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Democracy is Changing In Front of Our Eyes

January 11, 2018

 A slew of articles have come across my desk lately and they all point to one thing: democracy as we've known it reached its high watermark years ago. And we've endured a period of decline during which disenchantment set in and the appetite for reform has begun to swell. For many decades reformists were part of largely academic exercises to connect core concepts of citizenship with the state and with technology.


There are four key themes that come through these articles that I heard again and again during interviews – they are themes that must be at the core of future reform efforts. They are:

  •  Local participation is the safest home of citizen voice and agency in American democracy; we must find ways to shift more powers and authority to the local level.

  • Traditional mechanisms like the two party system and the electoral college are expired; we need to build new mechanisms of representation.

  • Doubling down on civic education is essential to recharging the wells of knowledge and participation on which democracy thrives.

  • Social media is a menace to democracy and nobody knows quite what to do about it.

The erosion of the power and efficacy of traditional democratic mechanisms to serve the common population – party primaries, voting, and public meetings for example – combined with the changing dynamics of employment and personal well being have left a large share of Americans with a taste for transformation. Here are a few examples:

  •  "The Democratic Disconnect," an article in the July 2016 Journal of Democracy, discusses the declining relevance of "regime theory" - “regime legitimacy,” or support for democracy as a system of government. They write that, "While people may increasingly feel that democracy is not working well in their country or that the government of the day is doing a poor job," it is no longer true that this makes them "all the more appreciative of the fact that liberal democracy allows them to protest the government or vote it out of office." What they find is that:

Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.

  •  The Washington Monthly recently wrote that "all politics is local," cribbing a phrase from former House Speaker Tip O'Neill. What they offer that's a little different though is the link sliding participation with the drying of civic agency, power in the hands of people. "The crisis of democratic participation," the write, "is arguably both a product of rising inequality and a contributor to it—when certain groups feel ignored by political institutions, they may become less likely to vote, which only guarantees that lawmakers ignore their interests even more, and on and on."

    Citing a few local examples where reforms have placed unorganized citizens closer to the center of decision-making power, the writers say that, "opening doors to government shows citizens more about the process, and can inspire more engagement in the long run." It is, "the importance giving people a genuine say in decision-making" that makes them count, and constitutes the future of reform efforts in the United States.

  • An exciting article in Forbes provided a review of ideas presented in a new book, "Demopolis," by Stanford Classics prof Josiah Ober. “Democracy,” Josiah remarked to the author in their interview, “is fragile—but it’s also persistent. It’s within our hands to renew it—and yes, we do need to get to work on that. But the key lies in understanding its conceptual roots. We can’t fix the system without getting back to the essence of true democracy. That’s been lost in our politics today.”

    The article's author, Brook Manville, offers five key themes shaping our democratic breakdown and closes with the observation by Ober that"

The real problem s not about a modern democracy adopting this or that policy of ‘rights’ or ‘universal justice’—if the citizens so agree to that. But there are trade-offs and difficult consequences of moving towards that kind of vision, and we haven’t as a nation really debated such things, or developed a shared understanding of what that means for us collectively. And an-every-four-year Presidential election is no substitute for that. A big part of the pessimism and even rage about our current system is that people just aren’t able to participate in the debates and decisions that are implicitly shaping the overall meaning of our democracy today.

  • A final article in the LA Review of Books caught my eye for making the case that a movement toward celebrity candidates marks a shift in the acceptability criteria for public leadership. In this new alignment between "playing the role" and attaining the office, "Reality seems to have become a weaker constraint in the sphere of Western democracies,” says Jay Rosen, a professor of Journalism at New York University. In other words, truth – and the pursuit of truth, whether in court, on the campaign trail, or in the White House briefing room – may have seen finer days. Drawing from inspiration from the entertainment mechanics of World Wide Wrestling, the author writes chillingly the, "The line between fantasy and reality must be ever more completely blurred in order to maintain the grip of the illusion."

    It is the blurring, the whiplash back and forth, that forms the energy-producing dynamo behind great entertainment. And that may be the final form the democracy we have inherited has taken. In our backslide into "celebrity politics, "there are different rules than traditional politics. Trump has practicing Orthodox Jewish grandchildren but is a hero to the Ku Klux Klan. This makes no sense if you consider him a representative of a political organization or an ideology. It makes perfect sense if you consider him a showman. The whole point of the circus is that everybody loves it. You can sell it in every town."

    Drawing on another important theme that I heard on the road, the author writes that, "The rise of social media will only increase the reach and sway of celebrity. Social media imports the reality-bending drama of faces and heels into our private lives; everyone becomes the minor star of their own existence. Social media is just like wrestling: warriors versus trolls."

    "A people of screens," the article concludes, "will inevitably choose screened people to lead them."

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