I’m not a political analyst. But I am concerned – as a student and as a person – by the unquestioned, inherent value in the word and idea of “Democracy.”
I understand the need for a fanatic search for government other than despotism, especially in the past, and especially in the very early history of the United States. Democracy was the ideological banner under which the United States stayed United, after all. And the deification of the ideal upon which the government was sort of constructed seemed to be a pretty good plan – it tried something new, at least; it’s not common birthplace or allegiance to an individual or even language or religion via which Americans traditionally identify themselves, but work ethic and political representation.
And that’s a good and noble thing. But “Democracy” as we use it now is lacking in substance, and only vaguely reminiscent of the word’s original purpose and ideals. It’s a fluff word – a word that’s lost its weight, meaning, and context. Something we can tack onto any object to make it instantly American and socially approved.
And the need for quick and easy social approval is, I think, rooted in the decomposition of political efficiency in the form of the partisan two-party system. The two-party system, whether it is the best model of an election-based political system or not, focuses all public attention and energy on competition for competition’s sake. The goal of traditional political debates has been skewed from clarification of one’s views to beating one’s opponent.
Bill Keller, New York Times columnist and previous executive editor, suggests that the rabid opposition effect is increasing over time. We are in “The Age of Shouting,” politically and culturally, Keller says – where politicians study talking points more than policy and semantic slip-ups receive more attention than real inconsistency. He suggests that the current political scene will be slow to make any real progress towards culling the approach of economic entropy if it continues to value short-term popularity over long-term benefit. Attempting to cling to empty ideals has caused politicians’ relationship with the public to become an empty thing in itself; all intentionality is replaced with the rabid defense of platitudes to which we glue our identities, and any sense of common benefit is drowned out by the cry to defeat any opposition.
Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” , was a guest on “Crossfire” – a CNN show that featured commentators sitting at dramatically angled tables and asking political figures loud questions – in 2005. He called out the show for being culturally destructive and deceivingly theatrical: “What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.” Stewart said to the hosts, “You have a responsibility to the public discourse.”
The comedian’s call towards participation in productive public discourse is impressively insightful. Democracy is a good and beneficial thing, especially for everyone who is not a) a despot or b) stronger than everyone else. But it does not magically self-perpetuate – because it is literally constructed of the public, it requires the constant activity and engagement of the public. Socially responsible and informed discourse is needed, and we’re not going to get it by finding cheap ways to win arguments. It’s going to take work and a widespread social movement towards real discourse to keep “Democracy” in the American lexicon as anything more than a buzzword.