“Idiots”

All of this is becoming a little passé and perhaps irrelevant these days, but to read the ideals of democracy by some of its earlier proponents can be quite uplifting. When Robert Dahl, Professor Emeritus at Yale University said in 1956, “At a minimum, modern democracy is concerned with processes by which ordinary citizens exert a relatively high degree of control over leaders,” who doesn’t feel a certain desire for such a reality? Or when David Easton, the Canadian political scientist, stated in 1953, “Democracy is a political system in which power is so distributed that control over the authoritative allocation of values lies in the hands of the mass of people,” what’s not to like about that?

While such concepts might have seemed practical and doable at the time, 1956 and 1953 were, in political terms, eons ago. Things have changed – remarkably. In days when political systems and their representatives were more closely allied to citizens, it was quite possible to believe governing elites could be controlled by an involved, and occasionally agitated, citizenry.

But what happens when the average Canadian peels off and follows her or his own pursuits? Two things become obvious. The first is that voter turnout declines as the collective imagination and accountability wanes. Secondly, despite their best intentions, political parties learn that they can function without as much citizen buy-in, but they feel a certain lack of legitimacy in their efforts. Recently, there was a third result that would prove inevitable, but which very few foresaw. It involved actually manipulating the political system to effectively drive down voter interest as opposed to peaking it. Clinical minds, driven by ideological frameworks, went to work, comprehending that the fewer people taking part in citizen accountability the more opportunities would arise that permitted power to be implemented without effective oversight. It happened in the U.S. and has now manifested itself here in Canada. It was something neither Dahl nor Easton spotted as a possibility, leaving them free to defend the effectiveness of democracy in its traditional sense.

So who’s to blame for our present democratic decline? Toss that out there and the vast majority of responses would blame political parties and politicians – a kind of default reply. And it would be largely correct. But they are only doing what they can get away with. That other side of the equation – citizens – appear less interested in accountability and, at times, vote against their own interests. They leave the field to citizen-action groups that can’t be as an effective alternative to an engaged citizenry.

There is a word for this kind of disengagement and none of us will like it – idiocy.  We’re not to take it as a purposeful insult, for it has historical roots. It has Greek origins hearkening back to the early days of fledgling democratic efforts. Civic equality was a high ideal during that classical era, though the acceptance of endemic slavery clearly undermined its effectiveness. Nevertheless the belief was far-ranging that for democracy itself to function, each citizen had a role of involvement and accountability to pursue. The reasoning was that if you didn’t play a part in ruling then you would have no option but to be ruled. It was a marked departure from anything that preceded it.

Unsurprisingly, some Athenian citizens thought it a waste of time, opting to concentrate on their own private pursuits and absolve themselves of any collective responsibility. This attitude undermined much of what the people had been striving for and they developed a term for such an individual – idiot – or more properly id-iotes, which essentially branded a person as selfish because they were more concerned with their daily personal affairs than they were with the good of society. Yet there was more. Such a person would be doomed to have other people decide for him in his absence. In this sense the word “idiot” spoke more of the fallacy of their thinking.  The term morphed into the much more extreme meaning of today, but the essence is still there. It carries with it the sense that the person just doesn’t get it.

Seen in such a light, the term could apply to most of us. We increasingly complain that politicians don’t respect our wishes, and so we opt out, permitting the politicians to actually fulfill the prophecy. The solution can’t be merely attempting to elect responsible representatives alone; there must be a commensurate response from citizens to take up the charge of “co-governing.” In a hectic world, many citizens claim they just don’t have time for such an effort. Is that true? Is it merely an excuse? Can it be reformatted to permit citizens time, along the lines of something like jury duty?

However else we feel about the state of our democracy at present, unless we as citizens prove willing to accept and acknowledge the failure of our recent performance, we will never reform a democratic system that will hold leaders to account. It is a vicious circle which could become redemptive should both governing and governed play their effective role.

Was Teddy Roosevelt correct when he stated that, “the majority of the plain people will day in and day out make fewer mistakes in governing themselves, than leaders would make in governing them?” Perhaps. But just how smart are they when citizens choose the more “idiotic” path of opting out instead of taking responsibility? Will they always stay on the outside peering in? How we answer that question will determine whether democracy can indeed save itself.