Replacing Anton Scalia on the U. S. Supreme Court is going set off some sparks. As a conservative, he dismissed the notion of a living constitution and believed that idea risked warping original intent. (Click) I understand the intellectual purity of his position but what has that to do with life? The Constitution was written by wealthy white men, landowners, several of whom were also slave owners. When they wrote that all men were created equal, they didn’t mean women and certainly not black men. A few folks in this country might like to turn the clock back, deprive women of the vote and reinstitute slavery, perhaps. But I suspect mainstream Americans have no wish to look back that far to interpret today’s notions of justice, particularly as, among the young, some are questioning the viability of democracy itself. “…young people across Europe and the United States are increasingly skeptical of democracy and sympathetic to strong-man rule, even military government. (“America’s New Opposition,” by Jedediah Purdy, New Republic March 2017, pg. 30.)
I find the increased discontent with democracy stunning. Nonetheless, I can think of at least three reasons to account for it. The first stems from the erosion of public education. Once known as the melting pot, schools were places where students from all social backgrounds met, mingled and worked out a consensus for getting along. That process has been cannibalized by the growth of alternative schools, places where diversity is replaced to create havens for like minds. The poor are left to fend for themselves in overcrowded, underfunded institutions.
The second reason democracy may be on the wane is the weakening of the Labor movement. If ever there was a cauldron for democratic debate, it was in the union halls of America. Technology has minimized the worker’s influence on democracy as it opens the world to free trade. The changes have come so fast, unions have had little time to react. Certainly, when a company can pull up stakes and move to another country in a few months, the slow give-and-take of negotiations and talk about employee rights seems quaint.
The third reason democracy is in trouble lies with the actions of Ronald Regan and his decision to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine. That doctrine required balanced news reporting. (Click) No longer obliged to give equal treatment to both sides of public issues, the media splintered and now caters to the views of its audience. Today, we have “ liberal news,” “conservative news,” and even “alternative news.” When life is viewed through distinct prisms, it’s hard to form a consensus.
As children in school, we were taught there were three branches of government: the Presidency, the Congress and the Supreme Court. These were the bulwarks of our democracy. But they are not the sole bulwarks. For a democracy to flourish, it needs supporting social institutions. Places must exist where we learn its principles and practice them. With our schools, our unions and our media in disarray, no wonder the young begin to doubt.