In my most recent post, one commenter repeatedly insisted that I offer a solution or an alternative for the problems I was pointing to. As I noted there, I never suggested that there was a problem, and even if there were, it’s hardly my job to be proposing a lot of solutions that aren’t going to be acted on. If you believe there’s the slightest plausibility of change wafting in the wind, you haven’t taken a good look at the likely presidential contenders in your two major parties.
However, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that I think America’s current condition constitutes a “problem” and that I’m tasked with offering a solution. I would begin with one critical observation about your system of governance: The problem with democracy in America is that too many people are allowed to participate.
As my friend Walter Lippman noted as far back as the 1920s, ours is a complex society, and it’s almost impossible for the average citizen to know enough about most issues to actually cultivate an informed opinion. Society is unimaginably more complex now, 85 years on, and if anything citizens – excuse me, consumers – are even less capable of understanding the issues that shape their lives than they were then.
Think about it. In America you’re embroiled in a war that factored heavily in the last elections. Millions of people who cast votes in support of pro-war legislators would be hard-pressed to find Iraq on a map, however. People also care passionately about issues like stem-cell research, despite the fact that most don’t know what a stem-cell actually is. Americans are confused over scientific issues where there is near-unanimous consensus about the facts because politicians in service to corporate interests promote the myth that there is a “debate” on the issue.
What do a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and a drooling hillbilly who doesn’t know what “dihydrogen monoxide” is have in common? Their votes count the same. A lifelong international policy analyst with two PhDs and a woman who can’t name a country that begins with “U”? Ditto. When racially charged issues creep into campaigns, as they inevitably do, your vote counts no more than that of the moron in upstate New York who’s never been to the South, never met a Southerner, couldn’t name the 13 states represented by the stars on the Confederate battle jack, but nonetheless has one nailed to the side of his house.
In fact, when it comes time to vote, America does not require any knowledge of the issues (real or imagined) at all. If you think Canada is a state, that doesn’t mean you can’t vote for a candidate who’s against Canadian-style socialized medicine. Your inability to distinguish between “lesbian” and “thespian” doesn’t mean you can’t vote against the rights of people in states you can’t locate on a map to marry.
Not even the most rudimentary acquaintance with the government, its laws, traditions or history is mandated. No study of the Constitution is necessary, and in fact someone who thinks that document contains the line “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is in no way prevented from pulling the curtain and participating in your glorious democracy.
In America, as elsewhere, 50% of all citizens are intellectually below average, statistically speaking, but they are nonetheless encouraged to vote about things they can’t possibly understand.
The results are predictable, and if your leaders seem stupid to you, if you can’t fathom how they can do the things they do, if you wonder at how control of your government is entrusted to people who are hardly among your brightest and best, well, you have your answer.
None of this is the fault of the nation’s founders. They set up a system where very few people could participate: white, male landowners. They didn’t do so for explicitly racist, sexist or classist reasons, but for the most pragmatic and sensible reason of all: those were the only people who could afford sufficient education to participate intelligently in the government. There’s certainly no reason to exclude the franchise today on the grounds of race, gender, class, etc. – all can contribute to the democracy so long as they’re educated and understand the issues they’re voting on.
Brilliant people are a minority in any nation, and the excellence of any endeavor requires the participation of that elite group. In America they are despised and mocked, and under no circumstances are they elected to high office.
So, if fixing your problems and creating solutions and alternatives were my job, I’d work very hard to disenfranchise the stupid. I’d start by requiring at least a passing knowledge of the issues – actual factual knowledge, not me-too dogma – before I let somebody near a ballot box. And of course, I’d make sure that my schools prepared people for this challenge. Not only would students learn the details of their nation’s government, they’d learn to think critically about it.
That might not solve everything, but it would be one hell of a start.