IT was something that the polarizing and gaffe-prone frontrunner, Donald Trump said during his brief victory speech in Las Vegas last Tuesday which had me musing over some of the most profound words of Thomas Jefferson that “The greatest threat to democracy is an uneducated citizenry.” Salivating at the prospect of becoming the Republican nominee for President, Mr Trump declared: “We won the evangelicals. We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”
For anyone who has watched the 2016 race play out, it should come as no shock that most of the pitifully mediocre candidates on the Republican side have sought to exploit not only the anxieties of a section of the electorate, but also their ignorance and economic circumstances – by spreading calumnies and invariably presenting a sort of dystopian view of America. More than any other candidate, the political beast that is Donald Trump has fed off the ignorance of especially rural conservative voters – exploiting their cultural, economic and social fears.
As the rest of the world observe America’s political spectacle with an abiding sense of smugness and foreboding, I remain cautiously optimistic about Mr. Trump’s imminent departure from the race and take comfort in the words of Winston Churchill that “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
In a paper on systems thinking, Jack Harich, a systems engineer and sustainologist identifies and explains five common deception strategies which politicians are likely to use to hoodwink particularly an uneducated electorate: false promises, false enemies, pushing the fear button, wrong priorities and secrecy. Sadly, in any society, all these forms of deception will work well, if illiteracy and ignorance prevail, undergirded by the ovine docility of voters. And I suppose in an election year, the deception machinery will be at its peak targeting an especially gullible section of the voting public who are looking for something that sends them into raptures rather than a political discourse that informs and educates them about the policy choices on offer.
Now, lest I be misunderstood, let me make it abundantly clear that I believe, like most reasonable people, that democracy is the best system of governance that exists and its enlightened providence should be a source of comfort and service to everyone regardless of ethnicity, class, gender or socio-economic status. There is also little doubt that the meritocratic basis of any democratic society is majority rule, further strengthened by the principle of minority and individual rights and the need to guarantee due process and equal protection under the law.
However, a system of democracy where money rules and voters are treated as famished consumers rather than active stakeholders in the process, can be a double-edged sword. By reducing democracy to just tribal voting and a rhetorical race to the bottom – or treating it as a delivery service or entertainment programme for the navel gazer and the less discerning voter, is surely a recipe for socio-economic stagnation and the collapse of civil society.
The Greek philosopher Plato saw the system of democracy as the “rule of the mob” because of the “unjust condemnation by Athenian democracy of Socrates”, his mentor and friend. In fact, the original Greek Democracy was mostly based on the idea that only those that contributed to society by paying taxes had a vote. Of course this concept would most likely be rejected in today’s system of democratic representation and equality under the law, although the idea may be gaining traction in some “ostensible democracies” around the world devoid of vibrancy and accountability and frustrated by poor economic performance, in large part due to electoral tribalism.
At any rate, democratic and economic progress can be stymied by an inherently loyal, un-informed and poorly educated populace only interested in short-term, incentive-driven benefits. They are the ones most likely to be bought by politicians with promises of personal benefits and utopian living standards that cannot possibly be delivered.
In an essay entitled “Democracy and Political Ignorance”, IlyaSomin explains that “Democracy is supposed to be rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But in order to rule effectively, the people need political knowledge. If they know little or nothing about government, it becomes difficult to hold political leaders accountable for their performance…Perhaps the solution is a better public school curriculum that puts more emphasis on civic education. The difficulty is that governments have very little incentive to ensure that public schools really do adopt curricula that increase knowledge.”
I have said before that democracy is a great thing if people stay interested in it and it works. The success of the system is premised on the principle of “informed exchanges”, i.e. citizens are expected to have a certain degree of knowledge about political matters. Above all, it thrives on a contest of ideas and voter participation. If people are not intelligent in their understanding of national development issues and responsible in the exercise of their judgement, the mistakes they might make could be disastrous for their country and for themselves. Hence, our people must embrace their civic duty and collective responsibility to rise above party politics and start putting the country first. As an Indian reformer and columnist once said, “We cannot continue to languish in 19th century politics aspiring to live in the 21st century economy.”
Any attempt to solidify our system of democracy and end the degenerating vicious cycle of political pettiness will require the attention of the voter to the issues that arise from day to day and their active involvement in discussions that help clarify opinions and positions. It’s a fact that voters particularly those from the lower strata of society often lack the educational background to understand the increasing complexity of many political and economic issues.
While the country has made much progress since independence, many of our people, not least the party delegates who choose leaders and representatives, have been blind to the need to educate themselves to better understand the nature of the issues that confront them. I am one of those who believe that all political party delegates should meet some minimum requirements before being allowed to participate in the process of choosing national leaders and determining the future of the country.
Let me once again invoke the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson that “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. . . The People cannot be safe without information. When the press is free, and every man is able to read, all is safe.” Does that mean in a half-literate society like ours, true democracy is only a fleeting illusion?
I’ve always known that a nation that stops reading will eventually stop thinking, needless to say Saint Lucians have always had an ambivalent relationship with books. How are we supposed to be safe, free and enlightened, as Jefferson noted, without doing due research, fact-checking and reading? As it turns out, the last time I checked, newspaper circulation was in decline and bookstores seemed set to go the way of the dinosaur.
For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.