Friday, November 17, 2006

Democracy Done Right

Is democracy really all that great? It seems that this semester at the Patterson School has brought to my attention many of the downsides of the U.S.’s chosen form of government. One of those is the problems created when politics begin to play a detrimental role in shaping foreign policy. As demonstrated in Friends and Foes, when power is in the hands of many, it can become very difficult to get the right thing accomplished.

One issue that comes to mind is the war in Iraq. It is not hard to imagine the U.S.’s political environment being the catalyst in the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Should politicians and the uninformed publics they represent be trusted with such a decision? Shouldn’t these decisions be free from the influence of politics? Will it be okay if troops are pulled out of Iraq because some politicians’ desire to be reelected?

The problem here is that the best part of democracy (the public’s ability to play a role in policy making) has become democracy’s weakness. The U.S. public cannot play a beneficial role in foreign policy formation when it has a demonstrated disinterest in countries and cultures other than its own. Certainly, the answer is not to have all the foreign policy making power concentrated in the hands of one person or a few people. The answer is not limited democracy, but educated democracy – if U.S. citizens are going to be a part of the foreign policy process, they ought to understand its basic concepts. Without getting into too many details, I believe this process starts with a reevaluation of curriculum taught in U.S. primary and secondary schools, and continues with broader and more informative press coverage (eg. Darfur instead of Tom Cruise).

5 comments:

Dr. Duke Nukem said...

I'm reminded of Dave Grossman, who wrote an outstanding book on the psychology of killing among Americans, military and civilian. He makes a distinction between "sheep", people who care about their own comfort and security, but are well-intentinoed towards fellow human beings, and "wolves", people who care only about themselves who will sacrifice anyone to that cause. In the middle, willing to risk their lives and take the lives of others to defend those sheep, yet still self-interested, moral human beings, are the "sheepdogs". I think the same analogy might apply to the informed/active versus the uninformed/inactive citizen:

"We may well be in the most violent times in history, but violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people [...] They are sheep.

I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep[...]For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators."


America is a country that has bred both sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. America has been successful. Success breeds comfort. Comfort breeds apathy. It's a testament to the success of the American democratic experiment, when the average citizen can spend the majority of their attention on their job, family, church and entertainment because they feel so secure within their own borders. For any citizen, one's own security and comfort - and that of one's family - are the highest concerns.

There are improvements to be made in education and press coverage, but not a lot. It isn't that people aren't looking for the facts or that the facts aren't there to be found - it is that they don't care (enough). Studying a language means wasting time better used studying engineering, math, business, anthropology, etc.

You often see bumper stickers with the following words: "If you aren't outraged, then you aren't paying attention". That's not entirely true. Most people are aware that terrible things are happening worldwide - they just don't care, they don't care as much as they do about other things, or they think everything is getting better.

An interesting aspect of the general ignorance of the American electorate is that with the extreme prevalence of activist groups, internet news sites, newspapers, magazines etc., it is almost impossible to be truly ignorant of world affairs.

If anything, this shows that the American democratic experiment really is great, from a certain POV. The majority of American citizens, at least for the next few generations, feel comfortable enough with their elected leaders' ability to make decisions that they can choose to be as apathetic about world affairs as they chose, and will still live safe, happy lives.

Also let's not forget that, for the most part, people are sheep, and if they're satisfied with the status quo, ignorant or threatened enough, they'll go along with anything.

Still, I agree that the American citizenry may be getting too complacent. That's a consequence of success, success present in the US quality of life, economy and military. People make the decision that they would rather focus on celebrity marriages and journalistic sensationalism, than on security crises, nuclear proliferation or armed uprisings.

So yes, I think people are letting themselves become increasingly uninformed, or even misinformed, about global issues.But I think that that complacency is deliberate, chosen and even self-imposed.

At the same time, there are those who chose to inform themselves about the issues, arm themselves with facts, draw their own conclusions, and try to create or enforce policy that serves the best interests of their nation and themselves.

Dr. Duke Nukem said...

I forgot to add this one point:

It says a thousand words

displayname said...

Americans do care about world affairs. Many would say the Democrats just took over the House and Senate because of American concern about foreign policy decisions. The web sites, newspapers, and magazines that you mention are more proof that Americans care enough to produce them. The problem is that most Americans don't understand how to handle foreign policy, not that they don't care.

Dr. Duke Nukem said...

The voter turnout is a very good point - and actually, contrary to most popular belief (including what I implied in my own first response) there isn't really an increase in voter apathy and decreasing turnout. If anything, there is an increase in the voters who are eligible to vote.

But can't you argue that people come out to vote, so that the candidate they select can make those decisions for them? I heard a few campaign speeches where the candidates compared the voters to the stockholders and themselves to directors; stockholders elect directors to the board to manage their investments.

So voters do care, up to a point. They may do some basic research, which will involve reading certain news stories, until they feel that any additional knowledge will only complicate their candidate selection. For the majority, then, this is how they handle foreign policy.

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