Making Democracy Work: A "Wicked" Problem

A "wicked" problem, as defined by Wikipedia, is "a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize." Another definition, according to Wikipedia, "is a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

People talk about "saving our democracy." Or about "protecting our democracy." The discussion often proceeds as if until recently we were safe in possessing a democracy but recently it has become endangered by MAGA Republicans. It is certainly true that the deterioration of the Republican party into an anti-democratic force makes this description seem to be true. But stepping back – and depending on how you define what a democracy is – it's clear that our democracy has been on shaky ground for a long time now.

If democracy means that the will of the majority is reflected in the decisions of the government, we haven't lived in a healthy democracy for years. A famous 2014 study covering nearly 1800 policy issues concluded that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence…. Majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts."

But we don't all share that majoritarian definition of democracy, as is clear from the fact that a substantial portion of the MAGA Republicans also say that they believe our democracy is threatened, but they say Democrats are the ones doing the threatening. If you abandon a partisan lens, it isn't difficult to see that "corporate Democrats" have at least been accomplices in thwarting the majority's desires.

So, let's go back to this idea of a "wicked" problem, and break our democracy concerns down analytically using the "wicked" concept to see how it could help us understand our problem, and most importantly, how we should proceed if we value democracy and want to strengthen it and make it perform as theory says it should.

The Elements of Wickedness

Democracy is not a separable or independently functioning part of society, but rather it is a method of problem definition and decision making interacting and interdependent with virtually every part of a society, its institutions, and its culture. It is an incredibly complex system that is inextricably incorporated into the even more incredibly complex system that is our society.

A few of the characteristics of a wicked problem stand out when we think deeply about our strengthening democracy challenge:

Some examples will serve to illustrate our difficulties.

When reformers successfully proposed campaign finance regulations that limited contributions, court decisions and interest groups created ways around these limits (Super PACs) that in fact increased the power of special interests.

Attempts to increase voting, often proposed as a solution, have often led to partisan turnout wars in which the uninformed and misinformed also turned out in greater numbers, without any overall improvement in outcomes.

A proliferation in political media channels, rather than leading to a better-informed electorate, has instead splintered the electorate into increasingly narrow partisan silos and created separate information ecosystems within which subgroups have polarized and information is not shared across silos. This has fractured and rendered impotent the majority's will.

Social media, which was once touted as a great democratizing force, has instead become a vehicle for increasing polarization and the vilification of political opponents.

Educational reforms, which were intended to better prepare graduates to get jobs in the economy, caused less "practical" courses, such as civics and history, to be greatly reduced. This has led to an electorate that does not understand our political system and does not "remember" the basis for past decisions.

Deregulation of broadcast TV stations, intended to promote greater flexibility for broadcasters to follow market incentives, has led to lower quality news, less public-serving information, and more propagandistic advertising. Think oil company commercials.

Earlier in the history of broadcast television, broadcasters did not treat the news as a profit center. Everything else they did was, of course, but they carved out an exception in managing their public obligation to serve as the "Fourth Estate," to serve democracy by providing news even though it wasn't profitable. Today, news has become a profit center, and it must be advertising supported. This has amplified media pandering to our species' conflict bias. In seeking to maximize eyeballs for greater profits, news organizations are today sowing division because conflict attracts the largest audience.

Not only has this profit maximization degraded the news, but it has contributed to the dominance of 30-second paid commercials in our political campaigns. Few developments have done more to promote voter cynicism and alienation than the dominance of paid political advertising.

Streaming media, once thought to allow greater diversity in the information available to voters, has contributed to an information environment saturated with sophisticated corporate propaganda and deceptive advertising.

Unlimited free speech, often considered a benefit to democracy, has devolved into the right to lie. This has resulted in the growth of outlets that specialize in political lying for profit. Fox "News" comes to mind.

What Wickedness Means for Strengthening Democracy

When we think about strengthening democracy, precisely because there is no clear or agreed upon problem statement or positive goal, we need to define what we believe is a well-functioning democracy. To establish a framework for thinking about this, see the article Needed: A Well-Functioning Democracy.

Because this is a wicked problem, there is no single key, no single path, no single vision, no single leader. Our democracy is extraordinarily complex and has dozens of interacting parts subject to reform efforts. For one expression of this, see the article An Ambitious Strategy for Success.

If we tackle many elements of the problem at the same time, we can set up positive synergies where a little progress in one area can make progress on other aspects more likely. If, for example, we can improve civics and history education in a community's schools, it can make turning out more voters who are also better informed a bit easier. This is a non-linear approach to a non-linear complex systems problem.

Considering strengthening democracy as a wicked problem can beneficially point us toward recognizing the complexity of reform efforts as well as recognizing the danger of unintended effects. This suggests that caution is called for, that modesty in our certitudes is rational, and that making sweeping generalizations is unwise.

Seeing democracy reform as complex also encourages a collaborative and iterative approach. Wicked problems require diverse perspectives, and this means involving various stakeholders, both from the full array of social and economic sectors as well as from across the democracy-supporting political spectrum (including traditional conservatives).

When we view strengthening democracy as deeply enmeshed in society, we are encouraged to look beyond the narrowly political and see that fostering a culture of active civic engagement is integral to reinforcing democracy-affirming values. Democracy is ever evolving and requires continuous nurturing and attention from all of us. This is a task that will never be finished. Seeing it as a wicked challenge reminds us of that critically important reality.

Finally, there is the challenge of democratic thought and discourse. Lincoln, who confronted the extraordinarily wicked problem of slavery, framed how we should approach complex problems: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present." When he ran into a firestorm of criticism for suspending habeas corpus, he replied: "Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?"

We need to think carefully about how the First Amendment is being used to supercharge political lying. Fox "News" and its ilk are essentially shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. The First Amendment is not absolute. We do not permit slander or defamation, yet the First Amendment is being weaponized to permit systematic, intentional, and ongoing mass deception in ways and to an extent that could lead to the destruction of our democratic system. As Lincoln said so clearly: "The Constitution is not a suicide pact." Other democracies have found ways to limit political lying. We need to rethink our absolutist position on this question. Carefully, because freedom of speech is a precious right that we also must protect. Nothing could better illustrate the wickedness of our challenge than this question.

Published: August 2023
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