Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship

Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship

Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship

Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship

Synopsis

Modern mass democracies are presently threatened by the political indifference of their citizens. Alex Zakaras argues that the nineteenth-century ideal of individuality suggests a response to this indifference and a way of understanding the burdens of contemporary citizenship. In exploring this idea, he turns to a pair of philosophers-John Stuart Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson-who were among the first to confront the specific challenge of making mass democracy work.

Excerpt

For over half a century now, social scientists have described American citizens as politically ignorant, apathetic, and self-involved. Consider this familiar litany of empirical findings: with occasional exceptions, voter turnout is low or declining; the average voter’s knowledge of public affairs is flimsy and her judgments vulnerable to “framing” and propaganda; public opinion is unstable and irrational, subject to voters’ variable moods and prejudices, or to the perennial instabilities of aggregation procedures. Readers unfamiliar with the past six decades of research on the American voter are invariably astonished by its pessimism.

Since Joseph Schumpeter’s influential writing in the 1940s, political scientists have used such research to puncture common assumptions about democracy. Democracy is, after all, thought to be government by the people. It is commonly thought to require, at the very least, that citizens be able to form judicious political judgments and be willing to sustain an interest in public affairs. If these requirements turn out to be impossible to fulfill, democracy itself loses much of its appeal. As an ideal, it becomes suddenly unattractive, for it recommends the political empowerment of a group of people terminally unfit for government. As a description, it seems simply wrong, a pleasant veneer that conceals the “iron law” of oligarchy: in modern democracy, as in every other society, elites rule and everyone else follows.

Though this book offers a response to these concerns, it nowhere suggests that they should be dismissed. What political scientists observe through surveys and polls, many more casual critics have gathered from their own experience: the Rockwellian ideal of democracy—participatory, deliberative, egalitarian—that still captivates our imaginations is for the most part anachronistic, as is the corresponding conception of citizenship. In fact, citizens of modern mass democracies very rarely have occasion for formal deliberation or participation in the affairs of their nation. Our political posture is mostly passive: We receive political propaganda designed by marketing professionals. We consume staged political spectacles that are scarcely distinguishable from other forms of “reality” entertainment. We find ourselves enclosed, as . . .

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