A Dumbed-Down Democracy

Something is rotten in the state of American politics. Opinion and speculation outplay reason and deliberation. The imaginary supersedes the incontrovertible; the polemic replaces the dialectic. The American public is withdrawing en masse from politics, creating a vacuum to be filled by a dysfunctional government in which compromise is the stuff of a bygone era and partisanship is the new normal.

Congress is a dual universe. Both parties have a distinct set of what they believe are facts and realities about the economy, gun control, abortion, race, and so on. Forget finding solutions: they seldom agree on what the problems facing our country even are. This summer, Congress failed to pass legislation—from Zika funding to gun control—when minor ideological snags and petty partisanship sunk the whole ship. Reasonable governing and bipartisanship have taken a back seat to ideologically weaponized agendas. If someone brought either party undeniable evidence that the other’s plan would deliver better, cheaper, more efficient, publicly backed results, nothing would happen. Such is the lamentable state of modern-day politics.

All of our ills were front and center in Las Vegas Wednesday at the television finale of Battle to be Leader of the Free World 2016. Amid the pejorative, juvenile nicknames and unending torrent of bile that both candidates slung at each other, Donald Trump incessantly peddled the hallmarks of his campaign—conspiracy, oft-repeated falsehoods, and dumbed-down rhetoric hollow of substance. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton dodged questions about the Machiavellian maneuvering and secrecy dogging her campaign, widening the gap between her private and public personas. Deceit and misinformation were the themes at our highest stage of political discourse—a sad reflection of our times.

Americans view publicly elected officials in a negative light—the 113th Congress’s approval rating hovered at 15 percent, and President Barack Obama has struggled to hit or sustain 50 percent approval during his eight-year tenure. We can heap criticism on our politicians, and people like me can write scathing criticism all we want. But making a scapegoat of them doesn’t absolve us. We are part of the problem.

We are steadily becoming a nation of political illiteracy and civic impotency, standing in stark contrast to the democratic project that Alexis de Tocqueville so adored. Why vote? Cue mid-20th century writer George Jean Nathan: “Bad officials are elected by good people who do not vote.” And being informed? Responds one of our earliest political theorists, Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be.” In short, any effective democracy requires an informed, engaged, and active citizenry.

America’s record of voter turnout in modern history is abysmal, while the levels of misinformation are staggering. In 2014, a national survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that over a third of Americans cannot name a single branch of U.S. government. According to the Pew Center, less than half (48 percent) of America believes climate change is mostly due to human activity.  From 2010 to 2015, a stable amount of one-fifth of Americans believed that Obama was born outside the country.

If a voter won’t show up to the polls and a citizen can’t pass a ninth-grade civics test, why would either care what Congress is up to? And if one in five Americans has such a pernicious conviction that the president is a foreigner, would he or she even consider the merits of his proposals, or resoundingly reject them?

It could be a case of the chicken or the egg—our collective withdrawal from politics is concurrent with a higher incidence of political paralysis on Capitol Hill. It is difficult to discern which came first. The first step we could take—a “yuge” one at that—is to be politically informed and civically engaged. Our lack of interest, profound ignorance, and downright contempt has indeed permeated the political system—how could it not?

The presidential election—this one in particular—is a rare time when politics have the nation’s collective attention. The moment of the final debate, and perhaps the decisive moment of 2016, came when Trump refused to accept a cornerstone of democracy—the peaceful transition of power. The Founding Fathers are probably turning in their graves.

Featured Image by John Minchillo / AP Photo