Dumbing Down Democracy

dunce300A premise behind a lot of what we do at the Lear Center is the idea that a well-educated, well-informed citizenry is good for democracy. This Jeffersonian concept — it used to be called a “liberal” ideal, before partisan warfare made that word a left-right term — is especially relevant to the health of society and the state of freedom in a time when entertainment casts such a strong shadow on domains like news, politics and education.

So it was striking to come across a post by Sam Rosenfeld at The American Prospect’s blog TAPPED, saying this:
[T]he modern liberal emphasis on making the public somehow smarter and better informed about politics as the central means of bringing about progressive change has amounted to a catastrophic misallocation of energy.

I’m not sure what empirical basis anyone has in mind for such a notion: Do people really think that, say, New Deal reforms, or those brought by the Civil Rights Movement or during the Great Society came about because Americans of those periods happened to be better informed than today — because, that is, the political discourse was more elevated and sophisticated, and demagogues and morons had a harder time finding an audience? Isn’t it a bit more likely — and, indeed, something of a constant of human societies — that the “quality” of mass political discussion and the political sophistication of the average citizen have always been pretty tawdry, and that effecting beneficial political change has a good deal more to do with manning and strengthening particular institutions and engaging directly in raw political struggle than it does with sprinkling enlightenment across the land?
I don’t doubt that “strengthing particular political institutions and engaging directly in raw political struggle” has a lot to do with the condition of American society. But don’t the powers those institutions wield, and the winners of those political struggles, depend on the values and knowledge of both elites and masses? Fascism and demagoguery have since ancient times had a flirtation with spectacle and entertainment. Masses who can think critically are better equipped to defend freedom from anti-democratic propaganda than masses ruled mainly by hormones, the attention economy and the pleasure principle. If that’s not empirically true, then a lot of us should just pack up our bags and go home.

I know that snark and contrarianism are keys to getting attention, but isn’t what Rosenfeld dismisses as “sprinkling enlightenment across the land” an axiom of the open society that’s worth fighting for?

Related Posts