Last fall the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship invited me to speak about coping with our dysfunctional democracy.
My message to the Unitarians was, in essence, that the dysfunction is their own fault.
The Founders knowingly took an unthinkable risk when they put the power to govern into the hands of the governed. It’s on us. So if democracy isn’t working, it’s telling us that too many of us have lost interest in self-rule. Our low voter turnout confirms it.
“The truth is we need to be open to the possibility that democracy was a big mistake,” I suggested to the Unitarians. Why? Because it’s debatable whether human beings are capable of governing themselves, especially over the long haul — or if they even want to. It’s just too much work. And it’s never finished.
A year later, we’re seeing a global contagion of democratic dysfunction: rejections by free peoples of the democracies they’re living in, and embrace of authoritarians whose hold on power depends on inciting people to hate one another.
Is liberal democracy really dying, as The Atlantic, chronicler of our history since 1857, ominously asks in its October issue? Maybe.
You must agree that as a species, we’re exceptionally ill-equipped for self-rule. We’re incapable of paying attention. This cognitive flaw alone poses a formidable barrier to rational self-governance. So is our default preference for running on satisfying emotion rather than tiresome reason. Moreover, we cannot hold a thought from one generation to the next. Beset by historical amnesia, most of us know nothing, and learn nothing, of our species’ history with folly and wisdom.
These are regrettable design flaws. But cheer up! There soon will be an app for that. Artificial intelligence (AI) is on the way, and it promises better decision-making.
Last year, we reached a little-noticed watershed. “Don’t be evil” Google pitted a chess-playing computer called AlphaZero against chess computer champion Stockfish 8, which had access to centuries of accumulated human experience in chess, plus decades of computing experience. Underdog AlphaZero had no experience and had been taught nothing by humans. Teaching itself with “machine learning” — in just four hours — AlphaZero went from “utter ignorance to creative mastery” using unconventional strategies, writes Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in The Atlantic. AlphaZero didn’t lose a game.
“The biggest and most frightening impact of the AI revolution,” says Harari, author of the best-selling Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, is that tyranny will become easier. With more efficient concentration of massive amounts of information about us in one place, the “crippling handicap” dictatorships struggled with in the 20th century will vanish and perhaps give them a “decisive advantage” against democracies. His advice for forestalling such tyranny? Stop trading your humdrum, but nevertheless priceless, personal data for funny cat videos and free email.
The Founders rightly feared mob rule. But James Madison was of the opinion that the nation was too large, and its inhabitants too widely scattered, for untruths purveyed locally by mindless mobs and bad actors to spread quickly throughout the land.
Well, you can’t think of everything.
Defects such as willful amnesia may be why it’s taken only seven decades for so many people to signal their enthusiasm for embarking on yet another round of authoritarianism. Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, France, Sweden and Denmark are among nations either battling, or that have embraced varying degrees of “illiberal,” undemocratic rule. Brazil may be next.
“Trump is a cause of our democratic deterioration, but he also is a symptom,” Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic rightly writes. Donald Trump is inescapable proof of the rot in our political system. Incompetent, ignorant and ethically unfit, he trades in tribalism, lies, self-dealing and grievance.
Yet Anne Applebaum, an American-Polish Pulitzer Prize-winning author, professor at the London School of Economics and Washington Post columnist who has written extensively on communism, reminds in The Atlantic that “the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.” She argues that “skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal.”
Normal? Maybe in nations with very different histories than ours. Americans have managed two tumultuous centuries of lamentably unequal, hate-filled, imperfect but nonetheless successful democracy. Still, we find ourselves seduced by authoritarianism.
Sadly, Americans are not immune to human longings for a savior who can make the complex simple. And we do have a deep, abiding affinity for tribalism and racism.
In colonial days, it wasn’t only the slavery. People who were dissenters in their old homelands became persecutors in the colonies, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld write in The Atlantic. Massachusetts whipped Baptists, Virginia imprisoned Quakers. Government-established churches were common, and non-believers were denied basic civil and political rights.
My guess is that it’s the dawning comprehension among ordinary Americans of the depth of their betrayal by our elected representatives that’s weakened our democracy. Over the past 40 years, the big losers in America have been workers and consumers, who are all but helpless against exploitative employers and unfettered corporations. Largely unnoticed, Congress has shifted ever more power to the already powerful and left ever less power to the rest of us.
But whose fault is it that “We the People” persist in sending representatives to Congress and legislatures who work against our own — and civil society’s — rightful, legitimate and proper interests? Hello?
The next election is six weeks away. Consider it your chance to prove me wrong about your indifference to self-rule.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.