Hancen Sale

The American political system is broken — It has been for nearly three decades. Extremism seems to have usurped pragmatism. The spirit of bipartisanship and compromise are not merely waning but, in many respects, dead altogether.

Politicians constantly warn of threats posed by the opposition — be they militant socialists or right-wing tyrants conspiring among the shadows. However, the more likely cause of death will not be at the hands of some radical despot. America’s political system will fail only when its populace perceives it to have stopped working and, in turn, votes to dissolve it.

Democracy dies at the ballot box.

“Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused, not by generals and soldiers, but by elected governments themselves,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, co-authors of the prescient book How Democracies Die, wrote. “Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine.”

In light of a devolving political life in America, one is not unreasonable to question the capacity of democracy to endure during hard times — even despite the American variety’s tenacity thus far. The depth of constraint and accountability imposed by constitutional order is ultimately dependent upon the willingness of its people to fight and uphold it.

For years, the guardrail sustaining American democracy was a collective, civic commitment to liberalism. As a nation, however, the United States is witnessing what seems to be the gradual death of liberalism and an attack on the ideals underpinning it.

The revolt represents a collective succumbing to those hardships inherent to human coexistence. In truth, liberalism — to a degree unlike any principle or philosophy that previously governed society — forces us to encounter those unlike ourselves while presupposing our capacity to overcome those differences. At its core, the liberal structure assumes that, more often than not and despite oftentimes vehement disagreement, citizens will come together — bound by a human identity more alike than different — in pursuit of higher ground.

But the liberal structure requires its practitioners to see more than demagoguery in their political opposition. It requires the type of coalition-building which molds seemingly contradictory truths into one mutually desired, higher truth — no matter how divergent the paths were to arrive there. History suggests the reward for doing so has been, to say the least, worthwhile.

Yet, democratic governance is still failing to realize its own potential — each day, whether warranted or not, taking on the manic whims of crisis — and the American mediascape is partly to blame.

“New technologies have radically expanded our ability to make and distribute a product,” but the problem, the American novelist Salvatore Scibona writes, is that far too often “the product is our judgement of one another.”

Some argue these platforms — social media and the 24-hour news cycle — are the manifestation of a more direct democracy. But research suggests the impact of social media platforms are more complex.

A recent study by Pew Research Center found that 97% of tweets from U.S. adults that mentioned national politics came from just 10% of users. Additional analysis indicates that, on average, Twitter users are “younger, more likely to identify as Democrats, more highly educated and have higher incomes than U.S. adults overall.” This means, on Twitter, an increasingly prominent way for politicians to gauge public opinion, a disproportionate amount of influence resides with a relatively small subset of young, educated and wealthy users.

On Facebook, Pew finds that “more online followers engaged when elected officials took sides, especially when opposing individuals on the other side.” These findings flip the incentive structure for political campaigns, who increasingly capitalize on returns to dividing Americans as opposed to uniting them, which is why ever-expanding social technology presents a problem.

To sustain a liberal society, where order and freedom are held in delicate balance, democratic structures demand and therefore must be premised upon a certain objective truth. As the political philosopher John Stuart Mill recognized, a considerable weakness of democratic governance lies in that, inevitably, citizens will not have enough information to make informed decisions about political issues. “Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true but seldom or never the whole truth,” he writes.

In its totality, the modern media ecosystem presents a far greater threat than Mill originally theorized, culminating in the rise of illiberal and revolutionary figures, naïve to what springs from ideologies defined by zero-sum games, self-righteous indignation and leaders that lament becoming “too big of a tent.”

Akin to the revolutions of decades past, the revolutionary ethos, however morally valiant its cause, often lacks insight into the historical winds of change and foresight about how to recreate them. It is forsaken by the peril of its own ego, failing to accept that big ideas are usually “the condensation of many breaths more than [they are] the wind that blows history forward,” as the writer Adam Gopnik articulated in “A Thousand Small Sanities.

Revolution, albeit at once a positive and necessary feature of history, narrows the mind so sharply toward a particular injustice, many of which are incurable within the span of a singular human life, that it renders the revolutionary unable to acknowledge the limit of their own power or to accept small steps when larger steps are out of reach.

“Knowledge rests not upon truth alone,” Carl Jung observed, “but upon error also.” Liberalism, and the diversity within it, necessitates a breadth of knowledge and error that inform one another so as to climb towards objective truth.

All this is not to mourn the death of liberalism but rather a contemplation on why it must persist and the potential peril if it does not. “History doesn’t repeat itself,” Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote. “But it rhymes. The promise of history is that we can find the rhymes before it is too late.”

Hancen Sale is a senior majoring in economics. He can be reached at hsale@vols.utk.edu, and you can follow him on Twitter @hancen4sale.

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