(Roughly) Daily

“Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried”*…

… Still, ours is clearly going through a rough patch. David Karpf offers a pragmatic– and provocative– perspective on how we might begin to heal it…

Let me begin from first principles: much of the rhetoric surrounding democratic theory and practice begins from a presumption of equality. We invoke the first clause of the Declaration of the Independence — “We the People” — and consider democratic forms of government to be a thing that manifests from the shared deliberation of the public at large. Through this rendering, it follows that all people have equal voice, equal protections, equal representation under and by the law. We imagine that the purpose of a democratic government is to produce wise and just outcomes for the whole of society.

From this presumption of equality, a whole field of study has arisen, asking whether citizens have the requisite skills and knowledge for democracy to live up to these ideals. This field dates back roughly a century, at least to the time of Walter Lippmann. (Sean Illing and Zac Gershberg wrote an excellent historically-engaged book on this topic last year, btw, titled The Paradox of Democracy.) For the past couple decades, contributors to the field often turn their focus toward the internet, asking whether we are enhancing or degrading the capacity of citizens to engage in productive democratic practices.

I will grant that this is a powerful and attractive rhetorical trope. Indeed, it might be the case that it is an essential constitutive myth — that in order for democracies to succeed, we must pay rhetorical homage to the collective presumption of equality.

But it is also, as an empirical matter, clearly suspect. If we want to make sense of contemporary elite political behavior — of how the powerful act and what they prioritize — I think the presumption of equality does us a disservice. And that’s because it has never, empirically speaking, been an accurate description of actually-existing democracy. We have, for starters, never had a mass public that lived up to our imagined ideals for good citizenship (c.f. Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen).

American democracy was not founded by a mass citizenry coming together and uniting around a single set of shared principles. It was founded by elites — men who owned land, men who owned printing presses, men who owned people. America, just like every other mass democracy on the planet, was founded by an elite. And the purpose of democracy as a form of government was to maintain the privilege and status of that elite — to preserve the social order. We can better make sense of democratic practice today if we instead proceed from a presumption of hierarchy.

The presumption of hierarchy turns our focus away from “We the People,” toward another bedrock phrase: “the consent of the governed.” We ought to parse that term. It suggests the existence of two distinct groups — those who govern (the elites) and those who are governed (the masses). And from the masses, it merely requires that we reach a minimal threshold of “consent.” Consent is not robust, informed participation. It does not require deliberation or engagement. or engaged. We can consent to being governed in much the same passive way we consent to a website’s terms of service. Consent, in this context, can best be understood as social stability. Social unrest is synonymous with the governed withdrawing their consent. The lack of social unrest is synonymous with consent being maintained.

More provocatively, let me suggest the following: from the perspective of political elites, the central purpose of any form of government is the preservation of social order. And by that I also mean the preservation of the existing status hierarchy. Let’s call this the outcome of social order, by which I mean that governments are actually, in practice, evaluated on how well they preserve the status hierarchy with minimal changes.

From this perspective, the key innovation that has made democracy preferable to all other forms of government is that it produces a legitimate avenue for social dissent…

Neil Postman famously remarked in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) that the real threat to Democracy came not from the ubiquitous government surveillance depicted in George Orwell’s (1949) 1984, but rather from the ubiquitous entertainment options that leave citizens passively disengaged in Aldous Huxley’s (1931) Brave New World. Many cultural commentators have noted in recent years how well Postman’s broadcast-television-era warning seems to fit the age of digital entertainment…

In the 2000s, it was common among political communication scholars and civic technology practitioners to look with hope at the influx of new technologies. There was, amongst many of us, the shared belief that, as information and communication technologies lowered the cost of citizen engagement, we would witness the emergence of a more engaged, informed citizenry.

I was always a bit suspicious of that instinct…

But even my early-onset-orneriness did not prepare me for the authoritarian turn of the mid-’10s. Ethan Zuckerman described this well in his essay “QAnon and the Emergence of the Unreal.” The same civic technologies that were being used to build and support civic communities in the ‘90s and ‘00s were used to support conspiracy theories and hate groups in the ‘10s. Likewise, as I noted in a 2018 essay, the thing that made QAnon different from past conspiracy theories was that it had all the trappings of an immersive ARG (alternative reality game). QAnon is not just a means of making sense of a chaotic world that has not gone your way. Participating in QAnon forums is the same type of fun as participating in Reddit forums or other online communities. The people who get involved in politics are the people who attain joy or profit from that involvement…

At the elite level, I fear what has happened is the erosion of the “myth of the attentive public” among our political elites. As I described in a 2019 essay, this was a load-bearing myth, necessary for the maintenance of an at-least-barely-functional democracy…

Over the past almost-decade, this myth has been eroded as the Huxleyite version of the public on stark display. If misinformation and propaganda flow at least as well as truth and adversarial journalism, then why bother worrying about the potential effects of negative news cycles? If the only members of the public engaging in political life are your worshipful fans and your crazed enemies, why bother focusing on the messy, complex work of actual governance? (It’s all just kayfabe anyway, right?)

We don’t solve these problems by building better citizens through media literacy camapaigns. We don’t solve them through kumbaya efforts that hearken back to an era when “people could disagree without being disagreeable” (which people, one ought always ask in response).

We solve these problems by building better elites — and by better elites, what I probably mean is elites who are appropriately concerned that they are going to lose the social order and stability they have come to take for granted.

The trouble with the presumption of equality is that it leads us to pursue fantasy solutions to the crisis of democracy. We begin by asserting that all citizens are equal under the law, and then find ourselves asking what all citizens should expect from one another. This can be an interesting thought experiment, I suppose. But it is a dead end for pragmatists trying to diagnose how we got where we are today.

I find the presumption of hierarchy more fruitful because it more accurately describes what actual, existing democracy is, and has been. It is a marvelously effective means of maintaining social order. Social order is generally good. We would sorely miss it if it were gone. Countries that face violent overthrow are not prosperous or great to live in. (It’s easy for revolution-minded intellectuals to imagine chaos and anarchy as a welcome change. It is not.)

And that’s particularly true in todays United States. I have mentioned this elsewhere, but it’s worth saying explicitly here as well. One ought not hope for violent confrontations when the opposition has all the guns…

The nice thing about focusing on elites is that there are, relatively speaking, not a lot of them. It is less work to convince the wealthiest 0.1% of the country that they ought to alter their behavior/have an ounce of shame or humility than to convince the other 99.9% that they should all be civil and respectful of their betters and pursue civic engagement but only in the right channels at the right times…

Pragmatic or defeatist? Read the full article for Karpf’s “basic elements of a successful mass democracy,” or as he styles it, “a minimalist theory of democracy”: “Huxley’s Electorate,” from @davekarpf.

[Image above: source]

* Winston Churchill


As we get down with government, we might recall that on this date in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, landmark legislation that funded a 40,000-mile system of interstate roads (commonly known as the Interstate Highway System) that ultimately reached every American city with a population of more than 100,000. Today, almost 90% of the interstate system crosses rural areas, putting most citizens and businesses within driving distance of one another. Although Eisenhower’s rationale was martial (creating a road system on which convoys could travel more easily), the results were largely civilian.  From the growth of trucking to the rise of suburbs, the interstate highway system re-shaped American landscapes and lives.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 29, 2023 at 1:00 am

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