During college, I attended a lecture by prominent journalist and newscaster, David Brinkley. He pointed out that technology enabled us to install a voting terminal in each home with one button for “yea” and another one for “Nay.” Conceivably the entire citizenry could vote on every bill put before Congress. Then we would have a pure, Athenian style democracy. But, asked Brinkley, would that be a good thing? Back then, when I was comfortably ensconced in a cocoon of intellectualism with no real appreciation for the depth of ignorance in the greater world around me, indeed, unaware of how ignorant I myself was on the many issues Congress is tasked to deal with, the idea was appealing. Today I have no doubt such a system would be a disaster.
It’s been said democracy is a lousy form of government, but it’s better than any of the alternatives. Among its flaws is the assumption people are smart and informed enough to make good choices when they vote. A poorly educated electorate has always been a fact of life, but today the internet and lies from the highest level have given rise to an unprecedented number of poorly informed, undereducated, in fact, delusional voters.
When gold star father, Khizr Kahn, stood in front of the nation at the 2016 Democratic convention, pulled out a pocket sized Constitution and asked Donald Trump if he’d ever read it, I imagined he may as well have asked most Americans the same question. In high school when we studied civics and government my brain went into snooze mode. I doubt I was unique. Over the years, some of the Constitution sank into my mind through osmosis, especially, with all the hoopla around the first and second amendments. The rest of the amendments? The instructions on the nuts and bolts of government? Frankly, during class, my female classmates’ legs commanded too much of my attention for me to be bothered with all that boiler plate. After Mr. Kahn made his point I dug up my own pocket Constitution and learned some interesting things.
Studies have shown that many, probably most Americans know so little about our history and government that they couldn’t pass the test given to candidates for citizenship naturalization. Maybe we all should be sent to Mexico and not let back in until we pass that test. While the “poll tests” that Southern states gave Blacks to suppress their votes were unfair, maybe the problem was that they weren’t required of every prospective voter. These days the test wouldn’t even need to pose the kind of unanswerable questions that were presented to Blacks only. A few “true-false” questions along the lines of ” Jews start the California fires with a space laser paid for by George Soros.” “The 2020 election was the most rigged of all time.” “The people who participated in the “Stop the Steal” protest are the most patriotic Americans in history.” “Hillary is a Satan worshiper who runs a pedophile ring out of a Washington DC pizza parlor.” An answer of “true” to any one of these would automatically disqualify a person from voting.
The Founders understood that the fate of the nation, and cynically speaking, the condition of their own fortunes, could not be entrusted into the hands of the great unwashed. How could a bunch of ignorant farmers and laborers, (and non-white, non-Christian, non-male people) have the sense to decide how to direct the Union? Over time we evolved into a more egalitarian nation that expanded voter eligibility, but I wonder how many of us are well enough informed to cast a truly informed vote. In the past, it seems, the average person had a sense their representatives should be superior to them in knowledge and intelligence and, perhaps, more ethical as well. Now such voters are sending people just like themselves to govern us. I don’t know about you, but it terrifies me. On the other hand, since we call our government “representational,” should we not permit such people to be represented?
Today, Brinkley’s frightening scenario has, in practical terms, come to fruition. By installing people who actively believe conspiracy theories and endorse extreme right wing policies, we have a legislative body that represents, more accurately perhaps, the actual level of intelligence and will of the average person. No need for a “yea” and a “nay” button in every home. These representatives can be trusted to vote as stupidly (and as selfishly) as most of us would.
As one who has lamented the rise of autocracy in our land, I shudder to see myself even considering this, but, could it be that democracy is hanging by a thread simply because there’s too darn much of it?