How active a citizen are you? Do you make an effort to know the issues and communicate your opinions? Do you make your voice heard often, not just at the voting booth, but even between elections?
The word democracy has been employed to describe many types of arrangements. The ancient Greeks tried their own version of (a deeply flawed) direct democracy, gathering thousands of citizens in a single public place to debate and vote on public issues. Less ambitious schemas to establish representative democracy flourished in many republics in recent centuries. The authors of many national constitutions have displayed eagerness to assume the mantle of democracy, even when the level of actual participation by the populace in public decisions remains quite low.
The success of anything worthy of being called a democracy rests squarely upon the maintenance of an informed citizenry. Common folks need to understand at least the fundamentals behind public issues before they can express their opinions and advocate policy change. But I am growing increasingly fearful that this requirement may be asking too much in our complex contemporary world. What a reach it is to expect even a small fraction of U.S. citizens to develop a well-informed opinion on how best to reform health insurance, what troop levels to maintain in Afghanistan and how to adjust the financial system to prevent future crises. Sheer complexity quickly outruns the ability of the public to gather information and sustain interest.
It is unrealistic to expect public opinion to count for something if the public is having trouble forming any opinions at all. These are the worries that keep political scientists up at night. Their elegant models of interest-group pluralism and opinion-leader influence are reduced to dust if we despair of widespread mastery of public affairs. If we are forced to discount the influence of public opinion on the policymaking process, where does that leave us? The skeptics are gaining the upper hand.
My nominee for the weakest link in this particular chain is the media. The struggling print media cannot support the level of hard news reportage we took for granted for decades, and the electronic media on the whole are vastly disappointing. The coverage of recent developments in domestic and foreign policy on blogs and cable outlets has consistently shed more heat than light. Those who pass for journalists these days seem content to divide us rather than inform us, as they play to the niche audiences they attract.
I recently stumbled across one proposed antidote to the prevalence of the sound bites that substitute for well-informed analysis. This initiative addresses the misinformation surrounding the marquee issue of the year: the debate about health care reform. By logging onto www.hearthebill.org, any citizen with 24 hours to spare can hear a full audio reading of the entire thousand-plus pages of H.R. 3200, the major health care bill proposed by House Democrats. It is as close to a dramatic reading as a few dozen voices can render, given the technical and repetitive prose of The Congressional Record. If listeners do not succumb to the inevitable drowsiness that comes from hearing the dense language of high-grade legalese, they might just come away better informed about the key public issue of our day.
Of course, I cannot seriously recommend this as a solution to the problem of a poorly informed citizenry. In the era before the Internet, hardly anybody spent the requisite hours in a library poring over The Congressional Record. Little encouragement can be drawn from the fact that this ascetic practice has been replaced by up-to-the-minute Web postings of legislative progress. (You could read all 564 proposed amendments to the Democratic-sponsored health care bill before the Senate Finance Committee from any desktop or laptop within hours of their submission.)
But it is good to know that there is some way for motivated citizens to obtain direct access to unfiltered information regarding legislation that will alter the course of our nation. What we need now are more routine and user-friendly ways of gathering the information we, as citizens, require to fulfill our public duties. On this nothing less than the fate of our democracy rests.