This is a basic question that has been argued and reargued since the founding of the Republic, and the debate is on again in connection with an assortment of current issues facing public policy makers and private philanthropy.
One reason is the debate over Social Security reform, particularly the question of whether individual Americans can be entrusted to invest at least a portion of their Social Security contribution in a 401(k)-like investment account. Democratic Senator Robert Kerrey of Nebraska recently argued in favor of such accounts saying that he believed “in the dignity, not the density, of the average American,” but opponents, including organized labor and a majority of his party, contend that government must control such investments because individuals will too often fritter away their savings.
But beyond that specific skirmish the question of the common man’s capabilities is crucial to a wide array of initiatives undertaken for the specific purpose of reinvolving average citizens in policy decisions. For example, the entire program of Public Agenda, the public policy research organization founded by Daniel Yankelovich and Cyrus Vance, is built on this premise, as are the issues forums conducted by the Kettering Foundation, and the foundation-funded National Issues Convention convened in 1996 by University of Texas political scientist Jim Fishkin.
The Pew Charitable Trusts has mounted a multi-pronged effort to “revive America’s democratic heart” by improving the content of political debate and increasing the involvement of citizens in policy discussions. Some of Pew’s efforts have been controversial (“civic journalism” comes to mind) but they are all built on the assumption that the average American can and should become more involved.
Citizen or Wards?
But while no one today will say with the clarity that journalist Walter Lippmann once did that the issues of the day have become too complex for the average American to grapple with, that assumption is implicit in arguments that favor government programs and institutions over efforts to “empower” individual citizens.
The debate over the competence of ordinary people to manage their affairs comes into sharpest relief over the issue of tuition vouchers. As Harvard University professor Paul Peterson noted in a recent article [see the September-October 1998 issue of Philanthropy] a Twentieth Century Fund report opposing vouchers stipulated that “few parents of any social class appear willing to acquire the information necessary to make active and informed educational choices” for their children. The teachers union brief in the Cleveland school choice court case put the matter even more starkly, describing parents as “inconsequential conduits.”
Philanthropist Ted Forstmann was asked point blank whether he thought parents were capable of making informed choices about their children’s education when he announced last summer his program to provide $140 million in vouchers, or private scholarships, in over three dozen cities through the Children’s Scholarship Fund he formed with fellow philanthropist John Walton. Forstmann, indeed, was hit with such a steady barrage of hostile questions from reporters during the press announcement at the National Press Club in Washington that he threw up his hands at one point and exclaimed, “My God, it’s gotten hard to give your money away.”
The debate over school vouchers also illustrates the fact that in the current debate over the competence of the common man there is a special subcategory relating to the competence of low-income minorities. The aforementioned Twentieth Century Fund report goes on to say that low-income parents in particular are not “natural consumers of education.”
Similarly, the opposition to welfare reform was largely predicated on the presumption that many welfare recipients lack the abilities needed for even entry-level jobs. In addition, the contention that affirmative action in college admissions must be continued contains a similar assumption that blacks and other minority groups will never be able to compete on an equal footing with whites.
The Era of the Common Man
All this disparagement of the ordinary American, some might presume, would have the Founding Fathers spinning in their graves, but that isn’t necessarily so. They too were torn over the issue, pulled both by a yearning to believe in the efficacy of democratic expression, and fear of putting too much power in the hands of the mob.
Much can be made of Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a self-governing republic of political equals, but even Jefferson had his moments of doubt about how far to trust direct democracy. Indeed, for the first forty years of American history, to become President of the United States one had to be either a member of the Virginia aristocracy, or a member of the Adams family.
The real Era of the Common Man in American history doesn’t begin until the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, subsiding with the defeat of the great populist William Jennings Bryan in 1896.
This is the era that Alexis de Tocqueville chronicled, of citizens who “though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody.”
In their spare time, of course, Americans of this era conquered a continent, tamed a frontier, and built their nation into an industrial colossus. They were also incorrigible joiners of cultural and civic organizations, and enthusiastic participants in the political process.
But with the advent of the 20th century—and the rise of big government, big business, and big labor—the question of whether the common man was still capable of dealing on his own with the complexities of the new era became the subject of open debate. The principals for the alternative views were philosopher John Dewey and journalist Walter Lippmann. Christopher Lasch neatly summarizes this epoch-marking confrontation that took place mainly during the 1920s in The Revolt of the Elites.
In Lippmann’s view, Lasch writes, “the public was incompetent to govern itself and did not even care to do so. As long as rules of fair play were enforced, the public would be content to leave government to experts—provided, of course, that the experts delivered the goods, the ever-increasing abundance of comforts and conveniences so closely identified with the American way of life.”
For Dewey, Lasch says, democracy still “had to rest on the ‘assumption of responsibility’ by ordinary men and women, on a ‘stable and balanced development of mind and character.’” But in part because Dewey couldn’t explain convincingly how individual responsibility could thrive “in a world dominated by giant organizations and mass communications,” he lost the fight.
The result was a belief that hardened over time into dogma within American liberalism that institutions, not the character of citizens, make democracy work. A corollary of Lippmann’s theory of democracy was that the function of the press was to report objectively about what the experts were up to, not encourage argument about whether their stratagems were good ideas. Few journalists know about the Lippman-Dewey debate, but Lippman’s credo has been passed down to them by a sort of oral tradition, and now seems as natural as the air they breathe.
Feeding the White House Dog
But there is one journalist from that era that journalists still read, and who today continues to provide a powerful reinforcement of the now almost reflexive contempt journalists have for the capabilities of ordinary citizens. This is, of course, H. L. Mencken, in whose essays the American common man is transmogrified into “boobus Americanus,” or, collectively, the “booboisie.”
A columnist for a major metropolitan daily once told me that whenever he wrote he heard in the back of his mind the cadences of Mencken’s essay “Imperial Purple,” which describes how horrid life must be for the president because he is required to hobnob with the booboisie. Common citizens are forever doing unimaginably horrid things, Mencken reports, such as sending shipments of bear meat to the White House “which arrives in a high state and has to be fed to the White House dog.”
Only in very recent times have Lippmann’s assumptions (and Mencken’s attitudes) about contemporary America been revisited in journalism or anywhere else, and it would be wrong to say that anything like a new consensus has yet emerged. At present the fight is, at best, a stand-off.
The advent of large-scale public opinion polling after World War II provided a welter of evidence that the public was every bit as uninformed as Lippman had suggested. A compendium of polling on public policy questions in “What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters” by Michael X. Delli Carpini of Barnard College and Scott Keeter of Virginia Commonwealth University, includes such nationally embarrassing items as:
In 1973, the year President Richard Nixon resigned, only 53 percent of Americans knew what Watergate was about.
In 1983, only 46 percent knew which side the United States was on in the civil war in El Salvador, which was then making headlines almost daily.
Most Americans cannot locate any of the following on a map of the world: South Africa, Argentina, Japan, Chile, Panama, Vietnam, Germany, Egypt, Poland, Sweden, or a half-dozen other nations.
Only 41 percent could identify Karl Marx; only 34 percent knew who Plato was; and only 15 percent could describe the New Deal.
Over the past fifty years, only two public stands of government officials could be identified by more than three-quarters of those surveyed: President Bill Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” formulation on gays in the military, and President George Bush’s antipathy to broccoli.
All of which raises the question: If we are in the middle of an information explosion, how come nobody seems to be getting hit by any of it? And more than factual knowledge is missing. A study done by Dartmouth Medical School researchers indicated that it was pointless in many cases to explain to breast cancer patients the relative dangers and benefits of different treatment methods because they couldn’t grasp the underlying mathematics. Only about half, for example, realized that a coin has a 50-50 chance of coming up heads.
And there are some signs that the obliviousness of the American public is worsening. The Pew Center for the People and the Press recently reported that in the 1990s, for the first time in the history of polling, younger people know less about current events than older people. This may tie in with indications that there have been major changes in the American public, that it is taking much longer for Americans to reach maturity. Gail Sheehy in New Passages, her latest book on the stages of life, argues that adolescence now lasts until around age 30. David Bosworth, a professor at the University of Washington, has suggested in a scholarly journal that America now has at least one entire generation—the Baby Boomers—that never grew up at all, and as a result have never been able to make mature decisions balancing the desire for immediate gratification against long-term desires in politics or their personal lives.
The dreary results from the education front have become a familiar litany. The average American student has shown no perceptible gain in academic achievement over the past 30 years, despite a tripling of the public resources devoted to schools. Even our best students, we’ve learned, do worse than comparable students in most other industrial countries, and actually seem to have declined in ability relative to their peers in earlier decades. The scoring system on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests was recently adjusted to reflect the conclusion that American students will never again be as bright and well prepared as American students were in the mid-1960s. Television, widely blamed for contributing to the problem, finds it all deliriously funny. Jay Leno has a regular weekly routine in which he asks people in the streets of Los Angeles questions one would suppose any school child could answer, but which totally baffle his interviewees.
More seriously, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has found a steady and rather rapid decline from the 1950s onward in the willingness of Americans to get involved in community and civic activities. Some of Putnam’s findings have been disputed, but Putnam says he has uncovered additional data that make his initial hypothesis about the decline of “social capital” in America even more convincing, and will present his new findings in a book coming out later this year. Virtually no researcher, moreover, disputes Putnam’s conclusion about the declining trust Americans have in their government and in each other. And there’s no denying several of his most obvious indicators of declining involvement, such as reduced voter turnout.
Added cause for dismay is available in the results from some recent efforts to improve citizen awareness of public policy issues. Aided by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, The Record newspaper in Hackensack, New Jersey, added 54 pages of issues-based coverage titled “Campaign Central” over nine weeks during the hotly contested 1996 New Jersey senate race. But fewer than 20 percent of readers even noticed the feature, and Record readers did not end up appreciably more knowledgeable of the candidates’ stands than readers of other papers in the state. In fact, 42 percent of readers could not name either candidate immediately after the election. (For those who may have forgotten, the winner was Democrat Robert Torricelli; the loser, Republican Dick Zimmer.)
Trusting Joe Six-pack
Given this picture of the declining competence of the average citizen—realizing how the image of the common man has unraveled from Jefferson’s self-reliant and savvy yeoman farmer to today’s hapless but happy Joe Six-pack—why would anyone advocate greater reliance on the common man?
Several reasons. First of all, Delli Carpini and Keeter argue that despite some amazing gaps in knowledge, Americans have not become complete ignoramuses in dealing with history, geography, and public affairs. In the presidential election of 1992, they note, most Americans did know who the candidates were and where they stood relative to each other on abortion, jobs programs, defense, government spending, and ideology. To be sure, almost six times as many voters knew that the Bushes had a dog named Millie as knew that Bush and Clinton both favored the death penalty. Still, the authors conclude that “The overall picture that emerges is not as black and white as is often assumed.”
To hear Delli Carpini and Keeter tell it, how you see the knowledge gap all depends on your perspective: “The good news is that in spite of concerns over the quality of education, the decline in newspaper readership, the rise of sound-bite journalism, the explosion in national political issues, and the waning commitment to civic engagement, citizens appear no less informed about politics today than they were a half century ago,” they write. “The bad news is that in spite of an unprecedented expansion in public education, a communications revolution that has shattered national and international boundaries, and the increasing relevance of national and international events and policies to the daily lives of Americans, citizens appear no more informed about politics.”
While the long-term stability of citizen ignorance is discouraging, they point to short-term experiments suggesting that “given the right mix of ability, opportunity, and motivation, citizens are capable of significant political learning.” Even Robert Putnam’s findings can be seen in a positive light. His earlier research on the quality of democratic institutions in Italy indicates that while the level of civic involvement in a given region may fluctuate, it tends to remain relatively constant over the long haul. This raises the hope that the current decline in American civic involvement is temporary and can be reversed.
No Choice at All
But perhaps the strongest argument for believing in the common man is that we have no other choice. Lippmann, it now seems clear, appears to have been wrong in believing that liberal institutions by themselves are sufficient. Our public schools, to take one obvious example, appear to have let us down. A consensus has been reached (and acted upon) that our system of social welfare had failed. As regards the most important institution of all, the American family appears to be disintegrating before our eyes.
Lasch argues that the current “crisis of competence” itself suggests “the need for a revisionist interpretation of American history, one that stresses the degree to which liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism.” An important part of that revised theory, he says, would be an upward evaluation of the importance of the average citizen’s civic virtue and religious grounding.
Beyond necessity, Public Agenda founder Yankelovich has argued persuasively that part of the difficulties we face today results from the fact that our elites in government, education, entertainment, journalism, and other fields have gotten out of touch with the common sense wisdom of the average American.
Finally, one cannot discount the possibility that the civic capacity of the average citizen has atrophied in part because it has been allowed to, and that if Americans are challenged to meet higher levels of civic virtue and involvement they will respond successfully. Some data showing increased levels of volunteerism among young Americans would appear to support this view, as well as the results that are beginning to come in from some of the experiments in empowering ordinary people.
For example, parents who were allowed to place their children in private schools in Milwaukee appear to have made good choices, as measured by the fact that their children have shown greater gains in achievement than comparable children who remained in the Milwaukee public schools, according to the only two peer-reviewed studies done so far. Similarly, former welfare recipients have proven far more successful at getting and holding jobs than many experts had predicted.
Clint Bolick, a Washington, D. C.-based civil rights lawyer who has argued many school choice cases, has described in his recently published book Transformation how “delivering autonomy to people who formerly looked to the government for solutions” has improved education, helped
communities to develop economically, and even reduced crime. “Time and again, when people
are given greater power and responsibility over their lives they respond in remarkable fashion,” he says.
“We have always known the real solutions,” Bolick continues. “America has become the greatest nation on earth because of our freedom. Here we have no guarantees, only possibilities, but they are endless. They are what people make of them.”
Or at least they can be.
David Boldt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.