Democracy in Crisis

As a Canadian, I have always felt a close connection to the United States, being our neighbours to the south, friend and ally, longest and largest trading partner, and considering our shared history. While America was forged in revolution, Canada evolved out of patient diplomacy. In spite of our differences, we love Americans and we tip our hats to their fervent defence of liberal democracy. 

So, it’s with a heavy heart that I watch the news reports of this attack on the Capitol. I got that feeling that you might get when you hear news of an ancient monument being destroyed, like the Taliban destroying Buddist statues in Afghanistan. It’s a different kind of sadness, not for the loss of individual lives, but the attempt to erase, or usurp established institutions upon which modern civilization is based. The rioters physically invaded and attacked the house of American representative democracy, looting, rioting, stealing, and killing. Democracy is an amorphous, unwieldy beast; what Winston Churchill called “…the worst form of government, except for all the others.” In spite of its flaws, democracy was (sort of) working. But, then something happened.

For the past 5 years, Donald Trump, and now, the growing cancer that is Trumpism (white fascist, racist, populist, isolationist, American exceptionalism) has caused permanent damage to democracy world-wide, if only through normalization and precedent-setting. Just as Brexit is not just a British/European problem, we cannot look at this as just an American one. Let’s briefly consider some of the societal background causes that have given rise to Trumpism, and to this attack most pointedly, and then what we might do to fix it.

Someone like Trump would not have been able to come to power but for the cult of celebrity and fame in America, in its environment of profit-motivated metrics of success. To say that Donald Trump has been grossly incompetent as a head of state of a global superpower, is to at once say everything and nothing. Trump is nothing more than a narcissistic incurious fool who lied his way through life, barking louder and louder to the top. But, he has been likewise a mirror unto America itself. Much can be written about this, and at this point, after following geopolitics as a personal academic interest for some 20 years, I probably will. So, please come back. But, suffice it to say, Trump had little other motivation these last years than to be the most obvious elephant in the room, the proverbial bull in a china shop . He did not care about anything other than being the centre of attention, indifferent to whether that attention was commendable or not. This is perhaps best encapsulated by that moment a few years ago when he physically shoved Montenegrin prime minister, Duško Marković, puffing out his chest in that risible show of alpha-male prowess. 

Another root cause for the rise of Trumpism is the odd affinity some people have to conspiracy theories (flat-earthers, moon hoax proponents, 5G gives Covid, etc.) as an explanation for their ignorance. That ignorance, which is well known to be wide-spread in the United States relative to other Western democracies, is linked to a poorly publicly-funded education system that is itself a product of the “factory-model” education system that parallels the industrial-age labour market schedule. One thing that the global lockdowns have shown us is that the institution of education needs to be substantially reformed in light of modern digital technology. I know this is a gross oversimplification, but do check out this video by Joe Scott for a little more detail:

Reason and critical thinking are not adequately or explicitly taught in most Western democracies, to say nothing of other countries. This leads to the belief, for example, that one person’s opinion is just as valid as another’s. Just pick your favourite conspiracy theory. Scientific expertise is increasingly portrayed as elitism—geeky know-it-alls who think they are more enlightened than the rest. People have come to equate a felt “personal truth”, such as a religious belief, with the objective, evidence-based, falsifiable truth that science seeks. Meanwhile, we have arrived at a point in our civilization that we simultaneously have access to virtually all the world’s knowledge, while not having the attention span to pursue all its nuances, and never being satisfied with the uncertainty that evidence (or lack thereof) brings. 

Then, there is the hot mess that is social media. There are two main reasons why I have been relatively quiet online over the past 5 or 6 years. Being a parent has probably been the foremost, but the other is the gross inadequacies of social media. In my opinion no one has communicated this problem so well as Tristan Harris, who you can see below, calling it a race to the bottom of the brain stem; and I highly recommend the documentary “The Social Dilemma” available on Netflix. We are participating in a stochastic thought control experiment.

When I first logged on to the Internet in 1991, it was populated by a small group of mainly techie science types like me who knew their way around a command-line computer. The World Wide Web had a text-based interface with highlighted hyperlinks that one would find by cycling through them using the Tab key. At first, advertising was slow to intrude the freedom of the internet, though I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be long. But over just the past 10 years or so, App-based mobile platforms and social media have become dominated by profit, where companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and the rest are beholden to their shareholders and must therefore bias their algorithms to maximize their bottom line. 

The ad-based model naturally therefore gives rise to an “attention economy”, where social media apps benefit from encouraging and promoting interaction and activity, leading to shorter, less nuanced conversations, as opposed to long-form conversations, seen for example in podcasts and blogs. This means that the loudest voice in the digital room generally gets the most attention, and that, even when wrong (or just plain dumb) their ideas are promoted, they effectively go unchallenged, rebuttals are lost in the noise. 

Trump has spent the last 5+ years living and thriving in that social media landscape, being thereby able to promote toxic ideas that lead to people, isolated in their information bubbles, actually believing that the US Election was stolen from him, the poor victim of a vast, utterly implausible conspiracy of some well-coordinated “Deep State” that is determined to control individual liberty. That information bubble justifies in their minds actions such as this, to attempt to overturn the results of one of the election. 

All of this should be seen against the backdrop of its historical legacy of systemic racism, growing economic inequality, and escalating ideological polarization where political dialogue has effectively stagnated.

Though no democracy is perfectly fair, for all the praise that the US heaps upon itself as a model of it, their election process needs some serious reform. The ruling classes world-wide have always sought to control the masses. But, I can think of some obvious initial steps to make it more participatory. 1) stop, or reduce gerrymandering (the habit of geographically redistricting voting zones in one’s interest), 2) selection of primary candidates (i.e., only the most politically motivated, enfranchised Democrat or Republican voters take part in this convoluted process): 

3) requiring that the Electoral College align its vote with an individual state’s popular vote, 4) introduce and promote official 3rd and 4th political parties to force compromising coalitions, like in Europe, or have a ranked voting system, 5) making senators more representative of the population (California and Alaska both have two senators, but with vastly different populations), 6) make voting easier and authenticatable (if you can pay your taxes, and so forth, online, why wouldn’t it be possible in a world of mobile phones, to do so with voting). Cui Bono? Who benefits from this? If it’s not the ruling classes, then I wouldn’t hold my breath for reforms like that any time soon. As far as I know, no prominent US leader with any sway has even called or campaigned for such reforms. But, for the record, I put that out there.

But there is hope. Amid all the chaos, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been officially certified as the President and Vice-President elect. Furthermore, January 6th saw confirmation that the Democrat Party will soon control both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This means they can move full-steam-ahead with much needed changes such as re-entering into the Paris Climate Agreement. 

But, then again, pessimism is justified. Let’s be realistic. In the present status quo, it is highly unlikely that the US will become more united. Biden is now forced to respond somehow to these attacks. He will have to reign-in those white supremacist groups, people who have been plotting and carrying our similar, albeit, lesser attacks for years, emboldened by anti-environmental campaigns:

So, efforts will probably be made to beef up security, surveillance, etc., and to curtail some rights, if not on paper, then in practice, but this will of course just demonstrate to all those so committed, that The Deep State is controlling them. Security and surveillance almost always curtail some freedoms by their very nature. We are becoming more Orwellian by the day. Yet, in a world where it is acceptable practice to daily volunteer information online, through their phone’s GPS, sensors, etc., maybe it’s a reasonable trade-off to a certain extent, to protect important institutions.

Let’s hope that they begin to repair the damage immediately, and the contagion of Trump can be thus mitigated. To do that, the US, and the rest of the democratic world for that matter, needs to seriously address some of the points I have raised above: the cult of celebrity, education reform/promotion of critical thinking, social media’s attention economy. Then, we all need to step back and take a look at ourselves and how we carry on with one another on this planet before we ruin it for future generations. 

In spite of all the dismay in this first blog, on a personal level I am happy to be back writing again. I plan to write fairly often, and I definitely won’t write just about politics, but I hope that you find the time in this attention economy to spend a bit of it here. I had planned for this first blog to be about, Sars-Cov-2/Covid. So, just so you know, that one is in the works, and I hope that you’ll check back here from time to time for a little more nuance. If you made it this far, I sincerely thank you and I hope you’ll visit again.