Lack of informed engagement by citizens of democratic nations fuels deterioration of democracy at home and abroad.
August 9, 2023
As critical issues reach boiling points that would promote engagement and decisive action from responsible persons at far earlier stages, a key fact has been the disengagement of a large proportion of the citizenry of ostensibly democratic nations. Democracy has been declining worldwide every year since 2005. Escalating Russian atrocities and cultural genocide in Ukraine unheard of since the Second World War have evoked progressively less reaction from the West and no “red lines.” Environmental degradation continues at scale while Western nations have pushed exorbitantly expensive but largely symbolic measures that empower authoritarian regimes. The escalating U.S. debt and credit rating downgrade after years of warnings has not been seriously addressed by either political party. Countless other crises at home and abroad threaten to reach points of no return.
Whereas the viability of democratic governance rests on an informed and principled citizenry, a large proportion of citizens of democratic nations have mentally “checked out,” disengaging from foundational responsibilities. We have become what English author Aldous Huxley described as a trivial culture, preoccupied with leisure and entertainment. Celebrity news, travel diaries, cat photos, and foodie pics on social media frequently generate more engagement than serious discussion of contemporary issues. Everyone has an opinion about competing professional sports teams, yet questions of what we are doing to address larger societal challenges evoke blank stares.
Attention has migrated from the real world to virtual ones. The average American of all ages spends more time in front of a recreational screen than at work or school, nearly fifty hours a week. Studies have reported that Americans spend nearly half of their waking lives in front of a screen, overwhelmingly for recreational purposes, and more time in front of a screen than sleeping.
To the extent that most individuals engage with serious issues of our time at all, it is often in the form of political polemic based on partisan narratives rather than serious, even-handed attempts to get at the facts and identify principled, sensible solutions. Across the political spectrum, the disengaged and uninformed are more susceptible to propaganda and disinformation.
Neil Postman summarized the concerns of English author Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian Brave New World:
"Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance...Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture...As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'"
George Orwell further noted the distraction of entertainment as a cause of dysfunction and means of social control in his dystopian novel 1984: "films, football, beer, and...gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult."
Greater awareness and evidence-based, fair-minded engagement of citizenry on key issues are essential to protect human liberties and to build a brighter future.