A democratic society, like a family, a church or a football club, needs regular upkeep. Democracies cannot survive for long if the responsibility for repairing, strengthening, and preserving it is left entirely to its institutions and the people who run it. The energy that leaders, be they bureaucrats, elected representatives, captains of industry or clergy, have to expend to retain their positions leaves many with little energy for anything except performing the most basic tasks. This is not unlike a harried car owner who is so focused on surviving her daily commute and keeping her life together that she neglects the maintenance needs of the car engine and the tires. Maintenance, be it of machines, the human body or democracy itself, requires additional effort. It is now apparent that over the decades, while elections have been organized, budgets passed, and the basic functions of governments conducted, few leaders found the time to invest in the long-term health of their democratic systems. Maintenance is not intuitive: it is a chore, and an investment with deferred benefits and hence, except in a crisis, maintenance is rarely seen as urgent. To put it another way, young children will always find time to eat cookies but will, at the same time, be too busy to brush their teeth.
Unlike a dictatorship or an oligarchy, where the quality of the leadership reflects the quality of its ruling elite, in a democracy the leaders are selected by the people and their quality is a reflection of the culture of the larger society. We may not always get the leaders we deserve, but we can’t complain that we didn’t pick them! In a democracy, the efforts of even the most visionary and courageous leaders will be rendered moot if the citizens are emotionally reactive, are unable to discern fact from fiction, and cannot deal with differences among them without demonizing each other. A tribalistic, unthinking, and egocentric citizenry is an invitation to the worst of demagogues, flatterers, and tyrants.
Think of this as an existential challenge. Throughout human history philosophers, enlightened rulers, and wise priests have struggled to develop generous, compassionate, and sensitive societies. Most of them, conscious of how difficult such an endeavor was (and recognizing our all too human frailties), instead, settled for the modest task of keeping us from destroying ourselves and each other. This, they discovered, was best accomplished by religion, with the good word coming down via the heavens, through divine commandments and expressed as social strictures and taboos. Transgressors could also be threatened with hell fire and damnation and the worst of them made examples of. Alas, democratic societies do not respond well to being governed by fear, threats or even promises of IOUs to be redeemed in the hereafter – without their starting to resemble pyramid schemes or police states.
Self-governing (democratic) societies demand of their citizens higher standards of thinking and behavior compared to autocratic societies. Citizens are expected to make well informed, intelligent choices, and conduct themselves as reasonable people in the public sphere. Because of the somewhat higher intellectual, behavioral and moral standards expected of us, developing a democratic citizenry has always been a task for the foolhardy, naïve or the incorrigibly foolish. Hence political scientists, theorists, reformers and activists have usually invested their efforts in improving what can be measured and controlled- such as the legal and democratic institutions. Others, have sought messiahs who can make their nation great again, scoured the land for a new FDR, Churchill, Nehru, Allende or, even better, a bona fide ‘minority’- a woman, a black or a gay person. While democratic institutions can benefit from improvement and exceptional leaders can always help, this all-consuming fascination with institutions and leaders has had some unfortunate consequences:
- Little, if any, attention has been focused on developing a conscious and mature citizenry and as a result even the few organizations that focus on citizens limit themselves to basic civics education, developing awareness of citizen rights, and increasing voter turnout.
- Generations of citizens have grown up believing that democracy is a license to personal freedom and guarantees prosperity, not to speak of endless amusement. Many now resent the suggestion that they, as citizens, are also required to take time out of their personal and professional commitments to invest in the political system.
- The genuinely marginalized and those who feel left out of the spoils system have, on the other hand, learned that in a democracy escalated protest and agitation can force the system to deliver the results that they crave.
- When those who have been waiting for the next super improved candidate turns out not to be the Messiah that they expected and is, instead, shown up to be all too slippery (or brittle), the citizenry become disgusted and cynical.
- The citizens then, feeling no compulsion to reflect about their own actions, rail against the system that has failed them. Or, giving consciousness and maturity a complete pass, become despairingly nihilistic.
- This causes them to give up on voting altogether or, worse still, squander their franchise on those who make them feel good about themselves or become unwitting targets to messages of fear, anger and hatred.
- This is when the good citizens become party to a crime of historic and evolutionary implications, demicide (democratic suicide) and put their faith in demagogues and tyrants who will take their society and our species back into a medieval age of unthinking definitiveness, crippling security and oppressive stability.
Traditional instruments of developing a committed citizenry (such as religious or moral instruction, compulsory public education and the mass media) have always been blunt and inefficient. When they have worked, they were usually tools of propaganda and mass manipulation, when they failed they made people even more cynical about the system. To add to the difficulty, the world that we inhabit today is a particularly complicated one and does not make the task of educating for values, behaviors and ethics, easy. Instantaneous communication technology and social media driven by breaking news, hyperlinks and clicks, for example, appeal to the basest instincts, addicting users who are hungry for their next dopamine hit. They wean people away from the rigor and discipline required to stick with complex and messy ideas, not to mention reasoned and considered debate. Today, despite our unrivalled connectivity, we have never been as isolated and, despite the access to cheap credit and goods, we were never so insecure economically.
We have to ask ourselves whether it is even possible to develop a conscious, intelligent and generous citizenry under exacerbated conditions such as:
- Urbanization and immigration contributing to the break-down of the extended family and traditional kinship groups.
- Nuclearization of the family and deterioration of the institution of marriage, giving rise to unstable single-parent families.
- Media and breaking news culture trivializing knowledge and serving to replace complex understanding with information and factoids.
- The 24-hour diet of entertainment and amusement leaving little time or motivation to slowly build intimate relationships and strong communities.
- Smart phone, internet, and social media corrupting our ability to pay attention and addicting us to constant stimulation.
- Cooperation, care-taking and healthy interdependence made difficult by isolated, self-centered, consumption driven, narcissistic individuals capable only of transactional relationships.
- The breakdown of meaningful individual and group identities and the corresponding rise of aggressive tribalism and violence.
Most of all, though, we are crippled by the biological limitations of our own brains and tribalism- our egocentricity and socio-centricity. The egocentricity makes it hard for us to perceive a complex world outside of our own limited minds and makes empathy and cooperation difficult. Socio-centricity creates a narrow loyalty towards our own kind, our tribes that makes us distrust and fear outsiders and prevents us from being generous towards them- an essential democratic virtue. Regardless of our biological limitations, evolutionary history and any domestic or foreign threats from enemies of democratic societies, there are ways in which citizens can strengthen our democracy. But before doing so we, the citizens, must recognize and appreciate what we have- the good fortune to live in a moment of history where our species is experimenting with the extraordinary concept of self-government. Once we have recognized that, we need to invest our scarce resources (like time, money and energy) in this experiment- because that is all it is, at this point in our human evolution. Finally, we need to be conscious of how easily we, the people, can destroy our own democracies.
Hitherto democratic societies have made few explicit demands on its citizens- except to vote regularly, pay taxes honestly and follow traffic rules. However brilliant a constitution is, wise the laws are, or strong and popular the leader, an independent judiciary and effective separation of powers are not enough to sustain a democracy without a citizenry willing to consistently invest and, where necessary, even fight for it.
What makes an ideal citizen? A ‘good’ or ‘effective’ citizen of a democracy is one who is can be an active and responsible member of a self-governing society. This requires, at the very least:
- An ability to discern reality – minimally colored by myths, subjective or collective preferences.
- An ability to reason objectively – despite the triggering of our emotions, history or bias.
- A capacity to engage, negotiate – despite the tendency to silence or avoid offensive opinions.
- A willingness to be generous – despite the ‘natural’ temptation to monopolize resources for one’s self or one’s own group.
In this benighted new century, the conscious and responsible among us have much to think about and reconsider. As we strive to hold on to our careers, our relationships and our health, we must ask ourselves how the public (civic) sphere can survive when the best of us corral ourselves in our work places, private spaces and amusement arcades. As we rage and storm against the ongoing horrors of racism, sexism, and patriarchy we could take a moment to wonder how much anger and righteous indignation a finely balanced and vulnerable system like democracy can take- before our own passivity or wrath causes it to implode. Most of all, as we are amused and entertained by wicked take downs, clever memes or dazzling toys, we could ask ourselves who benefits from our being perpetually amused.
Citizenship is both a privilege and a responsibility. Chaos and tyranny can come easily, by default. Democracy is hard work and needs to be earned afresh each day.