“There always exists in a democratic society a large group which, quite naturally, champs at the bit over the slowness of democracy; and that is why it is right for us who believe in democracy to keep the democratic processes progressive — in other words, moving forward with the advances in civilization.
That is why it is dangerous for democracy to stop moving forward because any period of stagnation increases the numbers of those who demand action and action now.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
“… ignorance will persist in the face of masses of information however complete and correct.
It persists even in the face of the meritorious efforts that are being made to go beyond presenting information and to teach the use of it by means of lectures, classes, discussion groups. Results are not zero. But they are small. People cannot be carried up the ladder.
Thus the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance.”
Joseph Schumpeter on Democracy
Elections, in every country, always seem to bring to the forefront a version of Nationalism … a version containing patriotic beauty and isolationist ugliness all with an underlying theme of ‘too slow.’
The American version involves an additional item … an ideological item called “democracy.” This American product is crammed with a crazy number of gears & widgets of liberties, entitlements, freedoms, individual empowerment, societal commitments and ‘what is fair.’
It is an unwieldy cumbersome product which in our minds we treat as light as a feather and yet its weight remains a burden not only upon ourselves … but wherever we try and place it or insert it within another ideological construct.
Basically, we treat democracy like a product we can export anywhere … and it will fly off the shelves people will want it so badly wherever it goes.
We treat democracy like a domestic product our forefathers bought & paid for … and every following generation places the slightly worn and nicked package they have been endowed with, from their parents, on the shelf to be displayed as something entitled … not earned.
As we sit in our living rooms with our 40” tvs and smartphones watching a world we are increasingly frustrated by … we glance at the box of democracy on our shelf, the one we display proudly, and wonder why, as we notice areas of weakness in the structure of ideas, rules, and incentives, no one finds a way to change the rules of the game in those areas to make the product better, shinier or more attractive <most typically defined by the visual trappings of what it appeared to look like in the past>.
That is where democracy runs into trouble.
The majority of people are happy displaying the package handed down … but really don’t care about shining up the package or protecting the package… until they have to care.
When that occurs it is often, most often, too late to stop the ‘crisis’ but just in time to put all hands on deck to solve the crisis.
Sure sounds it as I type that.
But we humans are consistently maddening.
At the root of this consistency is something Joseph Schumpeter <he of “Creative Destruction theory”> wrote about democracy <note: I will not agree with all his cynical discourse but as a thinker … he certainly brings to bear some interesting thought fodder>.
Joseph Schumpeter redefined ‘representative democracy’ <or what America’s version of democracy … a Republic> as merely leadership competition.
Schumpeter believed that individual will, common will, or common good are not essential to democracy because those things are inevitably delegated to elected representatives.
According to Schumpeter democracy is only a method, of no intrinsic value, its sole function to select leaders. Therefore leaders impose their views, and are not controlled by voters <this is as it should be in Schumpeter’s view>.
Let me be clear.
Personally, I don’t agree with everything he theorizes. I do believe a competitive election is necessary, however, is not a sufficient condition of democracy in & of itself. I also believe any definition of democracy must incorporate, or involve, common will and common good … always trying to address the almost impossible balance of individual liberty and meeting the needs of whole.
He posited that the idea that democracy was not a process by which the electorate identified the common good but instead the politicians, the selected leaders, carried this out for them.
Why did he posit this?
He argued this was unrealistic, and that people’s ignorance and superficiality meant that in fact they were largely manipulated by politicians, who set the agenda. This made a ‘rule by the people’ concept both unlikely and undesirable.
In kinder words <my words> … people naturally take on a very personal view … let’s call it “kitchen table economics and well being” … and politicians understand that psychology and while acknowledging the greater good … play to the kitchen table to ‘win leadership.’
His beliefs with regard to people’s attitudes <which is basically correct> led him to suggest a democracy which is simply a mechanism for competition between leaders. In his system, although periodic votes by the general public legitimize governments and keep them accountable. the policies themselves are made by the leaders <within their infinite wisdom as leaders> and not that of the people.
He is suggesting that the participatory role for individuals is usually severely limited.
This is contrary to how the common everyday person sees the concept of democracy in which the people themselves decide on political issues by electing representatives who carry out the people’s will.
By the way.
This is contrary to what I believe is best for any democracy and what I believe is best for people.
At election time it is good to think about these things.
Schumpeter didn’t just make this shit up.
Schumpeter also suggested another underlying assumption of the Classical Theory is very unrealistically important <therefore unraveling democracy as we would wish it would work> … and that is the idea that there is a common good to which all people can rationally agree on.
In his criticism of classical democracy theory Schumpeter states that the “common good” is a highly subjective term.
Even people with genuinely good intentions will disagree on what exactly the common good is thereby making it impossible to find a unanimously acceptable common good.
And to make it worse <or more challenging>?
Even if people could agree on an end common good <health, taking care of seniors, poverty, education> the people still disagree on the means to meet that common good.
In this I agree with Schumpeter.
Therein lies the greatest challenge within democracy.
Intentions and actions are incredibly difficult to align in the minds of over 300 million people. In fact … lets be frank … it will not happen.
I would find it difficult to believe even the least informed person on the street would disagree or not understand this.
Someone will always, always, disagree with what is being done <the actions> no matter what the decision is.
That is part of democracy <note: I do wish some leaders would be more vocal in reminding everyone of this>.
Schumpeter believed that people are basically unable to make rational decisions to express their political will. Simplistically … instead of carefully evaluating political choices people tend to focus on personal issues and accommodate a general attitude within their personal view when voting <what I call ‘the kitchen table view of Life’>.
Schumpeter suggests dismissing the idea that people directly make political decisions. For Schumpeter … voters should first elect their representatives and the representatives themselves would choose what they think the best policy is <which is fairly close to what America has … despite what the everyday person may think>.
The voters are free to decide on their representatives and can try and demand certain policies & initiatives … and if the Representative fails to deliver they can … well … be fired in the next election.
So we arrive at Schumpeter’s definition of Democracy:
“And we define: the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.”
This sounds close to what ‘is’ … however … it signifies a shift in responsibility.
People shifting responsibility for policy & decision from “what I want and do it for us” to a leader making “what we need decisions” for us.
Before I comment on that … let me close the discussion with one last part of Schumpeter’s argument/discussion.
I share this last Schumpeter thought because it is pretty key to how you end up viewing … well … your view of democracy.
“The reduced sense of responsibility and the absence of effective volition in turn explain the ordinary citizen’s ignorance and lack of judgment in matters of domestic and foreign policy which are if anything more shocking in the case of educated people and of people who are successfully active in non-political walks of life than it is with uneducated people in humble stations.
Information is plentiful and readily available.
But this does not seem to make any difference.
Nor should we wonder at it.
We need only compare a lawyer’s attitude to his brief and the same lawyer’s attitude to the statements of political fact presented in his newspaper in order to see what is the matter. In the one case the lawyer has qualified for appreciating the relevance of his facts by years of purposeful labor done under the definite stimulus of interest in his professional competence; and under a stimulus that is no less powerful he then bends his acquirements, his intellect, his will to the contents of the brief. In the other case, he has not taken the trouble to qualify; he does not care to absorb the information or to apply to it the canons of criticism he knows so well how to handle; and he is impatient of long or complicated argument.
All of this goes to show that without the initiative that comes from immediate responsibility, ignorance will persist in the face of masses of information however complete and correct. It persists even in the face of the meritorious efforts that are being made to go beyond presenting information and to teach the use of it by means of lectures, classes, discussion groups.
Results are not zero.
But they are small.
People cannot be carried up the ladder.
Thus the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance.
Ignorance is an ugly word.
And, yet, he wields the word wisely … suggesting that ignorance is not solely the domain of a less educated individual … it is a domain in which even so called intellectuals can place a stake.
It is an ignorance borne of reality.
The everyday person focuses their main capacity <mental & physical> on the job at hand … and the Life at hand.
A kitchen table is a kitchen table … whether it be a brick layer or a rocket scientist.
And it is at the kitchen table where not only all change truly occurs in culture but also movements in democracy.
<“And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan>
Life makes democracy difficult if not impossible to be ‘the will of the people.’
Schumpeter clearly recognized classical Democracy theory:
“… the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realizes the common good by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will.”
And, yet, he rejected classical theory because he believed that that people tend
to disagree over fundamental issues and their divergence cannot be bridged by mere rationality thus discovering the common good … leading to dysfunction and lack of progress.
I write about this at election time because aspects of the flaws he suggests in classical theory are correct … we struggle to define common good.
We struggle to define the means to arrive at some well intended good.
And even though we cannot clearly define either the good OR the means … we want to export it to each and every country and place we can because … well … it is good.
And we wonder why it feels like we are constantly in conflict?
It is because we are.
That, my friends, is democracy.
It is not easy.
It is not smooth.
It is not easily transportable and it certainly is not some product you can manufacture of some assembly line.
All that said.
To me … the definition of common good is less important than agreeing on a future incorporating common good.
Intentions matter almost as much as actions … if not even more so.
If everyone is attempting to meet a greater common good, albeit one we cannot agree on the definition, is that not a greater good?
I am not suggesting a Pollyanna view of the world nor am I naive enough to believe people will stop screaming about specific actions <means to meet a greater common good> because it doesn’t meet “what they would do>.’
In my small part of the world … on my blog … I feel the discussion is good.
And if everyone at least discussed it … the true merits and intentions of being part of a democracy … maybe we could become a little more realistic with regard to our expectations of democracy.