Monday, January 16, 2017

Mourning in America – Part IX: Why Democracy Probably Won’t Work Anymore

In the Preamble to our Constitution, the Framers made it clear that the social contract they had devised to govern the new country was designed to promote a public good called the United States. The Preamble summarizes the duties with which the new government was charged. It is important to note that they are all cast in collective, societal language:

  •        Form a more perfect union (to promote collective interests, NOT the privilege of any given individual at the expense of the many)  
  •        Establish justice (to insure right relationship) 
  •        Insure domestic tranquility (to make sure we all get along collectively) 
  •        Provide for the common defense (NOT to arm every individual) 
  •        Promote the *general* welfare (NOT to allow a handful of individuals to amass       individual fortunes at the expense of everyone else) 
  •       Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves (plural) ....
  •      ...and our posterity (NOT to leave an environmentally damaged, infrastructure crumbling and fiscally exhausted shell of a nation to our children)

Rooted in the social contract of Enlightenment theorists Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, the Framers envisioned a tradeoff in which individuals would give up some of their natural rights to life, liberty and property to create and maintain the national government. The government thus created was pledged to protect those natural rights which remained.

Death and Taxes

It has never been an ideal construction. From the beginning, Americans have been disinclined to pay taxes. Some have been happy to amass their fortunes by virtue of publicly provided services ranging from public highways, power and police and fire services even as they saw the profits attained by means of those services as strictly their own property. 

Others, like Henry David Thoreau, have sought to withhold tax moneys on moral grounds, unwilling to support war and the westward spread of slavery.

While the Framers envisioned a socially responsible citizenry who would see payment of taxes to maintain government as one of their obligations under the social contract, Americans have rarely seen their civic duties in that manner. Benjamin Franklin’s maxim, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes,” placing the payment of taxes in the same category as the unavoidability of death, is very revealing of the ambivalence of Americans regarding footing the bill for the government upon which they regularly place inordinate demands.

Beyond paying for their own self-governance, democratic theorists from Jefferson to Dewey have long emphasized the need for citizens to engage the process of self-governance for it to work. At a minimum this means educating and informing themselves and voting. But it could also mean attending hearings on issues of importance. It means visiting one’s child’s school, meeting his/her teachers, offering input into its operations. It means providing feedback on operations and proposals online and in person.

Of course, this presumes at some level that one has time and energy to do so. For many working poor people, time and energy are luxuries after their life energies have been drained by jobs which often demand inordinate amounts of both with little pay or benefits to show for it. Indeed, merely informing oneself and participating in elections can be difficult in a country which does not declare election days a holiday and has steadily made voting more difficult for the working poor.

But American engagement of their system is minimal across the board. Voter turnout in the 2016 election dipped to a 20-year low. Some of that decline can be laid at the feet of voting restrictions which went into effect in 14 states just before the election, every state but one a glowing red on election day, and the Supreme Court’s striking down of the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act the year before. Voting restrictions historically have suppressed the working class and minority vote.

While rural whites and evangelicals flooded to the polls, young voters and urban minorities failed to appear. That included a number of disaffected supporters of Bernie Sanders who lost in the primary to Hillary Clinton.

A main concern for many of these voters was the sense that the two party system is broken and its operations result in candidates that were comparable in their unacceptability. Of course, even a cursory comparison of Trump and Clinton revealed very different candidates with very different values and followers. The cynical argument that “they’re both the same” simply could not be made with any level of intellectual honesty.

Against the Grain of Comfort and Convenience

 Me and all my friends
We're all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing and
There's no way we ever could

Now we see everything that's going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don't have the means
To rise above and beat it

So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change

- John Mayer, “Waiting for the World to Change” (2009)

Democratic self-governance presumes an active, engaged citizenry capable of and willing to make such distinctions. Increasingly that simply does not describe most Americans. What marks the American approach to their government and virtually every other aspect of our lives today are the elements of consumerism. These play out in a number of ways.

Consumer’s cardinal values are convenience and comfort. The former readily manifests itself in the form of an expectation of instant gratification. The demand of Bernie Sanders voters to either have their candidate nominated or they would sit out the election is a good example of this value at work.

At a rally in Kissimmee prior to the Florida presidential primary, Sanders repeatedly told his exuberant followers that the dramatic reforms needed to save American democracy would not come overnight. Rather, they would require long, hard work and tenacity to achieve.

When Sanders lost the nomination, he begged his supporters to vote for Clinton. Sanders gave four reasons to do so: the economy, the environment, Citizens United  and her stance against discrimination and racism. Despite his repeated exhortations to bite the bullet and vote for Clinton as a means of preventing a monster from becoming president, many stayed home while others voted for third party candidates.

The demand for comfort manifests itself in passivity. Consumers wait for options to be provided them by providers of good and services and then pride themselves on a stunted ability to choose between someone else's choices. There is no requirement of a creative role in that process which lets the consumer off the hook for the generation of anything to meet their own needs and wants, the latter of which is routinely spun as the former by commercial advertisers.

An expectation of comfort makes the requirement that citizens will actively educate and inform themselves and participate at anything beyond a minimal level appear onerous and thus is unlikely to be met. A passive citizenry disinclined to investigate sources or critically assess what they are presented on social media and the mass media is a sitting duck for negative advertising and fake news which can readily spin a candidate into saleable commodities.

Perhaps the most pathological aspect of the demand for comfort in the 2016 election was the role that xenophobia played in mobilizing voters. Discomfort with the changing face of the American populace provided the raw material for Trump’s steady stream of misanthropy. Claiming on the one hand that “He doesn’t really mean all that” and on the other hand reporting their vote for Trump because “He says what I think” reveals both the role that xenophobic discomfort played in mobilizing the voters in the red sea and their dishonesty in seeking to avoid any kind of accountability for the same.

Not surprisingly, many of these confused and disingenuous assertions came from white evangelicals. The paradigm of self-focus found in individual salvation theologies lends itself well to consumerist self-understanding. It also gravitates against any kind of notions of social responsibility which are often demonized as a pernicious form of socialism. 

Atomistic Individuals and a Dying Democracy

But there are darker aspects of consumerism’s rise to dominance in the construction of the identities of so many Americans. Democratic republics depend upon its citizens to transcend their self-focus to seek the common good. The siren song of a consumerist culture is “It’s all about you” even as the reality is that it’s all about the corporate interests who both provide the goods and services we consume as well as pounding us with a steady stream of propaganda to convince us that we can’t do with them.

 The result of the consumerist ideology is the atomistic individual cut off from others and prone to see their own interests as the sum total of their concerns and by definition adverse to those of other atomistic individuals. The pursuit of self-interest thus comes at the expense of family, community and ultimately democracy itself.

At some level we recognize that. Our lives are largely empty and lacking in substance or depth. And at some level, we know that. 

Fortunately, our consumer society has just the solution for that problem: a telecommunications industry which regales us with commercial exhortations to “talk all the time.” Our obsessive use of cell phones in contexts where it is totally inappropriate (dinner tables, classrooms, religious services) and even in contexts where it is toxic (talking/texting while driving, distractedness during times of emergencies) suggest that at some level we recognize the superficiality of our lives and seek to avoid confronting that emptiness at any cost.

The trading of citizenship for consumerism has meant the slow, painful death of our public goods including higher education, public libraries and the corporatization of a wide range of mass media at every level. It has resulted in a nation of strangers polarized into a red sea of religious and political conservatives surrounding blue urban islands of cultural creatives, each mutually anathematizing the other. And if we need words to express our fear of the other, our algorithm driven social media will readily provide them in the echo chambers of our choosing.

The notion that we can simply wait and the world will change is naïve on a good day, pathologically self-indulgent on most days. Democracies require educated, informed, engaged citizens seeking the common good. In a consumerist culture, none of those things are guaranteed. Indeed, they are highly improbable.

Democracy simply cannot work in such a context and, absent some major catastrophic event to jar us out of our self-inflicted stupor, probably won’t.

[Continued with Part X]


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston, 2016


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