Whether we like it or not, American democracy is characterized by elitism. In fact, democracy is a misnomer of sorts. In the purest sense of the word America is not a true democracy. Rather, it is a republic in which elected representatives -- through a democratic process -- make the laws and order society.
Some have suggested that ever-increasing computer power will do away with republican government, and thus "elitist" democracy.
Since elitism is intrinsic to almost all human societies, is such a suggestion realistic?
To explore this issue, put your thinking cap on and enter at your own risk. You'll have a chance at the end of your exploration to email the author for just plain-old chat, or to post opinions, reactions and comments to this site's feedback page. Enjoy.
Before we can even begin to tackle such an obviously complex topic as the one proposed here, we need to get a grasp of how the concept of elitism contrasts with the way most people probably think of American government.
A good synopsis of elitism's main concepts can be found at a presentation originating from the University of Delaware's political science department. The pages located at this site were prepared by H.T. Reynolds, a professor at the University of Delaware, for his political science classes. The pages address both elitist theory and pluralistic theory.
Most folks think of American government in the pluralistic sense. That is, that competing groups vie for power on the political scene. The groups that are able to sway the leaders most effectively are the groups that win out. In the end, a sort of stasis or harmony, is struck between the groups. Ideally, the rights of the minority groups are protected, while the will of the majority group is represented by the legislative process.
Elitism is almost the complete opposite. Two of the leading proponents of elitist theory, Thomas R. Dye and Harmon Zeigler, argue in their book "The Irony of Democracy" that elites shape mass opinion, and not the other way around. They contend that "elites, not masses, govern all societies," adding that elites are "inevitable in any social organization."(1)
Dye and Zeigler believe that elites are not typical of the masses that they govern. They say, "Elites control resources: power, wealth, education, prestige, status, skills of leadership, information, knowledge of political processes, ability to communicate, and organization."(1) All of these elements, they tend to argue, are beyond the grasp, or the desire, of those that make up the masses.
One good example that "The Irony of Democracy" uses to illustrate this point are the mass media. The media, which is run by elites -- that is editors and reporters who chose the stories society sees and reads -- shapes public opinion in a very powerful way. It choses what issues are newsworthy, and thus directs public attention.(2)
Elites within various groups and subgroups then focus their attention on what the media spotlights, and the masses follow accordingly.
Many might think Dye and Zeigler a bit deterministic. In a sense they are. But their ideas don't exclude people born outside of social elitism from rising to prominent posts in society. They're contention is that the people who step out of the masses possess elite traits from, say, birth. And if some of these people obviously weren't genetically endued with these elements, then they acquired them during their rise to power.
So if Dye and Zeigler are right -- and clearly they raise some valid points -- what does this mean in the age of electronic publishing? Will it change the face of American democracy and give every citizen the ability to vote on every issue?
Even with computers, the logistics of such a pure democracy approach the impossible. Moreover, there are too many issues to wade through, and many of them are grotesquely arcane in the mind of the average citizen. Plus, Americans are far too busy to address each one. But then that's the beauty of representative democracy.
Robert Wright, in a 1995 TIME magazine article entitled "Hyperdemocracy" convincingly argues that new electronic publishing may create more bondage than liberty. He says that our representatives are already "too plugged in." They are constantly bombarded with a numbing barrage of telephone calls, emails, FAX messages, and electronic special interest manipulation. All of this technological hoopla -- especially the internet, which Wright argues further isolates the growing numbers of subgroups within the country -- then adds to a fractured America in which those aforementioned special interests reign almost supreme.
For a critique of Wright's piece, see Rick Henderson's Reason Magazine article entitled Tip O'Neill, Meet Alvin Toffler. Reason Magazine is a publication with a libertarian twist.
What Wright is describing is pluralism gone awry in the Internet Age. But the end result is still elitism. Elites within various groups are rallying their respective forces to manipulate those representatives who hold the power to make law. And those representatives still must sift through that barrage of manipulation and make choices for all of society. The only thing that technology is likely to change -- in terms of elitism -- is which elites hold power.
But even if New Media can't destroy elitism, it can help inform the citizenry. It puts information at everyone's fingertips. And much of that information can be accessed directly at the source. For a list of very useful government sites go to the Federal Government Resources Page provided as a service of the Government Documents Library at the University of Florida.
Original source links aren't the only way to go though. A social conservative can look in on what social liberals are thinking simply by accessing some of their opinions sites. Sites, it might be added, that are maintained by elites, and thus fuel liberal opinion. The same, of course, is true for social liberals who want to take a peak at what social conservatives are thinking.
Here's a list of generally conservative sites:
And here's a list of generally liberal sites:
As one looks across the American political landscape, one can't help but notice that pluralism is the reigning image. After all, just look at all of the different groups that contend not only for the government's attention but the attention of the masses as well. Even so, the pluralism that is seen, is really controlled by elites. This is what Dye and Zeigler called the "irony of democracy." It is likely that New Media will -- paradoxically -- help and hinder the political process, but it won't, and can't, eliminate elitism.
What do you think?