Excerpt from widely distributed 1912 speech by President Theodore Roosevelt running for a third term on the independent Bull Moose Party ticket: “Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? I believe they are. My opponents do not. I believe in the right of the people to rule. I believe that the majority of the plain people of the United States will, day in and day out, make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men, no matter what their training, will make in trying to govern them. I believe, again, that the American people are, as a whole, capable of self-control and of learning by their mistakes.” Full Text.
I was taught to believe in mass democracy, wisdom of the common people who may not be the best educated, may not be the best informed, who may misjudge situations and leaders temporarily, who may make mistakes in specific elections, but they have common decency, good instincts, and combined with institutional checks and balances and enforcement of the rule of law by courts independent of political corruption, will figure things out and choose the right path over the long haul. That is the history of America, I was taught and continue to believe or take on faith.
In my study of history, I can think of only a few elections in which voters in retrospect or the long view of history made the wrong choice, the wrong decision, moved in the wrong direction over the long haul. That’s a discussion for another post.
One cannot judge voters’ decisions in elections less than 10 years ago because we do not know what comes next. One might feel George W. Bush was the wrong choice, but without Bush there would be no Obama; one might feel Obama was the wrong choice, but without Obama there would be no Trump; one might feel Trump was the wrong choice, but without Trump, Hillary Clinton would have been president for four tumultuous years. Given historical patterns, it’s unlikely Democrats would have held the White House for more than 12 years and Republicans would have been in a very good position to take the White House and the Congress in 2020.
In the last few years, with the rise of fake news and the decline of beliefs in universally-agreed upon objective truth, I have begun to have my doubts on whether democracy can survive.
If citizens cannot or choose not to determine what is true, do not develop critical thinking skills, prefer to entertain themselves to death, prefer to be preoccupied with the lives of celebrities, give up on reading, do not take the responsibilities of citizenship seriously. fall into a self-centered hyper-individualism bereft of community, do not care about their fellow humans, combined with a pervasive media environment built on distraction and false information, the nation will descend into decadence and despair.
One can argue that deliberative democracy is in decline — less than 60 percent of the eligible population consistently votes in the US, compared to vast majorities in other industrialized nations, even though the education level of Americans has improved dramatically since the expansion of the vote to women, African Americans, and young people (from 21 to 18). Why?
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others.” — Winston Churchill. Discussion on Quora.
Cure for hyper-partisanship? Ask a staunch Democrat after the 2016 election while Republicans control the White House and Congress if “the people” are equipped to govern themselves and many if not most will say no, they were stupid and deceived into voting for the Republicans. Ask a staunch Republican after the 2008 election while Democrats controlled the White House and Congress if “the people” were equipped to govern themselves and many if not most said no, they were stupid and deceived into voting for the Democrats. So, in answering the following question honestly, one must consider decades of American history, not just the last few years.
Another common phenomenon is that voters frequently say they hold Congress or their state legislature in contempt or very low respect and esteem, but they happen to know their own member of Congress or state legislator and “he is one of the (few) good guys.”
Conversely, they might paint with such a broad brush — “throw the rascals out” — that if they don’t know the details, throw out good representatives, throw out the baby with the bath water.
What do you think?
Are the people equipped to govern themselves, to elect good representatives who will represent their interests and the common good?
What is the future of American democracy in your lifetime?