“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it”. Sage words from philosopher and essayist, George Santayana. In many ways, “history” is seemingly not a top ten subject matter into today’s world. Engineering and computer science, physics and chemistry, law and information systems, all command more attention throughout academia, enterprise and even political circles. Yet, with our increasingly rapid-fire consumption of data, short-term election cycles, and anticipatory tweets, might we not disembark for a moment and assess from where we came, and the lessons we may learn, with the hope as Santayana warned, that we don’t repeat our mistakes?
As Americans, surely hubristic at times, we espouse our form of government, democracy, as the gold standard, with unalienable freedoms and rights, which propel the nation forward. Our subscription to suffrage for a representational government has been credited for diversity, prosperity, equality, and the dicta for what makes America proud and accomplished. Capitalism, as its economic engine certainly contributes, but the “people having a vote” is part of our indelible ethos.
Still history gives perspective. True, our democracy has lived on since our founding days, but few democracies survive, in fact, most have failed over time. We turn the pages back to assess how such broad electoral participation may actually produce a dire outcome. Note some of the earliest of democracies, the Athenians and the Romans. The former advocated for everyone to have a voice, the term rhetoric ensued. Voices came in such number that the cacophony was unlettered, and decisions were made in self-interest. Economic inequality, the loss of ideological values, and ephemeral decisioning predicated upon a revolving door of political and many times incompetent and sycophantic leadership were the result. Plato and Aristotle generally opined that democracy as applied lacked logic. Rome, similarly, witnessed as self-interest overwhelmed the gestalt, and inequitable distribution of wealth led to increased financial burdens of the State to address the essentials of the needy. Its middle class eroded, as did its future.
To be clear, this is not a dismissal of democracy as a form of governing, though in such circumstances it may verge into ochlocracy, or mob-rule. The difference between a republic and a democracy, is that while both place limits on government’s role by law, a republic has codified inalienable rights, so that the majority, in a pure democracy, doesn’t necessarily have final say. Yes, the US is a republic, but even our Constitution is subjected to whims of political interpretation, again determined by plurality. Majority doesn’t imply right. Simply, this should be about quality, not quantity, and history has suggested that the democratic process yields mediocre outcomes at best. As we look upon who do cast a vote, might we ask whether they are instilled, learned or otherwise, with the knowledge to make informed decisions? Are they voting party, emotion or meme? Does one understand the perspective, vision, ideology, and yes, competence, of those to who will represent? And how does the voter garner his/her view of a candidate, a policy, a referendum, in order to cast a precious vote?
In the last few election cycles, presidential and midterm, we were inundated with social and main stream media, not using the Socratic method, to advance the audience’s insights and action. Rather, there was a bombardment of opinionated views to sway voters, either for or against, a candidate or proposition. This is the epitome of new-age propaganda. Forethought has given way to the power of the prompt. And the consequences are what they are. The well-informed vote is offset by the nescient. One vote for all, regardless of homework, authority, or a basic understanding of what is needed for the country’s future.
Recall Athens and Rome: democracies that failed. Characterized by growing wealth disparity, excessive federal debt, truncated election cycles, driven by the tendency to pursue the political flavor of the day. Sound familiar.
Yes, everyone has a vote, but should that vote carry with it the responsibility to understand the issue at hand?
And we ask ourselves, how we got here. Well, if there’s a history, there’s no mystery.