Sunday, March 3, 2013

Do we get the democracy we deserve?

Doing interviews and surveys to prove that the American electorate is woefully uninformed of the most elementary facts about our politics is a cottage industry among social scientists and journalists. Again and again we are told that people who go to the polls, usually have no idea of who they are voting for and why.

As a result working people vote for governors who are openly anti-labor. Women passionately support candidates who are unabashedly sexist.

Voters are confused about the issues as illustrated by the Tea Partier who was reported to have said: “Don’t let the government mess with my Medicare.”

Ill-informed voters cast their votes pretty randomly. What we get is a government that acts pretty randomly. The Republican opposition to raising taxes and the Democratic nostrums for getting the economy going are not based on facts, on economic experience but on vague assumptions about what rich people will do with their money if their taxes are reduced, or what poor people would do if some government program would put a little bit more money in their pocket.

We do, indeed, get the government we deserve. A government elected by the uninformed is going to be a government of the uninformed.

And what should we be doing about that?

The most common answer to that question is: “education.” But education teaches only those who want to learn. You can have people sit in a classroom for a long time. If they are not interested in learning they are not going to learn anything. They may do all the work assigned, they may pass the exams with flying colors but if they don’t care about the subject, they will forget overnight what they knew yesterday.

The real problem is that people are not interested in our democracy. They find politics confusing, they find it boring, they find it, most of all, pointless.

Politics appears pointless because ordinary citizens do not have anything to say. Contrary to the story we tell about democracy, that it is “government of, for, and by the people” no one has asked my opinion lately. Did anyone ask you?

Politicians more or less eloquently talk at us, they will claim grandly that “the American people will not stand for….” And I hear this and say to myself: Did that person ask me? How does he know about what the American people will stand for if he does not ask and also if he does not listen?

It is not unreasonable to say that ours is a government of, for, and by politicians (and some other people we’ll mention later.) So it is of no interest to me, the ordinary citizen, because it does not have any effect on my life that I can do anything about.

The ordinary citizen’s refusal to participate in politics may well result from a certain resentment. No one cares about what I think. But a lot of people care about what the heads of large financial institutions, of large corporations think because they will drop several million dollars in political action committee coffers in order to push their own, private interests.

Not only does no one listen to what you and I think, but they do listen to what the rich people think. That is clearly unfair, it is undemocratic and, in so far as democracy is an important part of America, it is unpatriotic. It makes me mad and therefore I won’t have anything to do with politics.

But there are other reasons for being indifferent to politics. In contemporary America that is what citizens are supposed to be. Our government is no longer a government of the people because people today are not supposed to participate.

Remember George Bush after 9/11? He told us all to go shopping. Responding to a major attack on our country we are told not to bother our poor little heads about what to do – let the government take care of that, our job is to spend money. And of course before you spend money you have to earn it. And that has become the main occupation of citizens.

In the past there were the Minutemen, the farmers and artisans, who left fields and workshops to take up their muskets and defend American independence against King George. In the past our liberties were for every citizen to protect. Not anymore. We now leave it to the government and go to the mall instead.

When politicians from the president on down talk about schools and education, they always say education is supposed to prepare us for jobs, for working, for making money, for being consumers. Very rarely does anyone talk about education as the preparation for being citizens.

The country faces many serious problems which are not easy to understand. But education does not prepare us to participate in thinking about those problems. It simply prepares us for being good employees, for being productive, for putting more money in the corporations' coffers.

It is the government itself that wages this campaign to discourage citizens from participating in politics. Not only don’t they pay attention to citizens except during election seasons, but they let it be known that we should not bother about politics because they would take care of it.

Are they taking care of it? You tell me.

And, what is worse, we are letting them make a mess of it by speechifying, posturing, pointing fingers at each other and making secret deals with people they get money from. We are allowing them to be incompetent, hypocritical, elitist and undemocratic.

It looks as if we were getting the democracy we deserve.