WHEN THOMAS FRIEDMAN OF THE NEW YORK TIMES recently drew attention to the 2006-2014 Freedom House finding that democracy is declining worldwide, it likely not to many were surprised. Places like Turkey, Russia, along with various countries in Africa and Asia, appear to have lost the handle on democratic progress that they possessed a mere decade ago.
But when the report circled back on the affluent West, it didn’t mince its words:
“Perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic failure has been the decline of democratic efficiency, energy and self-confidence in the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock, and corruption through campaign financing … things have become increasingly dysfunctional.”
No surprise here either. An economic recession is often described as a significant decline in economic activity that lasts more than few months, effecting everything from GDP and real income to employment and production. What’s currently taking place in our politics has been going on for years and shows little sign of improvement. We’ve readily noted how partisanship on both sides of the 49th parallel has disillusioned citizens in general, but the effects of such dysfunction are now obvious.
So, yes, our political estate is in trouble. Or as Bloomberg News put it in a headline last month: It’s Official. Partisan Rancor Worst in Over a Century. Then there’s Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne’s headline: Antics in Question Period Illustrate the Charade Our Politics Has Become.
But democracy, and efficient politics, also requires an effective citizenry if it is to succeed. There are signs that some of the hoped-for political engagement in the process is experiencing trouble.
The only way to counteract bad politics is good citizenship; there really is no other way around it. We can see what happens when politics can’t adequately handle power, but what if citizens themselves are experiencing great difficulty in handling their tools of engagement into the political process?
Signs of these perplexing problems are becoming more apparent on social media. Could it be true that we have permitted Twitter to become “Power Without Responsibility,” as some claim, or is it possible it’s not giving us power at all? Tough questions.
I’ve increasingly run into well-meaning citizens who are taking what they term “Twitter breaks” – for a day, an evening, a week, even for holidays. When probed as to their reason, it’s always the same. It’s tough to manage a consistent presence on social media because the overly negative attacks are increasingly poisoning the waters. Some have seen their important relationships strained as a result. When author Michael Naughton noted recently that, “Social media is a shared delusion of grandeur,” he found a level of support he believed wouldn’t have been forthcoming even a year ago.
Citizens dedicated to a better kind of politics, and the public good, are confessing the fatigue of it all. Comedienne Amy Poehler, turning serious in a recent interview, affirmed,
“I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about mere opinions or what people do. I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.”
In our hunger for a better and more productive way of living together, perhaps Henry Buckle’s insight is carrying increasing weight with us: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” We all know social media is merely a tool, like political power itself; how we use it is what matters.
One thing is certain – a well-meaning citizenry desiring to engage and improve the democratic estate is growing disillusioned, taking breaks, attempting to recover from personal attacks they have received or unintentionally delivered. If our politics are to improve, it won’t work to merely bemoan the divisiveness of the political class if we practice the same thing. We need to better use our tools of engagement. If we believe we must, in fact, lead the way as citizens, then it’s time we built on the understanding that merely giving opinions isn’t the same thing as a workable collaboration. Democracy in recession? Certainly, but that’s a coin with two sides.