A Didactic Decade for Democracy
As the (long) tail of 2009 draws nigh, I have a few closing reflections on the political-philosophical developments that have marked this decade, and find myself simultaneously more and less of a Hegelian than ever, which may be the best way to sum up the subtle dialectical turns we’ve taken in the 2000s. I would normally apologize for posting something so heady and inaccessible to most of my readership, but instead I have to encourage you all to read this or risk hypocrisy, since I believe that rational disengagement from philosophy and democratic participation to be one of the biggest problems we have faced and will continue to face in the new millennium. I’ve inserted more than my usual quantum of educational hyperlinks as a form of citation and footnoting, so please read on undaunted, dear reader. And more power to you for that fact.
In light of recent history, I find myself more of a Hegelian because I now tend to see conflict more in terms of the inexorable historical forces and ideas that are battling each other than any particular individuals involved. At the start of the decade, I found the single combat of American politics enthralling and entertaining (it is after all, a close cousin to wrestling: both are loud, flashy shouting matches where the winner is preselected and the fight is staged for public consumption). Ultimately, that frame of analysis led to unsatisfying results once I fully appreciated the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and realized exactly what personalities would be simultaneously attracted to and capable of success in a life of politics: single-minded power-seekers. The industrialization of the Twentieth Century marked the developing shift away from locally determined political leaders that could be recognized for their virtue to a system where the candidates with an “excess” of ideas or integrity would fail to make the industrial compromises necessary to wage a modern campaign (i.e., money begs and media buys). Thus, the potentially virtuous politicians were pre-filtered from public consumption by market forces at an accelerated pace thanks to the industrialization, nationalization, and professionalization of American politics that really took root in the Twentieth Century.
The success of the American project had been recognizing that ideas and institutions were more important than the man, and devising a political system that would anticipate the inevitable human failure, though we might hope for the best. The theory went that opposing groups and interests would keep each other within carefully circumscribed boundaries, the various branches of government would disperse power enough that concerted action would be difficult or impossible, and the Fourth Estate would provide a check on a power-wielding elite. The industrial efficiency and economies of scale that marked the Twentieth Century–indeed, you could identify the force as the raw idea of synergy–led the charge to reconnect and concentrate these previously dispersed powers. Professionally organized and choreographed political parties allowed hand-in-glove coordination at all political levels. The power to forge national policies assumed during the Great Depression (and arguably necessary for America to become the great imperial power it wanted to become) allowed both the politics and interests that used to be local to become national and global, circuitously creating significant economies of scale in political influence. Our political-economic structure sadly generates greater returns for a cozy relationship with the right players in Washington than for a superior product offered in the marketplace. National reach makes the government a king-maker, monopoly granter, and patent protector on the basis of politics and power rather than economics or policy. Public resources are milked for all they’re worth, but the public never realizes that it has lost out on anything because there was no presumption that the public might have been entitled to it in the first place.
Underlying and supporting these changes, the media became national and international with technologies that could interconnect geographically disparate polities. Corporate ownership began tilting content toward more easily digestible entertainment over politics, whether muckraking or simply acting as a conduit for it. Indeed, the Twentieth Century told the story of the decline of the individual in politics in the face of larger institutional forces, the coordination of professionally run political campaigns, increasingly gigantic and savvy vested interests, and channeled information dissemination (no pun intended, but isn’t that interesting).
The last decade has witnessed myriad shifts in the political power dynamic that the Twentieth Century left behind, most of which have been difficult to clearly perceive. The Internet put the power of the press in every individual’s home, or pocket for that matter, and has been the greatest force for democratization of speech and politics in history: today, unlike any other time in history, anyone in the world can communicate and disseminate thoughts and ideas to anyone else in the world on an ad hoc basis with almost zero costs of organization. Furthermore, the Internet can bend market forces to the service of the polity; the better the reporting and more important the story (insofar as it is Pragmatically sensible, I suppose), the more likely the story will get picked up and sent to others, with a crescendo of traffic. This blog (and its lack of readership) is itself an homage to that fact. Bloggers have written much of the political history of the last decade thanks to the soap-box platform provided by the Internet: Rathergate, Lehman, and Tiger Woods are just a few stories emblematic of the positive, fact-checking impact the Internet has had on political discourse. New examples pop up every day, and pose various ways of keeping the public mindful of their politicians, and keeping politicians mindful of their own promises.
On the flip-side, much ink, digital and otherwise, has been spilled lamenting the death of the Fourth Estate as an independent journalistic watchdog as such in the wake of the digital media explosion and profusion. However, it was really the corporatization of the media that foreshadowed the shift from traditional professional journalism to infotainment; a profit motive controlling speech would inevitably lead to budget cuts and “streamlining” content for widespread digestibility. The blogosphere, by contrast, promotes specialization and expertise: every niche has its own expert, corner and readership with zero costs of publication and zero revenues that must be recouped due to spent overhead. Wikipedia is the model par excellence of aggregating social knowledge, with a high quality product achieved through massive social verification engines at work. Democracy (or even anarchy?), it seems, can produce a high quality product, so long as there is some objective verifiability that can be imposed on the project. The fact that the world is quite flat is inherently democratic and beneficent since there is always someone there to push the ball in the direction of history, continually and marginally advancing human knowledge beyond the limits of any individual contribution, but that fact is fairly existentially depressing if you were hoping to get more than 15 seconds of fame for yourself (Warhol’s 15-minute standard seems preposterous in light of today’s inflation, doesn’t it?). Now, the media presents an unparalleled degree of surveillance over policy formation, accessible by both the public and vested interests with corresponding results that can be seen in the health care reform saga. Some good steps have been taken to re-insulate the policy formation process, but quite frankly, Washington lacks the institutional expertise to competently legislate national politics without industrial assistance; the question is where to draw the line between the technical information and the political begging, but independent bloggers can do a pretty decent job of calling bullshit.
So, while I am generally optimistic about the powerful democratic transformations in politics and media that have only just begun, I find myself to be less of a Hegelian because I have begun to doubt the cunning of reason at work in history. Essentially, I wonder at the effects of the vast power that lays in crowd-sourcing when the crowd’s ability to accurately gauge success is hamstrung. Essentially, democracy relies on the education of the masses to be able to make good decisions for itself, but if what the crowd wants is Sarah Palin (as an overused example), then how much destruction might be caused by this undifferentiated power that has been granted to the masses? Public choice theory acknowledges “rational ignorance” in a broad-based democracy, where the costs of education are higher than the discounted benefit one might receive from giving informed input into the debate. Luckily, the costs of knowledge and education are plummeting thanks to the Internet, but people still have to be willing to get off the couch to make such a choice in the first place. I fear that the television may have lulled the American democracy into a stupor.
To that end, what if the very goals of a polity are entirely unexamined and exogenous to any political debate, such that we aren’t even attempting to move toward the same goals, but we’re intent on moving anyway? Though we have a profusion of raw information and fact-checking available to us, we leave basic philosophical assumptions entirely unchecked, such as whether or not it is preferable to live as long as possible, even if exponentially increasing costs would be passed along to generations of young workers. And what of the analysis of diminishing returns to a life past the age of 100? It wouldn’t even be mentioned in a political debate, even though it seems integral to any rational cost-benefit analysis. What we are left with is a dialectic of the “cunning of reason” and the “laziness of ignorance,” making the direction of history very murky, even to an ardent Hegelian.
It was precisely because of the compelling nature of unenlightened and short-term factious interests that the founding fathers feared the public gaining too much power just as much, if not more, as they feared an overconcentration of power in the elite. The solution was originally to obviate direct political control by insulating politicians from public influence, including the original model of the Senate being elected by states’ legislatures, the six year term, the electoral college, and so on. Again, democratic forces seem to be overtaking the possibility of power being wielded by smaller groups of individuals, and someone like Sarah Palin is politically viable because she directly represents those masses. The best that enlightened individuals can do to shape policy in their preferred image is to increase education, influence public opinion and alter attitudes through democratic media, but no one can pull the levers on their own anymore.
Indeed, the decade leaves us with profound knowledge of the fact that attempts at public influence are now more profuse than ever, so every single person has the social responsibility to engage and participate in the sometimes cacophonous din, and encourage others to do the same. So, for all my ranting and raving about how little individuals matter on an overall level, every person provides one drop in the cascade of influence of how the masses form their opinions, and are more important now than ever. I think I have to remain an optimist in hoping that the power of education, rationality, rhetoric, debate, and so on can change opinions. I remain a bit of a pessimist in terms of how much the American populace has fallen asleep at the switch, irrevocably turned on auto-pilot and let politics guide themselves. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what the next decade has in store for the dialectic between the cunning of reason and the laziness of ignorance.