The Vital Balance of a Functioning Democracy
The vital balance of a functioning democracy, and how political polarization undermines it. Inspired by current events and trends.
…truth [is no longer] a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else…
Thus wrote Bari Weiss in her letter of resignation earlier this week. She was resigning from her position as a columnist on the New York Times Opinion staff. Her resignation followed the resignation of James Bennet, who had been Editor-in-Chief, after the publication of that controversial Tom Cotton op-ed.
Liberal opinion on these happenings has been split. Some say that the behavior directed towards Bari Weiss by other members of the Times staff, as described in her letter, is repulsive and abhorrent. Others mock her, saying that “she was so desperate to prove the existence of cancel culture that she went and canceled herself and waited for the liberal backlash.” Well, dear sir on the Internet, I must ask — who are you but the liberal backlash?
People have mocked her work. Which in some cases was undoubtedly ill-researched. And a number of liberals have questioned the fact of her hiring since she was hired — check out this article from way back in 2017. That does not necessarily mean that she isn’t speaking some truth in her resignation letter. All that being said, I am not here to defend Bari Weiss. I’ve presented her as an example, as a conversation starter, so that we can begin to talk more generally about how political polarization has seeped into widespread aspects of our society, from the mainstream media to science. Yes, science, that supposed bastion of logic and reason.
A number of people are wondering whether conservative Times columnist Bret Stephens, who was hired just before Weiss, will also call it quits. If he does so, the Times will be left with an almost solely liberal Opinion staff. And what does that mean? Well, we’re going to give it a think together. And we’ll discuss the vital balance of a functioning democracy: the balance that lies behind the success of every democracy, past, present, and future.
If you can’t already tell, this piece is political. And it’s going to get more political. So if you didn’t come here for politics, please do me a favor and run. Or stick around, if you’ve decided you want to read further. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Above: A photograph of Bari Weiss, the former New York Times op-ed columnist. And a photograph of… You decide for yourself what that one means to you.
There are facts in this mess.
They’re there. Here’s an op-ed from the Times about how its actual news reporting has shifted to the left. In my opinion, this shift represents something destructive. It represents the seeping of opinion and of politics into the actually facts of the news, facts which are supposed to remain as objective as possible. It’s not the job of reporters to report on their feelings about a particular piece of news — they’re meant to present the piece of news as objectively as possible, giving their readers a chance to decide on the facts themselves. But the past year, objective journalism has faltered. And has perhaps begun to die out, at least for the time, as left-wing newspapers print news with a left-wing slant, and right-wing newspapers print news with a right-wing slant, and at last the AP is the only place to go for news that’s handed down in the form of facts.
When I say facts, I mean something like, “Two people died in the protest yesterday,” instead of something like, “Two people were killed in the protest yesterday, likely as the result of force exercised by the police,” from the left-wing media and “Two people were killed in the riot yesterday when rioters refused to disband and panicked when the police exercised precautionary measures” from the right-wing media. Look at the difference just a little word choice can make.
Or I’d like to hear, “Large gatherings are dangerous at this time because they increase the risk of transmissions of the virus,” instead of hearing from the left, “Gatherings in protest of the shutdown are deadly right now, but protests for racial justice are good for public health,” and “Gatherings are not a problem at all,” from the right.
And, yes, the example I gave for the left is something that actually came out in the news in the past few weeks: that public health “experts” have in fact said different things about different protests when it comes to public health.
It’s these sorts of perceived hypocrisies — which are, in many cases, real hypocrisies — that get liberals in trouble both from the conservative side of the spectrum and from within their own party.
Because, believe me, there are many liberals who are smart enough to know that the public health experts are spouting a load of baloney. Gathering in large crowds is dangerous right now, period, from the standpoint of virus transmission. Now, if you take a moment to consider other factors, besides the virus, you could well come to the conclusion that the Black Lives Matter protests ought to go forward anyway — because there are things in this world more important than public health, or that will contribute towards public health in the long run, and one of those things is racial justice. But that’s not what the public health experts said. They said that gathering to protest at this time was actually beneficial for public health. They didn’t once say that such gatherings were likely to lead to an increased level of transmissions, even though if you’re a believer in science, you must believe that that’s true.
Science has been politicized. Right now, because the people liberals hold up as scientists spout all sorts of things that can often be disproved or argued against, people on the right have every reason to doubt science. Science has become a political tool. And this hurts liberals and liberal democracy more than it hurts conservatives. Period. Science was once fuel for change and movement in liberal democracy. It is no longer, thanks to its politicization.
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We have reached a dangerous level of political polarization. I say dangerous because this level of political polarization threatens democracy. Democracies tend to implode when they reach a point at which nothing can be accomplished. And we’re nearing that point: a point at which our system becomes so grid-locked that we can’t move fast enough, and that some outward force — be it China or climate change — will be able to take charge and manipulate the situation.
For a democracy to be functional, it must maintain a vital balance between conservatism and liberalism.
This is the vital balance of a functioning democracy. It must remain liberal enough to change and adapt to changing conditions. But it must remain conservative enough not to change too fast, produce rebellions, or introduce jarring and reactionary social change. The paradox of the situation is that in the end-time of a democracy, it tends to diverge in both directions: no change or adaptation occurs, while at the same time rebellion and jarring social change abound. The question: is there still a way to maintain in our democracy the vital balance of a functioning democracy?
I wrote this piece because I fear for our democracy. I’m not sure we’ll be able to maintain the balance that will allow us to get things done while not getting too many things done much longer. Political polarization has spiraled out of control. People have dug themselves in. Everyone has turned into a “conservative” at heart, in that they aren’t looking to change their positions. We’ve become stubborn and prideful. We have stopped looking for real change and started looking for quick, reactionary solutions.
What can we do? I, clearly, have decided to speak out. But speaking out isn’t enough. I know that with an almost existential dread. When I look at the examples of those who spoke out against the impending doom of democracy — the Demostheneses and Ciceros of the world — their fates were bleak, and they failed to save their democracies from the brink. Maybe it’s impossible. Maybe democracies are fated to crumble. Or maybe there’s something we can do that we haven’t stumbled on yet or thought up yet. If you think you have it figured out, I want you to tell me and everyone else who cares to listen.
In the end, will I look stupid if I come out and say that I think there’s a way for our democracy to survive? I’m not sure. In the end, will it look like there was writing on the wall from the start? Quite probably. The world’s most successful democracies have lasted a few hundred years. We’re coming up on a few hundred years. And it seems that the problems are mounting and catching up.
But I am looking for solutions. In the end, it’s likely all I can do is write — write my frustrations and my fears. I have words and so do you. Let’s use them while we still have them.
In that light, if you enjoyed this article about the vital balance of a functioning democracy, or found it thought-provoking, I want — no, need — you to share it with others. Pass it along using the share buttons below. You can also follow Voyage of the Mind using the buttons in the sidebar at the top of the page, or subscribe to our mailing list below. And if you’re loving the work we produce here or find it meaningful, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi.
I am making a promise to you: a promise to keep bringing you the truth, as I see it. But I don’t expect you to believe every facet of my truth — in fact, I’d be uncomfortable if you did, because wouldn’t that make me the same as everyone else? I want to promote debate and discussion, two vital — and currently flagging — aspects of democracy. Tell me about what you’d like me to touch on next.
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