Our anxieties about democracy typically focus on the scum floating on the surface. Political polarizations might lead us to note different noxious currents, and the good hearted and most civic among us are likely, then, to say that the problem rests in our distant standpoints, our filter bubbles, our echo chambers. I think that the decline of a pragmatic middle is a problem, but I think it’s a symptom of a deeper problem, one that is not especially American. It’s global.
We are living in an unprecedented world, more deeply interconnected than ever before, but whose problems are increasingly wicked in the technical sense. And they are found in the middle of a world which is increasingly unequal. Those at the very top of our economic ladders, regardless of whether they live in New York or New Delhi, whether in Beijing or in Brussels, are facing lives of extraordinary mobility and opportunity, celebrating what globalization can bring and the solutions the World Economic Forum might offer. But the difference in life chances is becoming increasingly disparate. Rhode Island exemplifies this in microcosm.
About 20 percent of Brown University students come from this country’s ruling class (understood as the top 1 percent), and less than 10 percent from the bottom 40 percent of our nation’s class structure. If we were to add to that those who come from other nations’ ruling classes, we would become even more aware of this disparity within Brown. But that pales in comparison to what most of those being educated in Rhode Island experience, and especially the 17 percent of children who live in poverty, and nearly 8 percent who live in extreme poverty.
Democracy is not only about electoral systems. My favorite definition comes from Charles Tilly. A regime is “democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation.” When there are such unequal capacities in a city, much less in a society, and even less in the world, to focus on political elites being unable to talk to one another is a distraction. I would rather ask how political elites define and address problems like these of inequality.
That sounds like a progressive’s approach, and it is. I participated in a group composed of political leaders and intellectuals from across the world over the last year that issued a global vision manifesto, recognizing growing inequalities is at its heart. But note those putting whites first, and Catholics first, and nationalists first, are doing the same. Steve Bannon threatens war in the Republican Party by attacking political elites; Poland’s Law and Justice Party secures its legitimacy by subsidizing growing families; Hungary’s Orban attacks billionaire George Soros for supporting minority rights and academic freedom with his Central European University.
What Orban and Bannon do with this, however, is not to address inequality per se, but rather inspire the street fight. They have no real solutions for the inequalities we are facing, but they do know how to mobilize hate and distract us from really wicked problems. Let us, for example, focus on whether the NFL kneels during the national anthem instead of the competence of government to assure health care, and then bemoan the loss of the sacred in American life. I agree that the loss of the sacred is a problem, but to focus on it is a way of assuring that those without competence in governing can retain legitimacy among their base.
The problem is not fake news or political polarization; it is that we have lost the organizational forms, policy capacities and knowledge competencies to address the wicked problems facing us and the inequalities surrounding them. Publics know this, but can’t articulate it for that suggests a hopeless future, something democracies cannot withstand. We live in a world, then, of Ubermensch Escapism where we put our faith in a great leader like Trump or Putin or Orban, or in a simple decision, like Brexit. But these choices only make things worse.
For democracy to find its way, its survival, we need to focus immediately, locally, and find ways to address the wicked problems in our communities so that we have means of hope. Yes, we need to develop forms of solidarity that defend democratic institutions, we need to put our faith in democratic institutions, and we need to find ways to talk with one another. But we need to invest in meaningful collaborations among democratic forces to address real problems and focus less on the street fights. Indeed, might we even develop hope in this state of hope?
Might we extend ways to combine Brown University’s capacities, and those of other educational institutions, local foundations and government offices, alongside citizen initiatives to tackle the most obvious problem in our immediate democracy’s present and future? What stops us from generating the civic imagination to address the inequalities in educational opportunity facing Rhode Island’s residents? That’s a wicked problem, but the combined capacities of these institutions and social forces suggest an awesome capacity for cultivating a meaningful hope in these justifiably anxious times.