07 July 2006

Books, Elitism and Democracy.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

-Margaret Mead.

Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half have never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half.

-Gore Vidal.

A demagogue, according to H.L. Mencken is:

One who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.

I fully admit that I am out of the cultural mainstream of America. For one thing, I read books, at least a dozen a year, and I probably wander into a bookstore at least as often, although I often don't buy anything. The library is cheaper, Amazon.com can offer better selection, and sometimes the fancy to buy a book hits me in a grocery store or pharmacy or gift shop.

58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.

42% of college graduates never read another book.

80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.

70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. (Or this one: Only 32% of the U.S. population has ever been in a bookstore.)

From NewMexiKen,

I'm also in the minority that reads a newspaper daily, and in the minority that watches fewer than three hours a television a month, although I do watch and rent movies, and I certainly don't have any deep seated moral opposition to television. Even more exceptionally, I gather news from beyond the so called "mainstream media."

There are other things I do that make clear that I'm not your average American. I vote. Indeed, I vote in every contested general and primary and municipal election. I participate in political caucuses. I make small dollar donations to candidates. I volunteer a small number of hours for political campaigns.

But, I'm still shocked at just how deep the divide is between the group of people whom you might call "informed civic participants" and the rest of the American population. I don't have any proof of it, but I strongly suspect that there is a very strong corollation between book readers and voters.

My gut tells me that it is terribly wrong that a majority of eligible American voters don't vote. But, after seeing statistics like this, the argument that those voters would be so uniformed that the would send the country on the wrong track can seem more than felicitious.

There is a constant struggle between having a political system that has the interests of "the People" represented, with institutions designed to create an incentive to do so, and the need to have complex policy decisions made by people who have a clue. This is why we created representative democracy. Democrats believe that the mix of informed decision making and the fiduciary notion of placing one's constituent's interests above your own, is possible. Maybe we overrate human nature's capacity for unselfishness, maybe we don't.

But, when the representatives are not committed to doing the right thing, as long as the masses superficially support a bad policy outcome, you get demagogues who actively promote bad ideas that are supported mostly out of ignorance. In short, you get populism. And, when the interests of "the People" are ignored, you get government by the affluent for the affluent - an oligarchy that falls far short of our democratic ideals. Put these two deviant forms of the democratic process together, and you get the Republican Party.

Laws will never be actually made by people who have never set foot in a bookstore in their life. They shouldn't be. A functioning democracy requires a certain amount of elitism, and that elite is, alas, for now, at least, far thinner than is commonly believed. Most of the time the non-book reading world doesn't care and doesn't vote. But, we do need to design a system, that encourages large voter turnout, because even if they don't make laws, the system needs to encourage that elite to extend itself and represent their interests. Politicians committed to doing the right thing have to come mostly from those who hold a long term view. Doing what the people want when it is a bad idea may win their support today, and going against their interests may escape the notice of the masses, but only until they see the world screw up as a result of those bad ideas and are offered a better solution by politicans willing to take the time to sell good solutions to the masses.


Anonymous said...

Where exactly did you get the reading statistics, and how was the study done? I am a little skeptical when it comes to your numbers.

Off Colfax said...

I'll cover this one for you, Andrew.

He got the numbers from this page on the Para Publishing website, linked to by NewMexiKen as credited above. Para Publishing, as per the "About" page on the website, is a small, mostly single-area publishing company.

Good post, Andrew. Remind me to find your new copyright information so I can figure out how much of this one I can borrow.

But I wonder... Of the people that read a newspaper regularly, how many of them actually do so in dead-tree form? For myself, I rely on news aggregators, talk radio, and RSS feeds for my information-junkie fix, and I've been wondering how far outside the mainstream I actually fall on this issue.