We are Still Conflicted and Uncomfortable with Democracy
Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds.
– Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1941)
Democracy means responsibility. Responsibility means work and effort and strain. We generally dislike work when it is focused on things that seem immediately intangible, as government by The People can sometimes certainly feel when all the millions of us try to make some collective decisions.
But our problem with democracy isn’t really best described as some struggle with civic laziness. It goes deeper, as Erich Fromm articulated – we might actually fear freedom to a certain extent. Freedom is a new thing for us as a species. It comes with whole sets of expectations – from ourselves and our peers – to chase profit and our own personal empires. To carry our share of the weight of governing. To be informed and participatory democrats. To worry about and struggle with the morality of our views and the way we treat our fellow man.
Governing, in a word, feels gross. We have rightly learned to be suspicious of our fellow citizens who enjoy governing. We like responsibility in an abstract sense, because having a say, even our one drop out of 300 million in the bucket, is preferable to having no say at all. But in the non-abstract sense, it means we are culpable for our political decision-making. When I vote for the local bond issue to build a new library, I am partially culpable for the sales tax that will affect poor families as they buy groceries. When I vote for a President who favors the use of drone strikes, I carry some of the ownership of that policy. When I argue to my fellow citizens that we should all boycott a company that discriminates against transgender Americans, I carry some ownership of an action that might jeopardize the continued employment of others. Agency has consequences, and my freedom means that my decisions will definitely affect other people. My place in a democracy means that my decisions (or failure to participate) will definitely have a consequence.
We struggle with the power of populism in the United States in different ways. The founders were more comfortable with people-power than most any other people of their generation, but even they implemented any number of checks on populism: the electoral college, limitation of the voting franchise, separation of powers, a bicameral legislature, unelected judges, staggered terms, age restrictions, natural-born restrictions, — the list goes on.
We have even strengthened those restrictions on populism in many ways over time. Most Americans prefer term limits, and 15 states have imposed term limit restrictions since the 1990’s. The 22nd amendment placed them on the Presidency.
Yet, interestingly, we have sometimes gone the opposite direction too – toward more populism. Placing U.S. Senators into popularly elected positions with the 17th amendment, and creating systems in many states for initiative petitions, referendums, and recall elections that overturn or overrule the decisions of elected leaders. We have expanded the voting franchise with the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments. Conservatives are even arguing lately for more electoral input in federal judgeship.
We can’t seem to make up our minds about whether we trust ourselves to govern, or if we need limits on our fellow citizens due to their malleable and persuadable characteristics. Huge supermajorities assail government as corrupt despite also choosing who runs the government. Only 17% of us approve of Congress right now. And yet, we choose who gets to be in the Congress every 730 days. We re-elect incumbents at a rate exceeding 90% despite the fact that 51% of us think our own congressman is part of the problem. We seem to really hate our collective decisions. Sometimes we are bad at participating at all. Only 36.4% of the eligible voting population even bothered in the last federal election.
A recent Pew poll shows us that a full 39% of Americans believe that voting is inconsequential. That’s more than one out of every three people. This demonstrates a pretty distinct dissatisfaction with the efficacy of the individual on the process of government, yet in Presidential years the voter turnout can sometimes reach 60% of eligible voters – meaning that more than a few Americans are probably casting their ballots despite a belief that those ballots literally don’t matter. Perhaps worse, the same poll shows us that only 34% of Americans have confidence in the political wisdom of the American people. That’s down from 57% in 2007, and down from 64% in 1997. Recent decades have seen a massive decline in our trust of our fellow citizen.
Yet, a solid majority of Americans believe ordinary people would do a better job than elected officials solving the country’s problems. They say that. It looks like a great time for an ordinary Joe to run for Congress. But Americans don’t agree with themselves at the ballot box, because they don’t elect ordinary people. More than half of congress is comprised of millionaires despite the fact that the median net worth of the average American family declined by one third between 2007 and 2013. If voters genuinely prefer ordinary people, the certainly don’t do a good job of choosing them.
So why all this conflict? Why do we clearly love our politicians by a large magnitude and despise them at the same time? Why do we prefer the ordinary and elect the non-ordinary regardless of our own preferences? Why do we continue to wrestle with whether we trust ourselves to make decisions, or if government should be insulated from populism? We have had more than two centuries to hammer this out, expanding the voting franchise many orders of magnitude along the way, but feeling less and less efficacy or influence on governmental outcomes.
Josh: 68% think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59% think it should be cut.
Will: You like that stat?
Josh: I do.
Josh: Because 9% think it’s too high, and shouldn’t be cut! 9% of respondents could not fully get their arms around the question. There should be another box you can check for “I have utterly no idea what you’re talking about. Please, God, don’t ask for my input.”
We are still grasping our arms around the simplest of questions. Ridiculously under-informed views are killing our ability to make decisions. The average American thinks 26% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, and 56% believe we spend too much on foreign aid. But once respondents are told it’s actually less than 1% of the budget, the number who think it’s too high drops to only 28%. Americans literally think we spend more on foreign aid than Social Security. But we are befuddled by far more: Americans think that wealth is far more evenly distributed than it really is. More Americans say their taxes are too high than the number who even pay taxes. Americans think far more people are on food stamps than really are. They underestimate the salary packages of CEO’s. They underestimate the number of pregnant women who receive abortions. And they underestimate defense spending by several orders of magnitude.
These are not small issues in the American political debate – and trust me, I think we all know how long and exhausting our elections happen to be – we beat these horses to death. These are things that we talk about regularly during election time, and they are issues on which many Americans make their choices at the ballot box, so how do we remain so collectively ignorant on the very things on which our government makes policy? We keep betraying ourselves as either deeply uncomfortable with self-government, or at least deeply uninterested in trying to do it in an informed and interested manner. We are a massive bundle of contradictions.
Part of this is the democratic paradox of having your cake and eating it too. We have the power to both lower our taxes and increase spending. It might not be particularly wise, but we do have that power. We have definitely chosen that path over the past decade – by lowering taxes at the same time we spent more than ever. We now have exceeded $19 Trillion in debt (it was half that just 16 years and two wars ago). $19 Trillion looks like this when you put it in numerical form: $19,000,000,000,000.00.
You might think that since we continue to keep choosing a congress that enjoys this disparity between spending and revenue, that we prefer it this way. But we don’t. In fact, most Americans keep saying the national debt is a huge factor in how they intend to vote. Most Americans despise spending borrowed money so much that they support not raising the federal debt ceiling – even though they surely know that would cause economic calamity. Or worse, maybe they are just entirely confused by what a debt ceiling even is.
We are going to have to get a grip if we want this little experiment in self government to work itself out. We have been spoiled by promises by politicians who are far too willing to placate our childish wants, and far too craven to demand better of the voters. We have been immature in our dereliction of civic duty, so much so that we can’t even find candidates for public office that agree with us on the things we prefer. We re-elect a congress we despise. We hold strong opinions on issues we don’t even understand – which maybe should be a basic expectation of a citizen?
Erich Fromm was right. This isn’t really a laziness thing. It’s deeper than that. It’s a genuine fear of responsibility, a psychosocial reaction to what freedom really demands of us on an individual level. Our instinct is still to carve out our own safe little spot behind a gate, protect family and friends, and kiss off the world instead of trying our darnedest to make the community better. Many of us just let the decisions be made by someone else.
Well here’s the thing about that. When we let the decisions be made by someone else – when the reasonable minded and informed among us walk away from the public sphere because it’s icky and gross – we leave that sphere to partisans and crooks and scoundrels of all stripes. We abandon all that power, diffuse as it might be, to the most partisan and craven among us. No wonder we got problems.
[Photo Credit: www.freeimages.com Kristen Price]