as presenting everyone at a polling place with an index card that read: "If you believe the current president is a Muslim, check this box" and denying entry to anyone who checked the box? I'd take it one step further, of course, by passing out a card that read "If you believe that any Democrat or Republican candidate is actually interested in helping you, check this box". Anyone who checked the box might not only be denied entry but also might end up in Blofeld's piranha tank, but that's just me.

What would comprise civic education sufficient to be a decent voter? Knowledge of how the government actually functions? I'm mortified at the number of times I've asked high school kids how many people make up the US Senate and not been given the right answer (hint: it's 1 for every 78,000 fellow millionaires in the US.) Should we go farther? Chomsky once said that if one's contribution to society is to walk into a booth and pull a lever every four years, one might as well not bother. Should there be some level of service in one's community before one can vote? Now we're getting closer to the concept of Starship Troopers, which is not necessarily what I'd like to see, either (I find that movie hysterically funny; most other people seem to find it somewhere between simple-minded and juvenile.)

No one wants to see a return to the time of 'democracy' meaning only landed, white males having suffrage (well, almost no one... Someone remind me about how the various 'tea party' movements are a positive thing, again? Watering the tree of liberty with the spittle of idiots isn't nearly as promising as the blood of patriots or tyrants.) But should it hold some level of obligation or responsibility to know the facts before entering the booth? Or should we all just get behind this guy:

Honestly, I would have paid good money to see Jimmy as the next governor of New York. Unfortunately, the real landed white men of modern times like Jerry Speyer and Dan Tishman don't share my sense of humor.


  1. "But he was talking more about simple ignorance; a lack of knowledge. Today we face a situation that is built upon the deliberate spread of disinformation and a political sphere so polarized that any suggestion to the contrary is immediately dismissed as heresy."

    I think you're failing to consider how extreme political discourse was around Jefferson's time. Based on the stories in the classic book Presidential Campaigns, it seems like the current ranting about Obama's "socialism" and heritage would have fit in just fine. And don't forget about the Alien and Sedition Acts, which the Federalists used to criminalize a lot of press activity by the (Democratic-)Republicans.

    I think most of the problems in modern politics do come down to education - most voters don't understand basic macroeconomics, basic climate science, basic world history, or a lot of other high-school level topics which are necessary to understand both the modern world and how ridiculous the current political debate has become. If all you know about taxes is that they reduce your paycheck and pay for layabouts to stay home, Republican policies almost make sense...

  2. No, I'm aware of that. Everyone always feels like it's worse in their day and age but the press wars in the early 19th century did get pretty ferocious and outlandish. I just question whether the debates at that time were hamstrung before they even started based on simple political identity. What makes our situation even worse is that the political identity wars between Ds and Rs and their various supporters and sycophants are basically two halves of the same monied group fighting over how many crumbs they should scatter to the plebes.