Our Stake in Strengthening Democracy

We live in a time of widespread and growing worry about many things. Nonfiction books are published, and not from the fringe but from best selling authors, with titles like "Collapse" and "The Coming Dark Age." The mood of our time is dark indeed. Doom floats in the mist.

All these worries, when combined with a growing sense of drift, confusion and even chaos "at the top," create difficult-to-resist tendencies toward reactionary populism, which in turn further endanger our democracy. Today's most powerful worry for many Americans is captured by the 2018 international bestseller, How Democracies Die.

We have several critical interests at stake in the survival and strengthening of our democracy. Our values as a country, and our widely admired heritage, are today at risk. Our freedoms - of thought, expression, and action - are threatened, both by the age-old tendencies to autocracy and authoritarianism and by new risks arising from surveillance technology. Our survival as a country, as a civilization, and perhaps even as a species is ever more a concern of many. And on the other side of danger, our chance to build a thriving civilization, arising from the invention of new technologies and new understandings, could be squandered in senseless conflict and deep-seated hatred. All these vital stakes are on the line now.

At Stake: Our Values & Our Heritage

Stepping back from the present moment, history provides a vivid picture of what is at stake in terms of our noblest ideals, our values, and our unique and priceless heritage.

The very existence of America represents a triumph of practical idealism. Our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights were a huge step forward for humankind, moving beyond the darkness, cruelty and disorder of our medieval past.

Our revolution arrived on the heels of the Age of Reason, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, and our founding documents established liberty, democracy, and the rule of law firmly on the world historical stage. The authors were of course also badly flawed humans, slave owners, killers of Native Americans, and all the rest. Still, they changed the world decisively toward human freedom and dignity, and for this, we owe them basically everything we have.

The rule of law. Until recently this sounded like just another abstract idea to many Americans. Now it can be seen for what it is. The long, deep, and bloody history of tyranny, and especially the ideologically driven totalitarian and genocidal regimes of the 20th Century, should convince anyone of the immeasurable value of the rule of law.

Democracy and the rule of law are inseparable of course, and together they represent our only alternative to rule by individuals, who, it seems, almost always devolve into tyrants. Churchill had it right. Democracy is a terrible system, until you consider the alternatives.

But if our values aren't important enough to motivate you to fight for democracy, how about our actual freedom, defended from today's actual threats? Such an abstract concept, this rule of law, until you realize that it's the only thing standing between you and the boot of an autocrat.

At Stake: Our Freedom

Scan the terrain, from disaster capitalism to surveillance capitalism to corporate-state collaborations in total information management. Today's international business organizations, sometimes state sponsored and sometimes operating as near monopolies, are increasingly predatory and growing rapidly in power and reach.

Their influence over society's flows of information has achieved near hegemonic proportions. Alongside the ongoing and progressive collapse of our privacy protections, this leaves us exposed to autocratic leaders and their factions, and susceptible to manipulation by algorithms and the automated systems they drive. Somebody always stands behind these systems, however, so their ascendancy should be understood as a product of the conscious choices of powerful people, and not as some sort of inevitable natural process over which we are inherently powerless.

We are slipping perilously close to the telescreen-in-every-room dystopian nightmare of Orwell's "1984." We are certainly developing the capability to make citizens feel they are never out from under the watchful eye of Big Brother. Autocrats around the world are racing to turn on this capability, and sooner than we think, there will literally be no place to hide.

A functioning democracy is our only real protection against these forces, so if we value our freedom, we'd best become engaged.

However, if our values and our freedom together still aren't important enough to motivate you to fight for democracy, how about our survival?

At Stake: Our Survival

I'm not one who believes that our fate is sealed, that we are doomed to civilization collapse and the massive death and suffering that would go with it. I think we can still save ourselves.

Climate change, destruction of our oceans, forests, and soils, war, famine, pandemics... the danger we face is that these things could kill hundreds of millions if not billions before their time over the next century. We are just now as a society beginning to take in the reality that these disasters are arriving in our time and could hurt or kill us or people we love. Until recently, almost everyone assumed these awful things would happen to people in far off places and comfortably in the distant future. But the storm clouds are no longer on the horizon. They are overhead, the wind is blowing hard, and the drops are starting to fall. Danger has arrived.

It should be clear by now that our elites will not mount an effective defense. They will instead build higher walls around their gated communities and task private security forces to keep the rabble out. Hollywood movies, such as The Hunger Games and Elysium, demonstrate that this horrific vision has already entered the popular imagination.

If we're going to protect our homes and communities, and save our own lives, we're going to have to take control of the democratic process and force elites to commit their wealth to investing in the solutions we need.

If we allow our democracy to fail at this crucial juncture, it would be the beginning of the end for our civilization. Do we need more to motivate us to care about the health of our democracy? There is more.

At Stake: Our Chance to Thrive

As tragic as mass death and suffering would be, and as self-defeating and immoral as creating a mass extinction of other species would be, this is but part of what is at stake.

If we revive our democracy and harness it to protect and serve us, we could also use it to grasp and guide the development of the many fantastic opportunities opening before us.

Many new technologies, from artificial intelligence to robotics, from genetic engineering to quantum computing, could produce big benefits, big harms, or both. What will actually happen depends on who is deciding how and for what purposes these technologies will be developed.

Again, the health and functionality of our democracy will be decisive. If we can give direction in the public interest, the prospect is that we could harness these powerful new tools to finally solve some of the ageless problems of humanity.

A glorious future could open before us, but only if we can guide technology in helpful directions through democratic processes. To fail now would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We are so close. What a tragedy it would be to lose courage now.

Published: August 2019
Revised: July 2023

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