I knew Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow slightly when I was an undergraduate student at Stanford. I was greatly impacted by his book Social Choice and Individual Values at the time and have referred back to it often. In simple terms one of his most famous theories (Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem) says (in his own words): “A deeply divided democracy will not function so there is a need for some amount of consensus for a democracy to function.” This may not sound profound but proving it was enough (combined with many more important economic observations) to win him a Nobel Prize. (Read more and listen to Arrow briefly answer some interesting questions HERE.)
In recent years Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem has come closer and closer to becoming operative here in America. Now, after a contentious election, Arrow’s observation regarding democracy is more important than ever.
Many others have commented on this in recent times, Nobel economist Paul Krugman at this LINK for example. Or others HERE and HERE.Think in the Morning has been pounding the pavement with the same warning long before Donald Trump was elected. For example, consider our 2016 blog The Trolley Problem And The Winter Of Our Discontent. Contrary to what some think, “Trump never was the author of our divisions, but the product of them.”
We will not rehash the comments at the links above. What is dangerous for democracy now is how the divisions in our country have become so much more passionate and unyielding up to and after the recent election. While Joe Biden won the election, Donald Trump still managed to garnish over 70 million votes, an astounding number. While Trump was defeated, Trumpism remains a powerful force in the Republican Party. The divisions between us are large and growing and here to stay. This is not a positive development for the future of democracy in America. The two warring factions are split along rural/urban lines. The way the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate are configured opens the door to a sort of tyranny of the minority as pointed out by Paul Krugman (see above) among others.
On one side there is a distrust of science, truth, experts, and the traditional media that encourages conspiracy theories. With traditional news sources suspect, more and more people get their news from social media and talk radio without much or any fact checking. Anger, despair, and feelings of helplessness encourage scapegoats that lead to a lack of civility, a distain for political correctness, and in the worst case racism and xenophobia.
On the other side there is a lack of understanding about the social impacts of “creative destruction” (Joseph Schumpeter’s term) where economic progress for some leads to personal disaster for others. Hubris, condescension, insensitivity, lack of respect and appreciation are all too common among the “winners” in the economic and social game.
We are in a stalemate, but there may be some grounds for optimism. As Kenneth Arrow points out, democracy is more transparent and receptive to self-criticism than authoritarian forms of government. A friend of mine recently pointed me to an interesting article over at “The Conversation.” The title: Feeling Disoriented By The Election, Pandemic And Everything Else? It’s Called ‘Zozobra,’ And Mexican Philosophers Have Some Advice.
The article ends on a positive note:
… zozobra actually unifies people in a common human condition. Many prefer to hide their suffering behind a happy facade or channel it into anger and blame. But Uranga insists that honest conversation about shared suffering is an opportunity to come together. Talking about zozobra provides something to commune over, something on which to base a love for one another, or at least sympathy.
When I first read this my thought was “nice but pollyannish.” I had little hope that such an “honest conversation” could amount to much. But, after I slept on the idea it occurred to me that is exactly what I’m trying to do with this blog. It may just be the only hope we have.
This epilogue of our own fable
Heedless in our slumber
Floating nescient we
Free fall through this boundlessness
Of our own making
Floating isn’t infinite
All hail our lethargy
Pray we mitigate the ruin
Calling all to arms and order
This madness of our own making
Rouse all from our apathy
Cease to be
Mitigate our ruin
Call us all to arms and order
Through our primal body
Sound the reveille
To be or not to be
Stay the grand finale
Stay the reading of our swan song and epilogue
One drive to stay alive
Muster every fiber