Monday, May 31, 2010

Democracy without Deliberation?

The self-government that we claim to revere, though we practice it little and disparage it often, is more than just a formal structure for political decision-making; it's also a way of thinking and being in the world. Democracy, whether it's practiced at the national level or at a town-hall meeting, is not the same thing as mob-rule, and it is not the same thing as acting as though what you want is right, simply because it's you, wanting it (and what others want is wrong, simply because it's not-you, wanting it). Democracy requires discourse, and reflection, and compromise, so that the eventual decisions reached reflect the best thinking of The People as a group. And all of that requires time.

Democracy was born in times that had more time. When the American colonists protested against some act or other of the British Parliament, it took time for the response to reach American's shores--whether that response was a sharply-worded letter or a ship full of Redcoats. The distance between Us and Them didn't just give us isolation and protection; it also gave us time to think--to think about what the best way forward might be. And that time allowed our representatives to study past precedent; to take the politcal temperature of their constituents; to discuss and argue amongst themselves; to step back from the passionate arguments and reflect on what had been said; and to come back to the table to listen and to compromise.

We have time for none of that now.

We live in a world, now, where action and response are expected immediately, whether in business or in pleasure or in politics. Our technology has taught us to expect things as quickly as a fiber-optic cable can deliver it. When we want something, we want it now. When we decide something, we expect to see it happen now. Important papers are not delivered by mail; they must be faxed, or scanned and emailed. We will not wait.

And when things seem to take too long, or when people appear to change their minds about something, we lash out at them for dithering, or vacillating, or flip-flopping. Many Americans loved George W. Bush for projecting an image of No Change: he believed what he believed; they were the same things he had always believed; they were the same things he was going to believe tomorrow. Some of us were horrified by the idea that the man's attitudes and opinions were invulnerable to experience--that nothing that might happen in the world would change the way he saw that world--but others took as a sign of strength. And what did people call his political opponents, when they wanted to insult them? Intellectuals. Elitists. Flip-floppers.

Barack Obama is being attacked today for acting too "cerebrally" in response to the BP oil spill. We want him to ride in on a white horse and "plug the damn hole already." But the real problems of the real world are seldom solved by heroes on white horses. Our problems are complex, but our culture increasingly despises complexity. "Just plug the hole." "Just finish the border fence." "Just DO IT."

"Think it through" or "let's talk about it" are signs of weakness. "Act without thinking" is a sign of strength. If these things continue, how can anything resembling democractic self-rule survive?

Because we're not alone. Out there in the larger world are countries that can act (seemingly) without thinking, because they brook no public argument or discussion. The leader simply decides. And to an instant-gratification culture like ours, that may look increasingly attractive. Democracy is slow, and clunky, and deliberative. It requires synthesis before action. Totalitarianism is none of those things. Someone simply ACTS. And the citizenry simply takes it.

The tea party folks can talk like libertarians all they like, and hold their so-called town-hall meetings, but it's all sham. I watched some of the videos of those town-hall meetings. There was nothing deliberative about them. There was no sense of a community coming together to discuss its common needs. It was a room full of individuals, each armored against the others, all screeching "I want, I want, I want," and making it very clear that they would not tolerate having their tax money spent for anything that fell outside the small orbit of their own, personal, "I want." The entire concept of an "us" is falling apart. "E pluribus pluribus" is the future we're racing towards.

And as much as totalitarian governments like to embrace a rhetoric of nation or community or one-ness, they actually thrive on splitting people away from each other and encouraging them to care only about themselves. Because if they can satisfy some basic, material needs of individuals, and keep them selfish, then organization, community, and union become less likely. People get the stuff they want, and someone else makes the hard decisions. Quickly. Decisively. Without bothering us too much. And we will like it, because "American Idol" is about to start, and we just bought a new 500-inch, 3-D , HDTV.

I said in my last post that it all goes back to high school, and it's true here, as well. You get what you train for. If you want a nation of thoughtful, reflective, rational actors, able to come to the table in a spirit of discourse and with an ability to compromise, then you need to teach those skills to children, explicitly and in school. You need to give them the deep and broad content knowledge they can draw upon to make reasonsed decisions and listen to reasonable opponents without calling them names.

Or you can throw a lot of pre-determined and pre-digested facts at kids in short bursts, yell at them to memorize them, and give them multiple-choice tests to see if they did memorize them.

Which kind of education do you think the people who created this country had? Which kind of education do you think the people who can sustain this country need?

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