Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Democracy vs. the Dumb

By David G. Young

Miami, November 23, 2021 --  

The rejection of knowledge by the masses is sending democracy on a fatal trajectory.

America has joined the ranks of countries "backsliding" on democracy, according to a Stockholm-based think tank1.   This observation by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance is hardly novel -- any thoughtful person who witnessed the January storming of the U.S. Capitol already realized this.  Yet it is a grim recognition of the sad state of democracy in the United States.

European democrats, however, have no cause to be smug.  In addition to well-documented democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, populist rage is spreading across the continent.  Over the weekend, violent protests against Covid vaccine mandates and other restrictions rocked Austria, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France.2

Protests against government policy are often a hallmark of democracy.  Two things make these protests different:  First they have devolved from free expression into violence and looting.  And second, they are based on ignorance -- a rejection of scientific knowledge by less educated people.  

The only way a democratic system works is if people accept a common truth based on evidence and reason -- not just about the coronavirus, but on all aspects of how the world works.   This necessary condition has taken a serious beating in recent years.  If things don't begin to turn around soon,  democracy will be in trouble everywhere.

The rise in inequality in places like America has certainly played a part in rising discontent, but it doesn't explain growing rejection of knowledge.  

During the Great Depression, economic stress was certainly greater.  Yet the anti-democratic movements of the day were still knowledge-based.  Communist parties in the US and Europe embraced scientific socialism.  They shared a common belief with capitalists and democrats about the way the world worked, but disagreed with how to allocate ownership and control.

The populist movements, including the fascists, at least pretended to believe in science.   Eugenics used scientific window dressing and cherry-picked evidence to justify abhorrent policies.  Eugenicists' purported  knowledge proved horribly wrong, but at least it was rooted in the existence of truth.

Contrast this to the wild conspiracy theories that Europe's anti-vaxxers and America's 2020 election rejectionists use to propagate their ideas.   These movements share almost no common facts or truth with their opponents in the establishment.  When presented with facts supported by evidence, these movements ignore them as fake news or propaganda without any honest review of evidence at all.

Why is this happening now given it did not happen in the 1930s?  One common explanation is that mass media have been displaced by social media allowing uneducated opinion to bypass expert voices.  While this may be part of of the explanation, the theory has holes.

Back in the 1930s, not all newspapers were of the caliber of the New York Times or the Manchester Guardian.  In America, plenty of small town papers were partisan rags (often with the political party as part of the name).  They reported the news with an undeniable tilt, bending the truth and selecting facts to support preconceived notions.

What was different back then was a more widespread support of science, especially amongst those who worked behind a desk or a typewriter to promulgate information.  After the American Civil War, science began making incredible progress in eradicating disease and increasing living standards. 

Universal education spread across America like wildfire.  Science and knowledge had the wind was at its back. This is exactly what enabled democracy to expand. 

In the early 19th century in the United States and the United Kingdom, the vote was limited to a small minority -- a few land owners in the UK and just certain adult white men in the United States.  By the 1930s, increased education and widespread acceptance of truth and knowledge had enabled expanding the vote to nearly every adult.  

It is probably a safe bet to say that if today's current rejection of knowledge had existed back then, the vote would have remained a limited privilege.  

Democracy is now in trouble precisely because of the reversal of these trends.  Less intelligent people today are much more likely to reject truths necessary for democracy to function.  Defenders of democracy have been nervously crossing their fingers that the trend would stall or reverse before democracy dies.  Hope of this happening declines with each passing  day.

One alternative to the bottom-up erosion of democracy is to restrict it from the top down.  In essence, take the vote away from people who reject common truth.  But how can this be possible in a democratic system?  Presumably voters who reject truth will not vote to take their future votes away.  

Even if such reforms were possible, would they even be a good idea?   Saving democracy by restricting the vote risks creating an elitist autocracy to prevent a populist one.    Go too far, and you end up destroying the very system you are trying to save.

Related Web Columns:

The Anti-Democratic Tempest, July 21, 2021

Razor's Edge, December 1, 2020


1. CBS News, European Thinktank Adds U.S. to List of "Backsliding" Democracies for 1st Time, November 22, 2021

2. BBC, Covid: Huge Protests Across Europe Over New Restrictions, November 21, 2021