Democracy Ushers in the Reign of Civic Ignorance

The many analyses of the 2012 election results are not saying much about what may have been the central and fundamental problem: democracy. Notice that I do not say a democratic republic—that was the nature of the American political order as fashioned by our Founding Fathers—but a democracy. A generation ago, Martin Diamond, Winston Mills Fisk, and Herbert Garfinkle explained the difference. A democratic republic features majority rule, to be sure, but through representative institutions (this is its democratic aspect). Its ruling principle, then, is not “power to the people.” It is republican in the sense of being a constitutional regime that is governed by the rule of law and protects minority rights, and because it is characterized by restraint, sobriety, competence, and liberty. The culture of the Founding Era in America, upon which our democratic republic was erected (politics always springs from culture), made these qualities possible. It was a time of strong morality (nowhere stronger than in sexual matters), willingness to sacrifice, strong religious commitment, self-control, and public-spiritedness among many other commendable mores.

Beginning with the Jacksonian Era, democratization advanced in the U.S. I trace that development over American history in my recent book, The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic, and conclude that it was a major factor in altering the vision of our Founding Fathers. James Madison pointedly stated their view in Federalist 10: “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention…as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” The Founders recalled the miserable picture of democracy sketched by all the major classical political philosophers.

The Founders understood that the restraint and competence a democratic republic needs required the proper formation of its people. They need both moral and citizenship education, in the manner of Aristotle’s dual focus of education to shape both the good man and the good citizen. When one looks at this year’s campaign and election, the absence of this critical citizenship formation rings clear—and it seems that the left has been particularly adept at capitalizing on it. A multitude of voters apparently were swayed by mere impressions—of candidates (Romney necessarily favored the rich because, after all, he is rich), of the parties (the Democrats are the party of the “little guy”), of the status of our politics (many voters believed that “gridlock” is a bad thing, instead of understanding that it may merely represent separation of powers at work and that Congress isn’t always doing a good job the more it legislates), and of issues (many voters were sure that the country’s economic problems were caused by George W. Bush—without much or any effort at serious analysis). This hardly bespeaks citizen competence. We witnessed the heavy influence of mere sound bites; that’s why both parties and supporting independent groups flooded the media with them. We saw the naked pandering to ignorance and the passions, such as the strong Democratic appeals against the “evil” rich—in spite of the fact that many of the rich are big supporters of their party.

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Serious citizenship education is certainly at a low ebb. High school students often get poor preparation in U.S. history and learn little of our Founding principles—in fact, when they do hear about the Founding Fathers they are sometimes made out to be rogues. At most colleges and universities, leftist ideology and its opposition to traditional American principles is pervasive. Should one be surprised, then, that political decisions are made on the basis of superficial impressions and sound bites?

This is not even to mention the abysmal state of moral formation in the U.S. today—Aristotle’s shaping of the “good man”—which: the public schools run away from as too much like religion when they don’t implicitly (at least) embrace the contrary ethic of moral relativism; is inadequately provided at home due to the massive breakdown of the family; and is not provided enough by churches, both because many denominations have secularized and religion plays little or no role in the lives of vast numbers of people. Is it unexpected, then, that we should see young voters disproportionately support a political “pleasure-agenda” of sexual libertinism, reproductive “rights,” and even marijuana legalization?

The final results of the election also make clear how government dependency is shaping the political decision-making of a substantial portion of the population and how politicians—especially, but not exclusively, of the left—make it the basis for forging almost reflexive political and party loyalty. Even those not used to such dependency now expect government assistance and will exact political retribution if they don’t receive it—as seen with the auto industry bailout. Such dependency and the manipulation of people by politicians that it invites are hardly conducive to the shaping of the sober-minded, independent, and responsible citizens that a democratic republic requires. As it is often said, those who trade liberty for security wind up with neither in the end.

The immigration question is also pertinent. Sustaining a democratic republic most fundamentally requires a commitment to it in the minds and hearts of its people. While previous generations of immigrants often came from authoritarian countries and were able to embrace traditional American political and constitutional principles, it is troubling that we don’t expect those of today to do the same.

We often forget that until the Jacksonian Era, an excessive democratic impulse was checked by—among other things—a limitation of suffrage to those who had a permanent attachment and a commitment to the community, especially by means of a property requirement or service in the militia. While the property qualification was generally fairly low and the evidence is that the Founders expected suffrage to expand over time—this was, after all, to be a democratic republic)—it still was restrained. Even the supposed democrat—with a small “d”—Thomas Jefferson favored limited suffrage. While we would not advocate something like a property qualification for voting today, one wonders if part of the problem is that we have gone too far in making voting an out-and-out right. For the Founding Era and even in later social ethics it was characterized as a political privilege. Today, the citizen hardly needs to assume any responsibility in elections. A person can register in many places, even by mail; he doesn’t have to make a trip to the county courthouse any more. Early voting abounds; one does not even have to make the effort to go out to a polling place. One does not have to demonstrate literacy. Does all this maybe not weaken citizen responsibility in general, and even enhance the possibilities of manipulation? One wonders if at least practices like these should be reversed to help rein in—to some degree—runaway democratization. If voting required a little more effort, maybe—just maybe—citizens would take their role more seriously.

One might ask: Does this square with the participatory norm that the Church stresses for politics? The Church does not say that voting is the only way to insure participation or that voting must be made as easy as possible for people. Also, she hardly takes the view that responsible citizenship—in all that means—should not be encouraged.

The breakdown of citizenship education must be compensated for by a recovery of the educative function of politics itself. In fact, the 2012 election suggests that this is imperative for those seeking to uphold the principles of our Founders. Most of these people now are in the Republican party, and for the sake of its future that party must seriously turn its attention to this. Much is being said about how long-range demographic trends are against the Republicans. That is all the more reason why they must do something more than just prepare for the next election. Ground does not produce fruit unless it is made fertile. The Republicans need to get into the business, consistently and for the long haul, of making educating the public about the validity of the principles set out in their platforms—and our Founding principles—a central and ongoing priority. They need to increasingly take such initiatives as arranging media discussions and reaching out to citizen groups to explain, say, why heavy taxing of the rich may not produce the best economic results.

More, they need to stop downplaying the social issues and to explain how they are really intimately connected with other issue areas (for example, the effects that abortion and family breakdown have on economics). Speaking more boldly about the social issues may help build a bridge to demographic groups they are not currently doing well with, such as Hispanics. Instead of being mum about the importance of religion and the natural law, they need to proclaim that they were central to our Founders’ thought. Even more, they need to have a clear, consistent, non-negotiable commitment to a policy of gradual disengagement of the federal government from many domestic areas in order to begin to whittle away at its excessive role and overweening power. That policy must also include, however, an ongoing effort to work with the non-profit sector to build up civil society institutions to take care of human needs—this will make clear to people that they are not just angling to ignore the needy. They also need to develop the proper rhetorical means to convey this message, since an effective educator is not just one who speaks the truth but knows how to put it across.

If the Republicans are serious about all this, such a renewed effort at the long-ignored educative function of politics—which was so much a part of the party’s origins in the person of Abraham Lincoln—can be the first step at reversing the corrosive effects of runaway democracy and restoring the Founding principles of our democratic republic. It might also help them, over time, to win the big elections that they are now losing.


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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