Claire Berlinski has been posting an ongoing series called “Is Democracy Doomed?” to her E-mail distribution list, with copies archived at her blog at Substack.com. The posts are an extended riff on a paper [DOCX] by political scientist Shawn Rosenberg, which purports to demonstrate that democratic governance is destined to self-destruct. From the abstract:
Drawing on a wide range of research in political science and psychology, I argue that citizens typically do not have the cognitive or emotional capacities required [for democratic governance]. Thus they are typically left to navigate in political reality that is ill-understood and frightening. Populism offers an alternative view of politics and society which is more readily understood and more emotionally satisfying. In this context, I suggest that as practices in countries such as the United States become increasingly democratic, this structural weakness is more clearly exposed and consequential, and the vulnerability of democratic governance to populism becomes greater. The conclusion is that democracy is likely to devour itself.
Rosenberg contends that democratic governance has worked reasonably well in the U.S. up until recently due to the presence of an élite which filters ideas and presents the ignorant unwashed masses with a palette of selections which cover a fairly narrow range of policy options. Thus, it doesn’t matter what the electorate decides, as their betters have already chosen alternatives any of which are acceptable to them.
In part, this is accomplished through control of the institutions which orchestrate how individuals interact with one another. These include political institutions like the Congress, the courts and the law, state and city administrations, and the police, and economic institutions like banks and corporations. Via these institutions and the rewards and punishments that are administered by them, elites can manage citizen action so that it approximates, even if inadequately, democratic practices. Elites also exercise ‘democratic control’ by managing the discourses that dominate the public sphere. They can thus affect the pool of socially-approved knowledges and preferences that are available to individuals draw upon as they seek to understand, evaluate and react to the circumstances of daily life. This cultural domination is secured through the control of the means by which these discourses are dispersed. This includes the mass media and the institutions of socialization, such as schools and universities. Through these vehicles, the elite can disseminate the orienting beliefs and values of democratic culture. Even if these are transformed into mere slogans rehearsed by citizenry that does not fully understand what they are saying, they are nonetheless reified and accepted as true and right.
At the same time, this cultural control also allows elites to exclude and delegitimize contrary or system threatening discourses (as stupid or evil) and derogate those who advocate them (as fanatics, ignorant, unbalanced and generally ‘deplorable’).
Again, the citizenry may not understand why these alternative discourses are misguided or wrong, but they will nonetheless reject them. In these ways, democratic elites can manipulate the mass of citizens so that they mimic, even if inadequately, democratic understandings and practices. Thus even though democracy is burdened by an inadequate citizenry, the elite’s exercise of power can sustain the democratic system and hold potentially attractive alternatives, such as right wing populism, at bay.
But the revolution in communications technology which has “democratised” the flow of information has sabotaged the élite’s control over the public discourse.
Partly, the diminution of elite cultural power is a practical matter of dismantling of the centralized technologies of mass communication that facilitated the elite control of the messages that circulated in the public sphere. Structured by capitalist and democratic forces, the internet, the computer and the smartphone have been developed in ways that give individuals both an increasing range of choices and a greater ability to express preferences in a very public way. Now an alienated, uneducated, working class ranch hand living in east Texas has access not only to the information disseminated by the major television channels or the national newspapers controlled by elites, but also to a myriad of smaller, more varied and less culturally sanctioned sources. Consequently, he or she [sic] is now able to choose which messages he or she wants to receive. … With this democratization of the public sphere, elites have become less able to control the messages that are disseminated and therefore they are less able to assert the dominance of democratic views and to exclude of anti-democratic alternatives.
The institutionally conferred authority of political leaders, experts, employers and even parents has been undermined. In the process, expression has become increasingly free and all voices have been increasingly equalized. Thus not only is our east Texan able to broadcast his beliefs as widely as those of senior journalists and professors, his views have an equal claim to validity as his more ‘institutionally advantaged’ counterparts.
Here are Claire Berlinski’s thoughts so far on Rosenberg’s analysis.
What are your thoughts?
What strikes me is that there is relatively little discussion about why the élites are increasingly held in disdain. Rosenberg notes the effects of:
… economic decline, growing economic inequality and changing demographics as trends that have, in the eyes of the people, undermined the legitimacy of elites and with them, the institutions they run and the vision of economic, social and political life they advocate.
but then concludes,
I think these factors are influential, but their effects must be understood as symptoms of the underlying structural condition I have described. Emerging in the context of a structurally strong system of governance, these destabilizing fluctuations in its ability to deliver specific outcomes would not produce threats to the system itself. A truly democratic citizenry would naturally regard the aforementioned developments as important problems to be addressed, but in a manner that is consistent with democratic understandings and practices.
But what is a “truly democratic citizenry” supposed to do after decades of watching bumbling, folly, and sleepwalking toward the abyss by their “betters” in Socialist Party D and Socialist Party R? Perhaps their opting for (gasp!) populism, or even (shudder!) right-wing populism, is a rational decision based upon the observation that the policies proposed and the results delivered by the entrenched élites don’t work.