Democracy May Not Work in a Digitally Connected World

· Reading Time: 6 minutes

Democracy has not been an easy idea in history, even in its beginnings with the Greek city-states. Plato didn’t like it for fear that it would give power to those who are the least intellectually capable of governing. He needed only to remind us of the judgment against Socrates, the wisest man of Athens, condemned to death by a so-called peer democracy.

Aristotle did not believe in equality any more than Plato, and thought no better of democracy, considering it equal only to tyranny and oligarchy. The only consolation he offered was that when the worst democracy was corrupt, it is better than the best democracy when it is corrupt. The Romans didn’t much like democracy either, fearing direct participation by the people in the affairs of state would produce a society devoid of excellence. In fact, democracy was not sanctioned as a western ideal until the 17th century enlightenment period. And even the enlightenment philosophers weren’t too keen on it.

Thomas Hobbes was convinced democracy could only lead to anarchy. He believed power in governance should be absolute. Even John Locke, who championed the voice of the people in societal improvement, argued vehemently that society could only advance through some kind of social contract. The great enlightenment encyclopeodist, Diderot, favored a constitutional monarchy. Voltaire thought an enlightened monarchy would be best.

The issue of the rightness of democracy was wholly unsettled even with the founding of America. The word is not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Jefferson and Hamilton saw America as a republic. John Adams considered democracy “ignoble and an unjust form of government.”

The point of all this rambling is that it would seem the concept of democracy is fraught with ethical, political, economic and social questions which are difficult to answer. And in considering just such questions, we may be faced with an even larger issue in our own time.

To be sure, our present definition of democracy is different than that of our Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and Enlightenment thinkers. The founders of America were men of vast learning and refined intellect. They lived in a somewhat elitist culture and mindset. A widespread public reverence for greatness facilitated a process of governance in which it was expected the very best of our nation’s citizens would rule in our behalf. We must remember that in America’s beginnings, citizens did not directly vote for the president, vice-president, or members of the Senate.

Back then, it was generally acknowledged that the two forms of government most favorable for falsehood and deceit were despotism and democracy. The great 19th century Mason and philosopher, Albert Pike, wrote of despotism; “the concern was that men would be made treacherous through fear.” Pike added, “under democracy, the fear was men would become treacherous as a means of attaining popularity and office, or from their greed for wealth.” Our founding fathers were firm in their conviction that when office and wealth become the gods of the people; when the most unworthy and unfit most aspire to the former; when fraud becomes the highway to the latter, the result will be nothing less than chaos.

Unfortunately, our American experience seems too often to show that when our public offices are open to all, merit, integrity, dignity and honor are rarely attained.

Of course, it must be recognized our concept of democracy today has an entirely different meaning than the historical context I have just reviewed. We just assume our fellow citizens will abide by the laws and policies of those agencies of government whose activities control our community life. We feel sure in our protection that our consent to be governed will be protected by our constitution and by our freedom of thought and speech. The philosophy of our current democracy is that people are to be respected as an absolute end in themselves, and must not be used as a means to some political purpose or external end.

Hello! We may have a problem! There is something missing in this relatively new model of the will of the governed. It doesn’t work. It hasn’t for a long time. And the reason it doesn’t work is that we have changed the ways in which we communicate with each other. The key to how well our government works is based on how we communicate. Good government in the context of democracy can only be assured when people actively participate in its success. Democracy can never work when the majority of the people who are supposed to make it successful by their participation choose to be apathetic toward it. John Stuart Mill perhaps said it best: “Let a person have nothing to do for his country, and he will not care for it.” He argued that active participation of the governed in the process of being governed is an essential component of a democratic system.

Myself, along with a lot of my fellow Americans, are not caring enough these days. Even Tocqueville understood that indifference is the death of democracy. There is a direct relationship between objective involvement and the degree of public good rendered to all. There is a relationship between the kind of government that works best and the means of communication available in it.

The problem is that we don’t all have the same education, we do not live in the same homes with our parents and grandparents, we do not stay in the same place, we do not have the same feelings and attitudes. We do not share the same traditions, or enjoy the same fortune. Indeed, we hardly know each other.

There is no longer a movement of ideas. There is only information.

In the past centuries, we could depend on the printed word to supply us with ideas and knowledge. Since we only had one means of inter-community communication, what we read in newspapers, magazines, and journals created for us a national conversation. Our world was filled with essays on almost every subject of interest, and the same printed word was available everywhere. The influence of the printed word was powerful because it was the only means of communication. For the first hundred fifty years of our democracy, there was no television, no radio, no internet, no movies, no ipods, no CD’s. The public business was channeled into and expressed through print. It was the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.

The result was that Americans didn’t converse. They discussed. And their conversations were more like dissertations. Whenever people went to hear a political speech, a sermon, or a lecture, they expected an oration no different from what they were reading every week in print. People thought and conversed as if they were writing, rather than talking, to each other.

The bottom line is that those who framed our democracy knew nothing about instantaneous information, interactive media, info-commercials, television political campaigns, and all the dressings of our post-modern culture.

Instead, they invented our democracy on the assumption that there would always be wide public discourse. And a majority of the people would pay attention. Community debates would be based more on critical thinking skills, historical perspective, and a knowledge that meaning demands to be understood; rather than on immediate information, irrelevant feedback, and quick fix attitudes. To engage language means to follow a line of thought, which, in turn, requires considerable powers of classifying, inference making and reason. It means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions and to connect one generalization to another.

A democratic process is never enriched without language with content, individuality with intellect, and narrative with balanced meaning. If we wish to revive the essence and rewards inherent to a democracy, we cannot be satisfied with a world limited to quick and easy access to information. Rather, we will need to engage ourselves in the slower, linear, reflective forms characteristic of the good old printed word. This was the recipe for good democracy.

If we can’t get back to this level of communication, then we may as well take another look at a constitutional monarchy.