Is (Liberal) Democracy Dying?

The Atlantic for October is a theme issue:

840

I can’t provide URLs because it’s still subscriber-only, but you get get to your favorite bookstore and pick up a copy. All of the following are from that issue, as was Anne Applebaum, A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come, about which I blogged earlier.

1

It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.

Yuval Noah Harari, Why Technology Favors Tyranny.

And a stunning microcosm:

On December 6, 2017, another crucial milestone was reached when Google’s AlphaZero program defeated the Stockfish 8 program. Stockfish 8 had won a world computer chess championship in 2016. It had access to centuries of accumulated human experience in chess, as well as decades of computer experience. By contrast, AlphaZero had not been taught any chess strategies by its human creators — not even standard openings. Rather, it used the latest machine-learning principles to teach itself chess by playing against itself. Nevertheless, out of 100 games that the novice AlphaZero played against Stockfish 8, AlphaZero won 28 and tied 72 — it didn’t lose once. Since AlphaZero had learned nothing from any human, many of its winning moves and strategies seemed unconventional to the human eye. They could be described as creative, if not downright genius.

Can you guess how long AlphaZero spent learning chess from scratch, preparing for the match against Stockfish 8, and developing its genius instincts? Four hours.

(Emphasis added)

2

Many progressives, particularly young ones, have turned against what were once sacrosanct American principles. Freedom of speech is an instrument of the dehumanization of women and minorities. Religious liberty is an engine of discrimination. Property rights are a shield for structural injustice and white supremacy. In a recent poll, two-thirds of college-age Democrats said that “a diverse and inclusive society” is more important than “protecting free speech rights.” Only 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s believe that living in a democracy is “essential,” compared with 72 percent of Americans born in the 1930s.

… One of our students told us: “I don’t know any lefty people my age who aren’t seriously questioning whether the First Amendment is still on balance a good thing.”

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, The Threat of Tribalism.

But wait! There’s more! It’s not tribalist without at least two tribes!

In a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, less than half of Republicans said that the freedom of the press “to criticize politicians” was “very important” to maintaining a strong democracy in the United States. In other 2017 surveys, more than half of Trump supporters said the president “should be able to overturn decisions by judges that he disagrees with,” and more than half of Republicans said they would support postponing the 2020 presidential election if Trump proposed delaying it “until the country can make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote.”

I can’t pick which side is worse. Can you?

3

Jeffrey Rosen incited in me kindly feelings toward California:

Voters in several states are experimenting with alternative primary systems that might elect more moderate representatives. California and Washington State have adopted a “top two” system, in which candidates from both parties compete in a nonpartisan primary, and the two candidates who get the most votes run against each other in the general election — even if they’re from the same party. States, which Louis Brandeis called “laboratories of democracy,” are proving to be the most effective way to encourage deliberation at a time when Congress acts only along party lines.

Madison and the Mob.

4

This author was shot, randomly, with a 22:

Knee-jerk calls for gun control didn’t resonate with me. Yet a reverence toward guns no longer felt right either.

I found my ambivalence unsettling. Everyone else seemed so sure about how to feel about guns—people on campus, on the internet, back home. Unlike most of them, I had made intimate acquaintance with gun violence. I should have had some special insight. If what had happened to me wasn’t fodder for clarity, I feared nothing ever would be.

As we drove, he asked me to remind him what I was writing about. I said some- thing lazy, offhanded: “What it was like getting shot in a place that loves guns.”

“It’s not love,” he said. We pulled into the parking lot of his store, which sits high on a hill. You can see almost all of Tuscaloosa from there. “It’s about necessity.” He mentioned rattlesnakes and coyotes. For people in rural areas — that’s more than 40 percent of Alabamians — guns are still a day-to-day defense against such animals. Yes, there is ample love for guns in Alabama. But to forget that they’re tools is to miss an important point.

Elaina Plott, The Bullet in My Arm.

Perhaps, but they’re not the kind of tools Our People use now, are they dear?

5

A 2018 U.S. Magazine asking whether democracy is dying might be suspected of a hit on 45, but it really was not. He did get more than passing mention in David Frum’s contribution, though:

[A] Donald Trump with impulse control would not be Donald Trump …

When Trump refers to “my” generals or “my” intelligence agencies, he is teaching his supporters to rethink how the presidency should function. We are a long way from Ronald Reagan’s remark that he and his wife were but “the latest tenants in the People’s House.”

In 2016, Trump supporters openly brandished firearms near polling places. Since then, they’ve learned to rationalize clandestine election assistance from a hostile foreign government. The president pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of contempt of court for violating civil rights in Maricopa County, Arizona, and Dinesh D’Souza, convicted of violating election-finance laws—sending an unmistakable message of support for attacks on the legal order. Where President Trump has led, millions of people who regard themselves as loyal Americans, believers in the Constitution, have ominously followed.

Building an Autocracy.

6

To stop the rot afflicting American government, Americans are going to have to get back in the habit of democracy.

[In the 19th Century] From churches to mutual insurers to fraternities to volunteer fire companies, America’s civic institutions were run not by aristocratic elites who inherited their offices, nor by centrally appointed administrators, but by democratically elected representatives.

Civic participation was thus the norm, not the exception.

Democracy had become the shared civic religion of a people who otherwise had little in common.

But the United States is no longer a nation of joiners. As the political scientist Robert Putnam famously demonstrated in Bowling Alone, participation in civic groups and organizations of all kinds declined precipitously in the last decades of the 20th century.

Trump turned the long-standing veneration of civic procedure on its head. He proclaimed that America is “rigged”; that “the insiders wrote the rules of the game to keep themselves in power and in the money.” The norms and practices of democratic governance, he insisted, had allowed elites to entrench themselves.

Trump secured the Republican nomination by speaking directly to those voters who had the least experience with democratic institutions. In April 2016, when the Republican field had narrowed from 17 candidates to three, a PRRI/The Atlantic survey found Trump enjoying a narrow lead over second-place Ted Cruz among Republican-leaning voters, 37 to 31 percent. But among those who seldom or never participated in community activities such as sports teams, book clubs, parent-teacher associations, or neighborhood associations, Trump led 50 to 24 percent. In fact, such civically disengaged voters accounted for a majority of his support.

Yoni Applebaum, Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Any More.

7

And finally:

The cardinal fact always is the loss of contact with objective information. Public as well as private reason depends upon it. Not what somebody says, not what somebody wishes were true, but what is so beyond all our opining, constitutes the touchstone of our sanity. And a society which lives at second-hand will commit incredible follies and countenance inconceivable brutalities if that contact is intermittent and untrustworthy. Demagoguery is a parasite that flourishes where discrimination fails, and only those who are at grips with things themselves are impervious to it. For … the demagogue, whether of the Right or the Left, is, consciously or unconsciously an undetected liar.

Walter Lippman, November 1919 (before my father was born), quoted in a side-bar.

I’m venturing a guess that nobody born since 1970 will understand his use of “discrimination” unless they have a liberal arts college education.

* * * * *

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