Our democracy is only as good as we are

click to enlarge MAN OF THE PEOPLE: The 19th-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote that America proved "the middle classes can govern a State." - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
MAN OF THE PEOPLE: The 19th-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote that America proved "the middle classes can govern a State."

"The medium is the message."

—Marshall McLuhan (1964)

Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835) may be the wisest book ever written about the United States. In it he said that "America demonstrates invincibly one thing that I had doubted up to now, that the middle classes can govern a State. Despite their small passions, their incomplete education, their vulgar habits, they can obviously provide a practical sort of intelligence and that turns out to be enough."

And despite its aristocratic (elite!) tone, this idea formed the backbone and central thesis of democracy: The "people" are smart enough to govern, or at least smart enough to elect the right leaders.

A corollary of this proposition is that democracy, in order to succeed, needs a vibrant educational system and a free press. American public education, as it grew, became the envy of the world. My parents, both children of immigrants (from Germany and Ireland), never went to college, but their high schools in Brooklyn — Manual Training and Erasmus — were famous for their high standards. For years my father, who worked up from being a stock boy to being a manufacturer's rep (a salesman with a territory), read three newspapers every day: The Brooklyn Eagle, The Daily News and The New York Times. This was not at all uncommon. But today, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, four connected things are happening at once: Our schools are in chaos; we're reading less; our newspapers are shriveling like dying azaleas — and Wall Street, the financial engine behind it all, has blown its unguarded gaskets.

Back in the 1960s, the Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan theorized that our communications media affect our minds and thus our societies: Inventions like the printing press and the telephone change us as human beings. An article in the St. Petersburg Times suggested that Google "is making us stoopid": The cocktail of television, Internet and cellphone fogs our ability to concentrate.

This matters. The recent death of Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn sent me back to the Russian novelist's speech at Harvard where he shocked his host audience by criticizing the "triumph of democratic mediocrity," observing that "truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit."

Maybe we are dumbing down. Our schools started their slide in the 1970s; now our students score poorly in international competitions. We have a president who not only isn't smart, but proud of it. Guided by God, he goes with his gut: He looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and saw his soul. He looked at our economy a short while ago and — with John McCain — pronounced it sound.

I look into the high school parking lots. Now the youngsters have cars, but don't have time to study because they need jobs to pay for them. More and more students arrive at college unable to write; breathless articles pant about a post-literate society. Maybe hard copy will be replaced by online, but a new study showed that online readers of The New York Times averaged seven minutes reading time; those who read the paper edition averaged 45 minutes — not good news for Creative Loafing or other thoughtful journals turning toward the Internet.

This is bad for democracy. We've produced a voting majority easy to con, that votes against its own interests, electing a president and party that have dragged us into two intertwined major calamities — the Iraq War and the current financial bind — resulting in disastrous lose/lose situations. And once again, the Republicans have produced a candidate who jokes about being a poor student (fifth from the bottom at West Point) and picks a running mate who thinks Creationism belongs in the schools (and needs help pronouncing "new-clear," as her teleprompter spelled it, though she gave up trying in the "debate"). The scariest thing is that this election remains close.

This time, if America wants a better future, we had better bet on brains.

Tocqueville also warned, "America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." We've voted twice for a party that (for starters) supports an illegal war, illegal imprisonment, illegal torture, illegal judicial appointments, illegal wire-tapping and unregulated financial markets. The crowds that poured out for Barack Obama during his foreign tour weren't coming so much for him, but for us. They'd heard that this young man could lead to a resurgence of the bright and generous America they once admired.

We've underfunded education and overfunded the military; so now, compared to other civilized nations — the ones holding their collective breath — more of our citizens are less smart, less healthy, less wealthy, even apparently less happy. But that's OK: We've still got the most bombs.

Writing at the same time as McLuhan, poet Robert Lowell stared into America's future, as seen in Boston Common:

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

—from "For the Union Dead" (1964)

Jeanne and Peter Meinke get by with one car, though they agree that sometimes poses problems. The Contracted World is his most recent poetry collection.