Why Democracy Itself Will Come Into Question

Idea**:  In the next five years in the US, democracy itself will come into question.
Argument:  Democracy requires four things to support the central concept that every vote be treated equally.  Each of these four premises has individually been questioned, but circumstances will arise to coalesce those discrete criticisms into a unified argument against democracy.

The four requirements for democracy to be possible or viable are:

1) rational informed citizenry, who use free and fair elections, for the

3) delegation of power (in a representative democracy)

4) where the representatives serve the large middle class who are the majority of the citizenry

When these four conditions obtain, it’s possible to believe that all votes should be treated equally.

But each of these four supporting premises has been questioned and weakened.

We know from cognitive psychology and public choice theory that voters do not act rationally even when making decisions in their own self-interest.  We don’t need evidence that they’re uninformed.

2) Elections are widely seen as uncompetitive where the power of incumbency leads to re-election rates reminiscent of the Politburo.  In addition, there’s a long term trend towards non-participation in local and national elections.  On the fairness issue, we still have the legacy of the Bush v. Gore case, as well as lots of noise on the topic of voter fraud, voter ID laws, and the like.

In a representative democracy, delegation of power is logically required, but for it to be effective, the delegate, must be representative of the people who select him or her.  But in our political system, elected office creates a different status, different economics, which serve both 1) to separate the representative from the people electing him, and 2) to lead the representative to exercise power in a self-promoting way, opposed to the long-term needs of the constituents.

4) The Pew Center and others have now shown that the “middle class” is rapidly in decline and is no longer descriptive of a majority of citizens.  Pew’s numbers are that 62% of Americans in 1970 fit the description of “middle class” while only 46% did in 2010.  For the first time in our history, the middle class is not a numerical plurality of the citizenry.  Add to this another historical first:  that for the first time a majority of Americans does not think the next five years will be better than the present.

So with these four logical supports weakened, how can one sustain the argument that all votes must be considered equal when very little equality of any kind exists elsewhere in the country?

In 1835, deTocqueville published Democracy in America, in which he argued, among other things, that Americans craved equality, that equality was the inexorable force in American life.  It led the poor to work harder and provided a union of sorts among Americans from all walks of life and regions of the country.

In 2012, we have never had less equality, or more dispersion of outcomes, in our history.  The gap between the top and the bottom has never been greater with respect to income and wealth, education, and influence.

But democracy requires a narrow dispersion here, and fluidity and mobility among those on the distribution curve.  We now have, and celebrate having, various tribes of the elite: athletes, film stars, politicians, and journalists all now inhabit an elite circle of wealth and influence comparable to the landed gentry in a monarchy.

As the society breaks into smaller groups with increasingly less in common, the country becomes more susceptible to any crisis which challenges the ability of government to respond.  That crisis may be one with respect to the federal budget, the soundness of the dollar, the financial markets, or the geo-political realm.  But whatever crisis arises, if Congress should show itself paralyzed in the face of the need for decisive action, this will be an accelerant for the argument questioning democracy itself.

As for the political poles, it’s easy to locate them in this crisis, whatever shape it takes.  The left will contend that democracy is too cumbersome and requires too much compromise to respond appropriately (we already see this in presidential executive orders).  The right will state that the power granted our leaders by the existing political institutions has irredeemably corrupted our political leaders, who cannot therefore be trusted even to describe the crisis accurately, let alone to face it.

Note that I am not arguing that American democracy will fail in the next five years.  Rather, I am saying that it will be openly questioned.  What was once a minority view of a small fringe element will become widely debated by our elite thought leaders.

**Note:  The above remarks are my contribution to the most recent “Non-Obvious Dinner”.  The Non-Obvious Dinner is a non-commercial event hosted periodically by Henry Mellon, Jeff Rollins, Ben duPont, and Mike Kane.  Each guest is asked to identify a trend not obvious now but which will become known in the next five years.

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