Jeffrey St. Onge
Democracy, it seems, is in danger. It is now a well-worn commonplace that our system is suffering; some evidence of this includes low voter turnout (36.4% in the most recent midterm elections), a lack of political engagement (especially among the youth ages 18-30), a lack of knowledge of the basic fundamentals of the American political system (for example, only 65% of citizens could pass a citizenship test in a randomized telephone poll), and a pervasive ignorance about international affairs, particularly those which deal with war and foreign policy. Elected officials represent only a small minority of citizens, and a growing segment of the population appears to lack interest in politics.
It’s not that U.S. citizens are too dumb to figure out how to participate in democracy. As Stanford Communications professor James Fishkin has observed, when presented with information, and when given the time to think about it, most individuals are able to engage in reasonable discussions about complex policy. In other words, it is not a cognitive deficit that plagues the disengaged voting public, but a value deficit. Political engagement is perceived as a choice that is simply not worth the time or effort. This is particularly noticeable among college students. A recent study of University of Michigan students, for example, found that fewer than 50% view themselves as either politically active or informed. These students seem to have decided not to become involved. Why, after all, should they pay attention when there is so much else to do?
The notion of political engagement as a choice is consistent with a culture thoroughly saturated in the logic of neoliberalism. While neoliberalism is a multifaceted phenomenon that guides economic thinking along with social life (often combining the two by framing aspects of social life like education and health care in terms of economics), it is useful here to consider it for its mythic qualities.
Considered as a myth, neoliberal discourse shapes cultural thinking about the role of economics in democracy, and it conditions the citizenry to view the commodification of social life not only as valid, but, more importantly, as natural. Put differently, neoliberal culture has been normalized to such a degree that it often goes unquestioned in everyday life.
One primary aspect of the mythos of neoliberalism is its emphasis on individualism. Rather than stressing a balance between individualism and community (a hallmark of New Deal era politics in the United States), neoliberalism lionizes the individual, and it positions collectivism (framed as “big government” or “socialism”) as antithetical to American Democracy. It recalls the “rugged individualism” that shaped American culture at the start of the twentieth century, best exemplified in Herbert Hoover’s campaign speech of the same name, and it reaffirms a logic of small government, individual liberties, and free market capitalism as the key ingredients to a successful democracy. It should be noted that the religious devotion to individualism helped the country ignore an under-regulated stock market that would crash and cause the Great Depression, an economic collapse that would be repeated with smaller but still devastating effects in 2009, due in large part to a woefully under-regulated housing market.
The current culture of radical individualism is not readily compatible with democratic practice. Democratic governance in the neoliberal world is reduced to safeguarding the economy and opening markets in various domains of social life (e.g., health care, education); citizens are producers and consumers working for the economy. The result is a culture in which every minute and every action is quantified, priced, and commodified. Civic participation, in this arrangement, is easily dismissed as a pursuit unworthy of what little “free time” we have. “What’s in it for me?” is a question that becomes more pervasive in neoliberal culture, perhaps out of greed, but certainly out of necessity. Demands for time are increased, and “free time” becomes a ludicrous non-sequitur (I’m sure everyone reading this blog has chuckled at the thought of having “free time” or a “day off”). Abstract commitments like citizenship and democratic practice are imagined as voluntary and thus do not make much sense logically. Long lines, interference with the work day, and a lack of obvious impact make political engagement seem more like a charitable adventure than a civic duty. It’s no wonder only a small segment of the population even bothers to vote. And voting is perhaps the easiest way to be engaged!
There are many possible explanations for this kind of disengagement, including disillusionment with an ideologically gridlocked government, frustration with the two-party system more generally, and a sense that participation doesn’t really have any meaningful effect. The major issues—war, economics, social justice, and the like—are not going to be changed by one person’s vote or one action, and thus we have a recipe for apathy. The irony here is that these conditions—war in particular—thrive on a disengaged citizenry. War requires ignorance; broad ideological narratives like freedom and justice are easy to support when detached from the actual realities of death, destruction, poverty, environmental destruction, and the degradation of entire cultures. This is why the government carefully controls war reporting; the more visible the war—the more people learn about it—the less likely citizens are to support it.
As neoliberalism further alienates individuals from the process of collective decision making, political leaders will continue with the now-naturalized program of broad military action abroad. A culture of neoliberalism promotes a disengaged public that views politics as a pursuit akin to volunteering at the local animal shelter.
And after all, who has the time for that?