Thomas Andrew Bryer is a professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida and a professor at Kaunas University of Technology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities
In the past couple of months, leading up to events transpiring in cities around the country these past few weeks, foundational issues and values of who we are as a country and as a people are being tested and debated, not only in legislative bodies and courtrooms but on social media and on the streets.
A short while ago, a congressman from South Carolina, James Clyburn, made a statement that the democracy in the United States is at a crossroads right now. And when such a respected, long-term congressman says something as profound as “democracy is at a crossroads”, we sit up and listen, and maybe should start thinking about a discussion on these issues.
The discussion could be started by looking back at the three major events. The first one is a protest at Michigan, where protesters were carrying semi-automatic assault weapons on the steps of the State of Michigan capitol building. People were protesting the COVID-19 lockdown orders and were asking to open the state of Michigan.
So, the first question is, what are the rights and responsibilities of these people? Can they take up public places in our cities, armed with high powered guns, demanding to change policy? The protests had supporters, one of whom was President Trump. He tweeted a message asking to liberate Michigan, to liberate Massachusetts, to liberate New York, to liberate the cities with the top restrictions. So, what is acceptable in terms of speech, of citizen voice, of citizen assembly? That is one of the issues.
Another issue could be illustrated by a couple of tweets that the President wrote that were later flagged as advocating violence and being untrue. So, this begs the questions: what is the amount of free speech that should be permitted on Social Media? Is there an opportunity or a role for regulating speech online? If so, what does the regulation look like? Who should make decisions about it?
After the tweets were fact-checked and flagged, the President issued an executive order to change the legal status of social media companies providing the individuals a right to sue them, rendering them no longer protected entities, which could potentially make them fearful of censoring words and content. The executive order defines communication on social media as “important for meaningful participation in American democracy”, the President’s fear being if we allow those private companies to pass judgement on language, content, words written and shared by private citizens or public officials than we are giving too much power to private corporations, and it will disrupt American democracy.
In the order Trump also referenced his impeachment and tweets that were not flagged, insinuating that if somebody else can mislead, why he could not? And while we can debate the accuracy of fact-checking, and what could be factual and what could not, the issue here is more significant to those concerned about free speech. Who should regulate and how? Should it be the government? Should it be private corporations? Should it be self-governed by the users? This is a core debate on free speech that must occur.
The last issue is the riots and protests that are taking place in response to the murder of George Floyd, and all the upheaval that has cascaded around the country. Here again, we can ask, what are the limits of free speech, of assembly? Who is responsible for determining what is safe what is not safe? What are the appropriate curfews and what are not? What is legal, what is not legal? And how do we find the balance in these different forms of expression to make sure that we are protecting our freedoms in a way that also serves to protect the general welfare of the country?
There is a famous story told about American history. After the United States Constitution was drafted, Dr Benjamin Franklin walked out into the street and a woman is reported to have asked him “Dr Franklin, what have you given us, what kind of a government have you given us?” And, apparently, he said, “We have given you a republic if you can keep it”. The phrase is now very popular, it is repeated by Democrats, by Republicans, by all kinds of people.
The essence of the phrase is that you have a republic, you have a form of representative democracy, it is yours, it will survive, it will be strong. If you treat it well. If you keep it in good shape if you keep it in good standing. A republic, if we can keep it. What does that mean? The Constitution and the preamble to the Constitution identifies six goals to be pursued through the government, through the enactment of the different provisions of the Constitution. There should be a more perfect union that occurs because of the enactment of the Constitution. There should be justice, there should be domestic tranquillity, there should be common defence, general welfare, and we should all be secure with the blessings of liberty.
As we look at these six goals, we can ask, are these goals in alignment with each other, do they work together? Is there conflict across them? Is there a conflict between the ideals of liberty and the ideal of general welfare? Or liberty and tranquillity? Or perfect union and tranquillity? Or perfect union and justice? We can suggest that the whole of the experiment in the United States form of government has been an ongoing tug of war across the values associated with these different goals. President Trump even acknowledged this recently in a way. He said “we cannot have liberty if there is no justice. Without justice, there can be no liberty”. In many ways, that is a profound statement. Unfortunately, his definition of justice was more along the lines of a heavy hand of the government to ensure stability, to ensure discipline, to ensure obedience to the law. His definition of justice in that statement was not the facilitative hand of government to promote social justice, to promote equity, to promote that general welfare idea of justice, but rather the “law and order” idea of justice.
How Can They Be Achieved?
One suggestion to achieve all six, or at least peacefully and progressively balance across these six goals, is to practice what a French visitor to the United States wrote in the early 1900s when he visited the country: that our ability to be free, our ability to achieve success, our ability to have liberty and to enjoy the blessings of liberty depend upon everyone else around us being able to do the same.
If everyone around us is not successful or does not have the opportunity to find success, then we cannot be successful. If everybody around us is not secure in their blessings of liberty, then we cannot be secure in our blessings of liberty. Our limits are set by the limits of everybody else around us. That is the idea, and perhaps that is the ideal of what we can be. But there are institutional barriers and there are psychological barriers that prevent us from practising this idea of self-interest rightly understood. And summarizing, the idea is that individualism prevents self-interest rightly understood from practice and prevents pursuit of these six goals consistently and across the board.
By individualism I do not mean wanting to believe in or to have one’s own identity; here individualism is as an idea is that I, as an individual, do not see what other people are doing around me, I do not pay attention to concerns of other people around me. To quote Alexis de Tocqueville [the visitor from France referenced earlier], in “Democracy in America” he defined this threat of individualism in this way: “I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself”. This is the risk of individualism. Someone that is concerned only with themselves or only a tight circle around them, not with others.
We have a problem with an unaccountable representation. Although we have a representative system of government, we elect local members of government, of state government, of the national congress. A typical citizen, if we can define a typical citizen, that does not have the tools, does not have the knowledge, does not have, in a way, the skill set or the confidence to hold our representatives to account. They do not know whether the individual serving in Washington DC or in a city centre, or in the state capital is actually acting in a way that represents their interests.
There is a broken link between representation and accountability. And with that broken link, we can argue, and philosophers on representation have argued, that if there is no accountability in representation than there is, in fact, no representation. So, we have a problem that prevents our ability to act with self-interest rightly understood. We have pure self-interest, greed, the corruption that plagues many of our citizens, our institutions of government that are conceived and created knowing that human beings are purely self-interested, as James Madison wrote “If men were angels,” we would not need various checks and balances to ensure that those who are serving in public office are working for the public and not for themselves, but, we are not angels.
Can We Be Better?
We need all of those protections. So, the pure self-interest gets in the way. We have an unequal voice in the society where some are treated as credible actors in our policy-making classes, and some are treated as less credible actors and when you see that unequal voice rise up, like we see in these protests, in both cases, those that are protesting on the streets, now as well as the armed protests, we are seeing voices that have not been typically heard, that are trying to get attention, trying to gain control of some part of the debate. But we have this unequal voice that prevents the practice of self-interest rightly understood. We have fear in the Other, we have fear of minorities, we have fear of people who speak different languages, who look different, who believe different, and this prevents us as well from moving in a progressive positive direction, and then we have prejudice and discrimination in our laws, in our institutions, in our rules and in our policy outcomes.
Just as an example, if we look at blacks and whites in the United States on a variety of different measures, and they are publicly available elsewhere. The average income for whites in the US is 71000 dollars per year. The average income for blacks in the US is 41 000 dollars per year. The average wealth for whites in the US is 171000 dollars. The average wealth for blacks in the US is 17600 dollars. So, we have a significant wealth disparity. Unemployment disparity – 14,2% for whites, 16,7 for blacks. And we have an extreme poverty disparity. White – 8,1% Blacks – 20,8 %. If we expand the definition of poverty, the numbers may be even more different.
We have these prejudices, these discriminations, but, of course, we also have democratic tools that are available to us to right these wrongs, to correct these institutions. These democratic tools could be presented as a list of V words, with a little bit of flexibility, just to remember them. Our democratic tools are to Vote, to express Voice, to Volunteer, to inVite others to the conversation, and to inVent new practices, policies, procedures to correct where things are failing. This is where we are being called to invent or to reinvent the procedures that allow for the police attacks and the inequitable treatment of blacks by police in towns across the United States.
But we have nondemocratic practices that dominate discourse and dominate the action in many parts of American society. Words like Vilify, Violate, Violence, indiVidualize or inVade. So, my conclusion is that the United States is a democratic nation in idea, but not in practice. That is a sombre conclusion. Representative Clyburn said that democracy is at its crossroads now, and I guess I would agree with that, except I would say that we are on the wrong side of the cross and we have to find our way back. We have institutions and individuals that inhibit self-interest rightly understood, thus making a strike at the balance between the described goals a perpetual journey. That is how the country was defined at its founding. We are part of an experiment, this country is a grand experiment, the United States. It is a country that requires us to be on this perpetual journey.
But the perpetual question to the perpetual journey is “can we be better?”, for instance, when there is individualism, can we develop togetherness through volunteering and inviting others in a conversation? When there is an unaccountable representation, can we invite direct voice with government and invent new approaches for deliberation and policymaking? When there is pure self-interest, can we vote and raise our voices, if not, what is getting in our way? When there is unequal voice, can we invent new institutions that would treat all of us with credibility, if not, what is getting in our way? When there is fear, can we invite all voices to the same table and volunteer across communities? If not, what is getting in our way? And when there is prejudice and discrimination, can we vote and invent new laws that prevent the consequences, if not, what is blocking our ability to change the laws that are creating and sustaining these discriminatory practices?