The Virtues of Liberalism

By James T. Kloppenberg | Go to book overview

SEVEN
DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY AND THE PROBLEM OF POVERTY IN AMERICA

DEMOCRACY HAS RECENTLY become an almost universally attractive ideal. But if everyone invokes democracy as an ideal, it is only because democracy means very different things to different people. For some it means nothing more than choosing political representatives through universal suffrage, then allowing those elected to make decisions as they see fit. For others democracy means universal participation in all forms of social and economic as well as political decision making. As attractive as it is in theory, the practice of democracy almost everywhere falls far short of its promise.

Democracy in the United States is in especially bad shape. In the 1996 presidential election in the United States only 48 percent of the electorate bothered to vote, the lowest total since 1924 and the second lowest since 1824. Exit polls revealed that even many of those who voted had little knowledge of the presidential candidates' positions on issues such as welfare reform, defense spending, and environmentalism. The public draws most of its information about politics from television, where anesthetizing images of uplifting fluff alternate with attack ads to poison public discourse. On the evening of the presidential election, only one of the major television networks broadcasting coverage of the election returns attracted as many viewers as the broadcast of the movie Beethoven, which is a film not about a gifted composer but about a very large dog.

Beyond concern about the lack of public participation in contemporary American democratic politics, there is widespread concern about the nature of the participation that does exist. During the debates between candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, candidates whose relentless informality reflected and extended the striking decline of deference in American politics, one of the experiments with voter reaction illustrated the extent to which democratic politics and marketing are converging at the end of the twentieth century. Viewers of the debates at a number of sites, including the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, sat at desks equipped with dials that enabled them to register their de-

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