Democracy in Crisis, 2020
An unconventional perspective about how we got here—and what might come next.
By Christopher Kent, October 1, 2020
“One of my greatest fears is, one day we wake up and our democracy is gone.”
— Congressman John Lewis
When I was growing up in the middle of the 20th Century, winning World War II was still fresh in most adults’ minds. The idea that our country could end up in the kind of trouble we saw other countries around the world having was unthinkable. America was the “shining example” of how to do things right.
My, how times have changed.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that our democracy is in a lot of trouble. As I write this, it’s a month before a presidential election that’s going to be chaotic at best, dangerous at worst. In fact, right now our democracy is in serious danger of crumbling — and if that happens, tyranny is surely waiting in the wings.
It’s a scary moment, but there’s plenty of reason for hope. As I’ve explained in other commentaries on this website, America goes through a huge crisis roughly every 80 years, which means that most people will experience one such crisis in their lifetimes. It’s clear that this is ours. Based on what’s happened in past crises, there’s a good chance that we’ll face some dark moments before this ends, but the outcome will be positive.
With that in mind, here are four keys thoughts about our democracy and our current situation that should help to clarify the path that brought us here — and hopefully shine some light on what needs to be done to get through this crisis in a way that produces not just a positive outcome, but a stronger, fairer and more just nation.
- The setup: Democracy isn’t about fairness or freedom or “giving everyone a voice.” It’s simply meant to protect a country’s majority from being controlled by wealthy, powerful individuals and morally righteous groups.
- The built-in problem: The rich and righteous groups that our democracy is supposed to be protecting us from are always looking for ways to get around the system and accomplish their goals.
- The exacerbating factors: Modern technology has undermined and weakened our democracy in multiple ways (some easy to see, others less obvious).
- The straw that’s trying to break the camel’s back: Foreign enemies are now using our democracy’s weaknesses as a way to attack and undermine our country.
Let’s look at each of these ideas more closely. Then, we’ll talk about what each of us can do to help ensure that the current crisis has a happy ending.
1. Democracy isn’t about fairness or freedom or “giving everyone a voice.” It’s simply meant to protect a country’s majority from being controlled by wealthy, powerful individuals and morally righteous groups.
If you ask people why democracy in America is important, they’ll give vague, upbeat answers along the lines of “It’s all about fairness,” “It gives everyone a voice by giving everyone a vote,” and similar thoughts. I’ve even heard people say that democracy protects the rights of minorities, because it gives them a voice.
In fact, the opposite is true. By definition, democracy allows the majority to prevail, so it’s not designed to protect the rights of minorities at all. Lawscan protect the rights of minorities, and the majority can vote to protect the rights of minorities, but that’s not what democracy is fundamentally designed to do. In order to serve it’s purpose, democracy doesn’t even require giving everyone a vote. (That’s part of the reason our democracy took forever to allow African-Americans and women to vote. Doing so was never essential in order for democracy to serve its basic purpose.)
The real function of democracy is to protect the majority from being controlled bypowerful or righteous individuals and groups. Ending up with a government run by one of those two types of groups has happened countless times in the course of human history. In fact, many people immigrated to America to escape governments like that — including some of the Founding Fathers. That helped inspire them to set up a government that would expressly prevent the majority from being dominated by a wealthy or righteous elite. Democracy was chosen to be the basis for that government, because — in theory, at least — it allows the majority to overrule powerful minorities who believe they should be in charge.
Of course, democracy can become tyrannical, too; majority rule is no guarantee of fairness. Being well aware of that, the Founding Fathers did their best to structure our government in a way that would make it very difficult for the majority to abuse minorities, by creating a government with three competing branches (and dividing one of them — the legislature — into two houses). They went even further by creating a Bill of Rights, specifying fundamental individual rights that the government can’t take away from us.
As everyone knows, it’s taken many years for those rights to actually be applied to many large groups of people in our society — women and African-Americans, for example — and that process still isn’t finished. Nevertheless, the premise was groundbreaking. And I’d go so far as to say that one of the best things about America is that we’ve slowly but surely broadened those protections. One day soon they might actually apply to everyone in this country equally!
2. The wealthy and righteous individuals and groups that our democracy is supposed to be protecting us from are always looking for ways to get around the system.
The fact that we have majority rule — at least in theory — doesn’t stop wealthy and righteous individuals and groups from trying to find ways to impose their will on the rest of us. But because they’re not in the majority, to gain power they have to find ways to get around the firewall that democracy is supposed to provide. This means that every democracy is always going to be under some amount of stress.
There are plenty of ways to get around the system, and virtually all of them are in use in America right now (in plain sight, no less). Those strategies, from legal ones to illegal ones, include:
- Joining forces with other wealthy and righteous groups so their voting numbers are larger. This is the source of the saying “politics makes strange bedfellows.”
- Trying to convince the majority that their views are right and deserve support. Sometimes that works. For example, righteous religious folks managed to get liquor outlawed briefly in the early 20th Century, during the period known as Prohibition. However, this strategy rarely succeeds, because changing the minds of an enormous number of people is hard to do.
- Trying to convince the majority that their views are right and deserve support by misrepresenting them. For example, a common argument raised by corporation-backed politicians is that having fewer government regulations will lead to more jobs. This fits neatly under the umbrella idea that ”big government” and “government overreach” are inherently bad.It’s certainly true that our government has created thousands of regulations. The problem is that regulations are basically focused laws, aimed at addressing specific situations. So when a politician trumpets that he’s eliminating scores of regulations, it’s very much like saying “I’m eliminating lots of laws!” Looking at it this way, the problem should be obvious: It isn’t how manyregulations you eliminate that makes your actions good or bad, it’s whichregulations you eliminate, and what purpose they were serving.The reality is that the U.S. government is the only entity large enough to stand up to huge multinational corporations that have immense power and financial resources. It’s the only entity that can lay down the law and stop those corporations from hurting the rest of us in the name of increasing their profits. That’s the reason many of those regulations exist. So, presenting the elimination of regulations as a way to create jobs is a shameless piece of misdirection.
- Trying to scare the majority into fearing what will happen if they vote for a different candidate.This fear-based strategy takes advantage of a psychological weakness we humans are known to have: aversion to loss. This is the principle that says human beings are happy to gain things, but we get WAY more emotional at the prospect of losing something. So, creating a fear that something will be taken from us is powerful medicine.
- Using bribery and blackmail to get politicians to do their bidding. This is particularly useful if the individuals trying to take control are very wealthy, such as people running billion-dollar corporations, or rich people who rationalize their belief that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes.
- Preventing people who don’t like their candidate from voting. Methods for accomplishing this include purging voter roles; gerrymandering voting districts so that it’s nearly impossible for the majority to win; imposing strict requirements for being allowed to vote (requirements that your opposition may have difficulty meeting); underfunding voting districts where people who are likely to vote against you live; scaring people into believing it’s not safe to vote; and closing polling places in areas where voters are not likely to support your candidate.
- Stealing elections by hacking into the voting system. Despite claims that our electronic voting machines can’t be hacked, even amateur hackers have been able to do so with ease. Convincing people that it’s impossible to hack into electronic voting systems is a blatant way to make sure you can continue doing it
3. Modern technology has undermined our democracy in multiple ways.
As noted above, democracy has some built-in challenges that are always present. But other factors are now contributing to weakening our democracy, and one of the main ones is technological advances. That’s because democracy depends on civility in order to function, and our current technologies are undermining civility at every turn.
- It’s easy to get your “news” from a very biased source, locking in your particular certainty.This shields people from conflicting evidence and opinions, reinforcing certainty and increasing disdain for people who don’t agree with you.
- Social media makes it easy to interact exclusively with people who agree with your opinions. You can simply “unfriend” anyone who disagrees with you, cutting them out of your social group.
- Social media is spreading misinformation and hate. Many online provacateurs are finally being bumped off of mainstream outlets like Facebook and Twitter because they spread misinformation and hate, but they’re simply moving to other, even less-regulated online outlets – and they’re taking their followers with them.
- It’s easy to be rude and insulting — and it’s easy to bully people — when you’re not interacting with them face-to-face. People tend to be somewhat civilized when communicating in person, as we all had to do in the past. But when the person you disagree with is just disembodied comments on a screen, civility often goes out the window. You don’t have to deal with the consequences of your replies.
- Isolation is making politicians much less likely to negotiate. To be willing to negotiate, opposing sides have to have some respect for the other party. That’s more likely to happen when people spend time around each other; even if you disagree with them, you get to see that they’re not bad people and they mean well. Unfortunately, modern technology has undercut that in a big way.In the past, it was difficult or impossible for members of Congress to travel back and forth to their home districts every weekend, so they lived and raised their children in Washington, D.C., where they interacted with their political opponents frequently outside of work. Now, it’s easy to travel long distances quickly, so members of Congress don’t live in D.C., and they don’t interact with other politicians outside of working hours. The result is that they don’t have personal relationships that might mitigate their disdain and make them more willing to negotiate and compromise.
- High-tech-media advertising is expensive, forcing politicians to solicit more money just to run a campaign. The more money you need to campaign for office, the more you’re likely to rely on wealthy donors who can support you with large sums of money. That, in turn, makes politicians beholden to those donors, pushing them to support the laws and changes those wealthy donors demand.
- Social media gives people an easy way to manipulate our opinions. The Internet has become particularly useful for manipulating our opinions, because 1) it’s extremely easy to gather information about us by monitoring our online activity; and 2) manipulating human beings has become easier and easier, thanks to advances in the fields of psychology and marketing.
- Last but not least: High-tech voting makes it easier than ever to cheat during elections. Despite claims to the contrary, our voting system can easily be hacked, even by amateur computer geeks.
There’s a certain irony here, because technology also helps our democracy; it makes it easier to communicate about injustice and reveal flaws that would otherwise be hidden. In theory, it should even make it easier to vote. But those advantages won’t help us if we let the side effects of our technology pull our democracy out from under us.
4. Foreign enemies are now using these problems as a way to attack and undermine our country.
America is the most strategically protected country in the world, at least in terms of traditional military threats. However, that doesn’t make us invulnerable. It just means that an enemy who wants us to fail has to find a different way to attack us. Think of it this way: If you can’t take down your enemy by force, take him down by trickery. Find out his weaknesses and exploit them — essentially attacking from the inside rather than the outside.
In the past, such an attack would have been difficult to mount. Modern technology has changed that:
- Today, a foreign enemy can influence tens of millions of American using social media.
- Elections can be stolen on a massive scale using computer hacking from the other side of the world.
- Threats and bribery are more effective when A) it’s easy to contact people anywhere in the world, B) it’s easy to find out people’s secrets and vulnerabilities for use in blackmail, and C) it’s easy to demonstrate your ability to injure or kill people anywhere in the world, giving credence to your threats.
- Thanks to modern technology, such an attack can be accomplished without the public realizing it’s happening. To successfully attack the United States, that’s crucial, because when the United States mobilizes its defenses against an attack, we’re the most formidable opponent in the world. But if we don’t mobilize our defenses—because we don’t realize we’re under attack — we’re sitting ducks.
So: What’s next?
With so many different factors at play, it’s nearly impossible to know how this will work out. Most of us would prefer a quick, peaceful resolution to this attack on our democracy, but looking at past 80-year crises, all of them have involved some tumult and chaos before resolution was achieved. In a way, that makes sense, because the whole point seems to be making it absolutely clear to everyonethat business-as-usual is no longer viable. It’s only then that the new era slowly begins. In the past it’s taken a pretty serious breakdown to reach that point.
If a disastrous period lies ahead, can we stop it? Unfortunately, most of us don’t have any power to stop a crisis on this scale from unfolding.Every 80-year crisis is unique, but they do have at least two things in common: First, very few individuals are in a position to prevent the crisis from happening. (It’s doubtful that anyone could have prevented the Civil War, for example.) Second, on a more hopeful note, each crisis usually results in huge problems being solved after the dust settles.
So: If we can’t prevent this crisis from unfolding, what can we do?
- Take steps to preserve your sanity and peace of mind in the midst of chaos. Some practical ways to do that can be found in my essay Staying Sane During Massive Change, elsewhere on this website.
- Minimize the collateral damage in your own life. Make sure you maintain your character. Don’t let fear or anger cause you to do things that betray your ideals.
- Stand up for what’s right. Just do it in a way that doesn’t put you or your family at unnecessary risk. Do whatever you can to fight for justice and fairness. For starters, VOTE!!
- Help others when you can. But first, take care of yourself. I think author Jane Roberts said it best: “You must operate from strength, not from weakness. When you stand on a firm shore, you can extend your arm to the man that is in quicksand. You cannot help him by leaping into the quicksand with him, for surely both of you will go down, and he will not thank you.” Once you’re standing on solid ground and have some energy and resources to spare, then you can look for ways to help calm other people’s fears and share whatever resources you’re able to share.
- When you encounter people who are being abusive because they disagree with you, don’t argue with them. It’s really hard to be civil to someone who’s not being civil to you, but in order to have any chance of contributing to a positive outcome from this crisis, we have to rise above the polarization around us and refuse to participate in angry behavior. Changing someone’s opinion is never easy — especially when it’s locked in by certainty — but the first step to doing so is to treat the other person with some dignity and show some real interest in their opinion, no matter how abusive they become.Of course, sometimes interacting with a given person is hopeless, or you just can’t stomach it. In that case, try to get away from the other person without taking them up on their anger or escalating the encounter.
- Support good ideas for the future. One of the hallmarks of the 80-year crises is that the chaos they create allows ideas that were simmering “below the radar” to emerge for consideration in the rebuilding process after the crisis ends. So, champion the best ideas that you have — or know of — despite the chaos you may see around you.
- Think about what you can do for your family and your society after the dust settles. I like to think of it as choosing to be part of the “clean-up crew.” If you can’t stop the storm, keep yourself and your family safe and work towards being a part of the solution (as they say) once the crisis has passed.
- Above all, don’t lose hope. Remember that history is made up of repeating cycles. This is a crisis that’s part of one of those cycles, not the end of the world. Yes, this is a particularly big crisis, because so many problems are coming to a head at once — not just problems with our democracy. However, that means we have an extraordinary opportunity to solve multiple problems and make a big leap forward once the crisis is over.
So, when you feel overwhelmed and find yourself fearing the worst, set your sights on the future we’ll be able to create once we’ve made it through these chaotic times. It’s not a pipedream; the American Revolution led to the United States; the Civil War officially ended slavery; the Great Depression changed the way we care for each other by leading to Social Security and Medicare. What we can create on the other side of these challenging times is limited only by our imagination and willingness to persevere.
A few more thoughts about this election and what may come next (an addendum to last month’s commentary Democracy in Crisis 2020):
One of the most striking things about this election — and the times we’re living in in general — is the phenomenon of large numbers of individuals passionately believing things that every shred of evidence indicates are false (for example, believing that the pandemic is a hoax; or that global warming is a hoax; or that global warming is real, but burning fossil fuels has nothing to do with it.) Unfortunately, a functioning democracy depends on a populace that’s making its voting choices based on understanding what’s really happening — and why it’s happening — so this trend bodes ill for America.
As noted in last month’s essay Democracy in Crisis 2020, I grew up among adults who still vividly remembered World War II. Although “the good guys” won the war, many Americans were still troubled that such a thing could have happened. Most Americans at the time were of European descent — not Japanese — so what had happened in Japan leading up to the war seemed distant. But what happened in Germany under Hitler felt a lot closer to home. How could so many Germans have gone along with Hitler as he demonized races and religions, tortured millions to death and started a world war?
It seemed like there were two possible explanations:
1. Most Germans were terrible, monstrous people.
2. Human beings can easily be manipulated by a large, pervasive propaganda machine that plays on their fears and plies them with misinformation designed to get them to believe falsehoods — and furthermore, to have total certainty that they’re true. (Having certainty is key, for reasons discussed below.)
At the time, it seemed to me that most Americans had decided the correct answer was A: There was something very wrong with Germans. That was a reassuring conclusion, because it meant that such things could never happen in America.
Unfortunately, we now know that the correct answer was B. People are easily fooled and manipulated — especially when they’re not prepared to defend themselves against such manipulation.
Many Americans’ beliefs today are being influenced by just such a propaganda campaign, orchestrated in part by other countries whose leaders do not wish us well. Of course, this isn’t 1935, and we’re not living in Nazi Germany, so the outcome of today’s propaganda campaign won’t be identical to the one that unfolded in Germany in the 1930s. But it may be ugly.
It’s not easy to change someone else’s beliefs — especially if they’re locked in by absolute certainty. However, we can each take steps to make sure that we’re on guard, so we won’t be easily fooled or manipulated.
Here are a couple of simple steps you can take to stay out of trouble:
1. Remember: If you’re human, you can be fooled and manipulated. The easiest people to fool are those who believe they can’t be fooled, and the easiest people to manipulate are those who believe they can’t be manipulated. The reason is simple: If you deny the existence of a potential weakness, you won’t mount any defense against those who want to use that weakness against you. So remember that you CAN be fooled. Keep your defenses up.
2. Never cross the line from “All the evidence says this is true” to “I know this is true.” Crossing this line is what moves us into absolute certainty about our beliefs — and that’s what makes us easy to fool and manipulate. Once we move into absolute certainty, a long list of mental pitfalls are activated. Those include: dismissing any evidence that contradicts our beliefs, no matter how powerful the evidence is; accepting bogus evidence that will undermine us because it appears to support our beliefs; and justifying destructive choices — and ignoring their consequences — because those choices are supported by the beliefs we’re certain are true.
We’re all used to justifying our areas of certainty. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. However, that’s what makes us vulnerable and keeps our society in chaos. If you don’t want to be fooled or manipulated, refusing to have certainty — about anything — is your most powerful weapon. Keep an open mind about everything — even the things you’re sure about.
The problems caused by having certainty about our beliefs are the reason for the next three points:
3. Don’t accept evidence that supports your opinion without looking at it carefully. Some people will try to use whatever certainties you have against you by feeding you bogus evidence that appears to support what you believe is true. If you don’t examine that bogus evidence carefully — simply because it supports what you already believe — it will cement your certainty even more. That will make you more easily fooled and manipulated, even if your opinion is essentially correct. To others, your willingness to accept bogus evidence will also make you look gullible, undermining their opinion of you and making it less likely that they’ll be swayed to agree with you.
So, only back up your opinion with evidence that you’ve carefully evaluated — with an open mind, and without falling back on certainty that you’re right.
4. Don’t dismiss evidence that contradicts your belief without looking at it carefully. Hopefully, the contradictory evidence will turn out to be as bogus as you expect. But even if it is bogus, taking the time to examine it will leave you well-positioned to refute it if the need should arise. And — if it turns out that there’s some truth to it — it will allow you to refine your opinion, making it stronger.
5. Never, ever take actions that you have to justify because you know they go against your highest principles. That mistake is one of the hallmarks of people who have absolute certainty about their beliefs. If you want to be on the right side of history, remember that the ends DO NOT justify the means. If you catch yourself having to justify violating your own principles, that’s a signal that you’re doing something you’ll regret. Stop and come up with a better plan that honors your highest ideals.