I have a theory. It may or may not be true.
If people are informed, they are more likely to make rational decisions that will lead to moral behaviors. If given the chance, people are able to think for themselves. In a democracy, public education and a free press theoretically serve the purpose of not only giving people valid information (rather than propaganda/misinformation) but also teaching analytical thinking skills (which would help individuals see past propaganda/misinformation). It would seem that a democracy can’t function (except as a superficial facade) unless the education system and media effectvely serves this purpose. To the extent they fail, people aren’t capable of making rational decisions that lead to moral behaviors.
This failure leads to ideological justification by those in power not to inform the public and to actively misinform the public. Many in power believe it’s outright dangerous to share too much information with the public. Also, it’s simply in the personal interest of those in power to not encourage the general public towards independent thinking.
So, this is why democracy makes a wonderful ideal but tends not to live up to it’s own idealism. Despite what some claim, democracy isn’t based on the ideal of enlightened selfishness for in reality what is in the personal interest of those in power is too often not in the best interest of the average person. Democracy, in reality, can only work if people are willing to sacrifice their personal interest for the greater good. But this has to be willing because if forced it’s just something like communism (although an authentic democracy could be socialist and I would argue that any authentic democracy inherently has aspects of socialism). So, what would actually cause politicians to act for the greater good?
The Founding Fathers believed in a disinterested aristocracy (but it should be mentioned that this doesn’t conflict the populist strain within American society; public education existed early in US history and Benjamin Franklin helped start one of the earliest public libaries). The idea of disinterested aristorcracy was that, by being above the troubles and responsibilities of the common person and by being above the capitalist entanglements of the businessman, the professional politician could be objective about what is truly good for all. The idea is that being a politician is a social role one plays and not a personal career move. This attitude of the Founding Fathers was genuine and became established when George Washington refused to become a life-long ruler as many expected (and as some hoped). George Washington stepping down of his own freewill from the reigns of power was simply unheard of in the world at that time. Maybe this worked in early America because the Federal government was so small and people had great freedom to make their own decisions. The aristocracy could remain disinterested because they lacked extensive power. It’s been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The problem with America is that it couldn’t remain a small agrarian culture forever.
There was one other attribute of Founding Fathers as disinterested aristorcracy. The Founding Fathers were the intellectual elite of American culture. They may have made their money in various professions, but what they’re remembered for is being great thinkers. They were well educated and they saw part of their role as helping educate the public (for example, they started public libraries and published newspapers). Along with being intellectuals, they were also inventors and scientists. Benjamin Franklin became famous and helped America’s cause through his inventions and scientific discoveries. Some of the Founding Fathers embodied the ideal of the Rennaisance man who knows a little bit about everything. This is very different from today. Politicians no longer are considered the intellectual elite of our culture. Most present politicians didn’t start their careers as professors and intellectuals. And science, for sure, doesn’t seem to be of great interest or concern to the majority of politicians these days (except as it applies to military technology).
Modern America still has a disinterested aristocracy but it just no longer is the politician who plays this role. In their place, scientists and media reporters became the new class from which we expected objective insight and guidance. During much of the 20th century, Americans idolized scientists and reporters. These authority figures were fully trusted.
However, now even this has changed because all of society has changed. In particular, technology has changed. With the internet, information is now widely and easily accessible by the common person. We no longer need a disinterested aristocracy to mediate information for us. In fact, anyone who tries to mediate our information is looked upon with wariness. At the same time, propaganda and advertising has become increasingly advanced. Those in power are becoming more subtle in their ability to manipulate people, in their ability to manipulate public opinion. The government is learning from it’s mistakes, but it’s surprising how little changes in many ways. Human psychology is the same now as it was a hundred years ago. The government keeps repeating the same propaganda techniques even as it refines them.
Is the disinterested aristorcracy a dead ideal? Or will a new group of people take up this role? In the information age, who will the coming generations trust?
Interestingly, the Millennial Generation seems to trust their own peer group more than adult authority figures… which I suppose is a phenomenon that started with the latchkey kids of Generation X who perfected the attitude of mistrusting authority. Millennials trust what they hear repeatedly from their friends and from internet buzz. They’re less likely to trust a single source. It’s been a long time since the whole nation sat rapt in front of their televisions all listening to Walter Cronkite say “And that’s the way it is.” Can you imagine people trusting the opinion of a single person so blindly? Uncle Cronkite said it and so it must be true.
Nowadays, we’re overloaded with viewpoints. Gen Xers especially learned to always check for opposing views and to look at the data to decide for ourselves… maybe because we’re such a small and under-represented group. I’m not sure about the generations growing up now, but the very idea of a disinterested aristocracy goes against the whole mood of Generation X. Rightly or wrongly, we post-Boomers tend to believe we can think for ourselves. Why should we expect politicians, scientists and reporters to do our thinking for us? Why shouldn’t authority be questioned? Even the Founding Fathers understood that freedom requires eternal vigilance.
I have one last thought. I have noticed that some people still idealize the concept of the disinterested aristocracy. Mostly, I’ve noticed this with the Boomer Generation but I’m not sure it will die out with them. The biggest proponent of this is the Boomer Ken Wilber who is a proponent of Integral Theory which borrows heavily from Spiral Dynamics. A major idea in this Wilber’s worldview is that there are different levels of development and the higher the development the more clear one can see previous stages. According to the theory, this is a particular distinction between what is called 1st tier and 2nd tier. Once someone has developed to 2nd tier they can see the whole structure of 1st tier and will thus make the ideal leader. They can speak to people on all different levels because they’re not attached to any of them. Essentially, the 2nd tier person is the ultimate disinterested aristocracy. Only a small percentage of people have developed 2nd tier enough that they can take up this role. So, it’s up to them to guide the lesser developed general public.
I have no particular opinion about whether this theory is true or false, but I do wonder about it’s implementation. Even though a 2nd tier person may think they’re perfect material for the disinterested aristocracy, they still have to convince the self-interested lower classes. Some might find it of interest that a few well known politicians are fans of Wilber’s work. A notable example is Bill Clinton… yet another Boomer.
I suppose there will always be people who will justify their power as disinterested aristocracy. That is of little interest to me. What fascinates me is the view from the crowd. All political power is based on a social contract whether overt or implied. What causes people to believe or disbelieve that those in power actually have their best interest in mind and are capable of acting on it? Do people even care? Or is there just something in human nature that wants to believe in some wise and good authority figure, be it God or a politician? Is the only thing that matters is that someone, anyone fills the role? And, if the role is filled even marginally, will people always follow obediently?
Has technology actually changed the game or not? Even in this age of information, do people actually want the whole truth whatever that might mean? We’ve all grown up being lied to by so many authority figures that it seems normal. Even the liar has to convince himself in order to tell a convincing lie. Deception seems to be normal human behavior. Would we even recognize the truth if it were offered to us? What would a society look like that was based on an open sharing of unbiased knowledge? Is such a thing even imaginable?
Some believe that people have to be saved from themselves. Some people believe that democracy is in danger of being destroyed by the crowd. Are these beliefs true?
* As a note, I’d guess that the idea of disinterested aristocracy originated with Plato’s Philosopher King. The general idea probably became popular in many cultures during the Axial Age. As for democracy, it’s interesting how two models influenced Western thought. Athenian democracy was always romanticized with it’s participatory citizenry and it’s engaged public debate. This represents the ideal of democracy, but the reality of modern democracy tended to take a different direction. Western governments have often been more drawn to Spartan democracy with it’s elite governing class who rules by military force but which protects itself from being taken over by a dictator through the division of power. US democracy, for certain, is closer to Spartan democracy… but maybe the Founding Fathers were originally trying to establish the Athenian model. However, the pull between the two types of democracy is ever present. If we become too cynical about the ideal of disinterested democracy, do we risk going too far in the direction of militant democracy?