From Liberty Street: Democracy American Style

John Turner

A friend and I sat talking about whether democracy is possible in America.

He told me that, much as I hated to face the truth, it’s really not. A majority of the people are not sufficiently well-informed, nor curious enough about behavior of their government, actually to give direction to our national political action. Something will rule us, he said, but certainly not the people.

I had to admit that he was right, if by democracy we mean policies developed in public debate which guide and shape the actions of political leaders. I’m not sure exactly what would be required for that to happen, but, at the least, the average voter would have to watch critically a television news program every day, scan a competent newspaper, and read one or two serious books a year -- or else, get a comparable amount of information by using the internet. It seems little enough, for carrying out a civic duty, and yet it appears to be the case that such a minimal involvement in the guidance of government and in preparing oneself to vote intelligently is well beyond the conception of the average American adult.

So real democracy, full democracy, involved democracy is out, at least for the coming decades.

Even so, there may be a force which has a slight democratic coloring which is possible here in the land of freedom. It doesn’t have a name and I don’t know what to call it. But it functions as an inchoate mood, an irritated tossing, a grumbly sort of twitch that, with agonizing slowness, can make a difference in what the government does.

We see it now with respect to the American occupation of Iraq. The typical voter doesn’t know why the invasion was launched, doesn’t know what was going on in Iraq before it happened, has virtually no idea of his country’s interaction with Iraq prior to the first Gulf War, is innocent of any knowledge of the forces now operating within the country. Yet, he is beginning to grasp, in the vaguest way, that something is wrong with our involvement there.

He doesn’t know and perhaps doesn’t care about the number of Iraqis who have been killed as the result of our having sent an army there. If you were to tell him that the occupation is costing American taxpayers $380,000 every minute, he would probably stare at you with a blank look, unable to comprehend the figure. If he heard that it had lost his nation the respect of the rest of the world, it wouldn’t concern him. What do we care what foreigners think? He might shake his head sadly if you told him that almost three thousand Americans had been killed there and ten times that number had been seriously wounded. Yet he wouldn’t continue to think about it for more than ten minutes, that is, unless he had known one of the dead or knew one of the wounded. And the chances of that in a nation of three hundred million are small. Still, in the recesses of his mind, he knows that something is wrong. It bothers him in the same way a fly buzzing around a room on a lazy summer day bothers a man who is trying to take an afternoon nap. He wants it to go away. And, when he steps into the voting booth, there may be a one in four chance that he will vote against a candidate who supported and continues to support the invasion -- that is, if he’s aware of the candidate’s stance on the issue.

It’s not much, but that one vote out of four can make a difference. It can actually save lives. And it came about because those voters who are not average created the buzz that now irritates the regular guy. They caused an annoyed swatting at something not understood beyond the cloudy feeling that something is wrong.

This is certainly not the democracy that our ninth grade civics teachers tried, and failed, to teach us about. But, it is a tincture of democracy and as long as it exists it gives us something. We should never give up hoping and working for the real thing. Yet, until, in the fullness of time, it comes creeping over the American landscape, launched by some awakening currently beyond imagining, we have to hold on to the inchoate democratic urge, and keep it alive with all the buzzing we can summon. It is, after all, something genuine.

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 30, 2006