Politico Magazine (Sept. 8) recently set off a firestorm of discussion when it highlighted an academic paper presented by the renowned political scientist, Shawn Rosenberg. Rosenberg concluded that “democracy is devouring itself – and it won’t last.” His premise is that social media has diluted the ability of society’s elites to guide self-rule along a responsible path. In their place, he argues, the masses now control the political process and they are ill-equipped to run a well-functioning democracy as envisioned by the Founders.
Politico summarizes the argument as follows: “Democracy is hard work and requires a lot from those who participate in it. It requires people to respect those with different views from theirs and people who do not look like them. It asks citizens to be able to sift through large amounts of information and to process the good from the bad, the truth from the false. It requires thoughtfulness, discipline and logic.”
Rosenberg sees the end of democracy as imbedded in the human tendency to seek out simple solutions to complicated problems when given the chance. Thus, when a cascade of unfiltered sources of information push out an easy to digest combination of xenophobia, racism and authoritarianism as the path to a better life, it is difficult for many Americans to ignore. The reptilian brain is offered up a sugar high that encourages the replacement of thoughtful democratic pluralism with a populist plan to have no tolerance for members of other tribes.
Rosenberg does not place the blame for the end of democracy on Donald Trump. I would agree that these tendencies existed long before the internet exploded, during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. The information-fueled populism smoldered during the Obama presidency and reignited in 2015, when Trump was running for office. Ironically, the more open, free and “democratic” the flow of unfettered information, the less responsible the electorate has become.
To save democracy in our constitutional republic, is it time to turn to the philosopher kings envisioned by Plato for their non-partisan wisdom? Is it time to replace the unwashed masses with a few good men who can lead us through the wilderness? I think not.
In the pre-internet decades, when money, politics and power from both political parties exercised greater control over the electorate, inequality rose to unprecedented levels. Wealth begat more wealth at the expense of middle-class prosperity. Voters were presented with too few choices. Selective agendas were formulated in the political back rooms and corporate board rooms. Clearly, top-down democracy is as unacceptable as unchecked populist democracy.
So what is to be done? There is no putting the information genie back in the bottle. Responsible democratic pluralism must adapt to the new reality of opinions and misinformation masquerading as facts. Our long heritage of freedom of expression (not to mention the Constitution) would not permit the formation of “information police” to determine what is factual versus what is harmful to a democracy.
I will offer two thoughts that could represent small steps in returning to a healthy democratic pluralism. First, Congress should adopt a bipartisan national initiative to use debate technology in the public schools to teach critical observation from different perspectives. Not the ego-driven debate techniques found in political campaigns, but the fact-driven methods taught in formal debating.
I still fondly remember my eighth-grade debating experience incorporated into the social studies curriculum. The topic was foreign aid, and many of the issues remain the same in today’s political environment. The participants spent many hours researching their positions and the final debate was presented to the elementary school community.
I can think of no better platform than formal debating to prepare students for the opportunities and dangers of the information age. Such an addition would mandate increased emphasis on social studies and government, both sorely lacking. Students would develop skills in research, the weighing of alternative positions, organization, persuasion, communication and civic awareness.
My second suggestion would require individual and community effort to implement. It has become obvious to me that face-to-face communication is a valuable tool in counteracting the excesses and falsehoods of the information age. Actively listening, building trust, fostering relationships and letting others give feedback is a constructive way to address sensitive political, social, and economic issues.
Communities need to take the lead in sponsoring discussion forums in their libraries, places of worship and education campuses. With the appropriate moderator, a diverse group of citizens can come to understand opposing points of view without the rancor or emotional outbursts so common on social media. The goal is respectful tolerance for alternative positions, not to change anyone’s mind.
In my own experience, a book club is an excellent forum to consider alternative points of view. There are many other social gatherings that can achieve a cross-pollination of ideas. The only requirement is that the membership be diverse to avoid “preaching to the choir.” In this regard, meetings of partisan political organizations are of little benefit.
The information age is not going away. The internet and social media will remain a potent force in shaping our political future. It is important that we take steps to insure that all reasonable views are open for discussion and that voters learn skills to identify, challenge and reject misinformation.
Will encouraging debating skills and community meetings alone abate the erosion of democracy? Probably not, but we need to start somewhere.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.