San Jose Mercury News: Professor’s Op-Ed Voices Concern About “Runaway Democracy”

B. Kumaravadivelu: Dumb legislators and dumber voters cannot help democracy thrive

Posted by the San Jose Mercury News April 2, 2012.

By B. Kumaravadivelu
Special to the Mercury News

(B. Kumaravadivelu is a professor in the department of linguistics and language development at San Jose State University. He wrote this for the Mercury News.)

The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville saw in America “the image of democracy itself.” But that was nearly 175 years ago. If he were to bear witness to American democracy as it exists today, he would perhaps write about the mirage of democracy rather than the image of democracy.

Consider what we recently learned in a span of just two days: In a moment of truthfulness rarely seen in a politician, House Speaker John Boehner passed a verdict on his fellow lawmakers who have the authority to determine the political, economic and, at times, social life of all Americans. Some of the legislators, he said, are “the smartest people in the country,” and some “the dumbest.” He wisely refrained from specifying the percentage of each.

On the heels of this rare admission came a survey that showed that a majority of likely GOP primary voters in the Deep South do not see President Barack Obama as a Christian. A whopping 52 percent in Mississippi and 45 percent in Alabama classified him as a Muslim. Another 36 percent in Mississippi and 41 percent in Alabama were “not sure.” A little over a year ago, a poll showed that almost one-fifth of all Americans believed that the president is a Muslim.

The speaker’s remark and the poll results present two sides of the same coin: a flawed democracy.

American democracy, as envisioned by our forefathers, is not designed to handle unworthy legislators and uncritical voters. Together, they have created a harmful mindset. A mindset that considers critical thinking injurious to intellectual health. A mindset that treats a different view as a delinquent view. A mindset that treats public debate as no more than a fiesta of the faithful. A mindset that regards self-reflection as self-delusion.

Of the two groups, it is the electorate that carries a greater burden. An enlightened electorate is a prerequisite for any democracy to thrive. Pure and simple. Writing in 1922, the celebrated journalist Walter Lippmann cautioned us against two kinds of “uninstructed” voters. “There is the man,” he observed wisely, “who does not know and knows that he does not know. He is generally an enlightened person. … But there is also the man who is uninstructed and does not know that he is, or care. He can always be gotten to the polls, if the party machinery is working. His vote is the basis of the machine.”

What Lippmann said 90 years ago is true even today.

The engine that drives this machinery is, of course, money. A political environment already saturated with money has suddenly been blessed with an unexpected jackpot. The super PACs, an offspring of Citizens United, are adding more fuel to the machinery, thereby quickening the demise of a model democracy.

The democracy of the people, by the people and for the people practiced by early Americans and admired by people all over the world has gradually degenerated into a political culture that revolves around power-driven elites, elites-driven media, media-driven politics and politics-driven governance.

Unfortunately, “we the people” have very little time or energy to critically reflect on the true state of our democracy. We deceive ourselves into thinking that we have the best form of democracy in the world. We shovel it down the throat of people of other countries.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, what we now have is a runaway democracy hurtling down a treacherous track. Only an enlightened citizenry can stop it from derailing. “We the people” will always get the leaders we deserve.