How healthy is our democracy? That’s a loaded and provocative question. For some commentators it is the most pressing question of our time.
In Chris Hedges’ collection of essays The World As It Is, he cites Sheldon S. Wolin’s concept of “inverted totalitarianism“, detailed in Wolin’s latest book Democracy Incorporated. Wolin claims that modern democracies are not threatened by direct forms of dictatorship like a one-party state or a demagogic leader, but by more subtle forms: indifference, apathy, and ignoring social problems in favour of individual pursuits and pre-occupations.
This analysis can be traced back to Neil Postman’s 1985 classic Amusing Ourselves to Death (a 20th anniversary edition was published in 2006) which saw the pursuit of being entertained becoming an end in itself. The idea of challenging oneself and questioning the world around us is considered boring and the ultimate waste of time.
Writers like Cass Sunstein (author of Republic.com)and Robert D. Putnam trace how traditional organizations like social service clubs and various associations once built social networks between people who would not normally have much in common. These informal social networks helped create the bonds which formed the sinews of democracy. For some, social media and the voluntary relationships found online have effectively replaced these traditional building blocks of democracy. For me, personally, I’m not so sure.
The unifying theme of these various points of view is that if democracy is to flourish in our age and into the future, there must be ways for diverse people with little in common to establish trust between us. But trust appears to be the rarest of commodities today: we don’t trust the expert, we don’t trust the elitist intellectual, we don’t trust the company executive, we don’t trust the self-serving union bosses… if everyone has an agenda, where do we find the common ground or the public good?
How to build that trust in our democracy and in our personal relationships is one of the most pressing problems we face. I certainly can’t get my head around this issue in a single blog post, but here are some titles that may help us get started:
Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier
Smart Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey
Trust: Self interest and the common good by Marek Kohn
Greater Good: How good marketing makes for better democracy by John A. Quelch
The Spirit of Democracy by Larry Jay Diamond.