From Liberty Street: American Democracy

John Turner

My local paper, the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus, had an excellent editorial last week commenting on the state of democracy in America. American democracy is not in good health at the moment, and the Times-Argus was courageous enough to say why. A majority of the people are ignorant and a considerable portion of them are so biased they can't see straight.

We spend much time criticizing our institutions. The presidency is oligarchic and corrupt. The Congress is inept and cowardly. The press is complicit with abuse of power. All these charges are true, but few who make them dig deeper to say why our institutions operate so strongly in opposition to the good of the nation. The reason is that the people enable them, and as long as the people continue to enable them, they will continue to be rotten and foul.

Our most serious problems lie with ourselves.

We have dozens of excuses for allowing our public life to be transformed into a garbage dump.

They (whoever they are) are all crooks.

Working to change things doesn't do any good.

We're too busy making a living to have time for keeping up with public events.

Life now is so hectic we have no energy left for learning about political issues.

No matter who gets into power, he'll be just as bad as the one before.

The rest of the world doesn't appreciate what good people we are.

Those people over there in the Middle East only understand violence so there's no sense in trying to negotiate with them or to work out a policy that takes their desires into account.

Europeans are slack and care only about their own luxury so we don't need to pay attention to their arguments.

The people who oppose U.S. policy are evil and worship death so to think about how to respond to them other than through brute force is a waste of time.

These are all foolish notions but you can hear them repeated all over the nation every day. They make up the principal message not only of Fox News but of many of our other media outlets. And their prime purpose is to excuse our reluctance to activate our minds.

When a people fall into mental sloth, they are not going to be aroused to acuteness overnight. Habits have to be changed and habits, by their nature, are resistant to change. And the habit now most resistant is the self-congratulatory belief that Americans are good by nature and so don't have to expend any effort to think about the right way to behave.

Though it's true that democracy can be the best form of government humans have yet devised, it is not true that the outward forms of democracy -- elections and so forth -- guarantee intelligent government. Intelligence has to come from somewhere and in a democracy if it doesn't come from the people it's not likely to show up. Relying on so-called leadership, when the people in power are not reined in and guided by the intelligence of the electorate, is folly. Believing that just because millions vote for a man to be president we can, therefore, trust him to make all our decisions for us is not only folly, it is idiocy.

In the April 24th issue of the New Yorker, David Remnick remarked that Al Gore is a living reminder of all that might not have happened over the past six years. Gore has been right about most of the important issues of the past decade.

Yet, as you'll recall, we didn't like Al Gore because he was boring. And why was he boring? Because he was always talking about technical stuff that nobody could stand to pay attention to. George Bush, though, put things simply and wasn't worried about complications.

From a cosmic point of view it might be said that a people who would choose to be led by a man like George Bush rather than one like Al Gore deserve anything they get. But for those of us who live in this country and love it, we can't be content to see cosmic justice applied. We have to hope that our past stupidities don't bring down on our heads what any reasonable person would predict, and that we can find a way to shake our minds awake before we dig ourselves deeper into the trough we've marched into.

Democracy's not dead in America but lately it has had a bad case of sleeping sickness.



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