Politico Magazine published a piece Sunday about the work of a UC Irvine professor named Shawn Rosenberg. As described by author Rick Shenkman, Rosenberg is the elite equivalent of a guy marching around wearing a sandwich board that reads: The end is nigh! Professor Rosenberg believes Democracy is nearing its end in the modern world because elite voices don’t have power over the thoughts and opinions of the rabble that they used to have.
Rosenberg, who earned degrees at Yale, Oxford and Harvard, may be the social scientist for our time if events play out as he suggests they will. His theory is that over the next few decades, the number of large Western-style democracies around the globe will continue to shrink, and those that remain will become shells of themselves. Taking democracy’s place, Rosenberg says, will be right-wing populist governments that offer voters simple answers to complicated questions.
And therein lies the core of his argument: Democracy is hard work and requires a lot from those who participate in it. It requires people to respect those with different views from theirs and people who don’t look like them. It asks citizens to be able to sift through large amounts of information and process the good from the bad, the true from the false. It requires thoughtfulness, discipline and logic.
Unfortunately, evolution did not favor the exercise of these qualities in the context of a modern mass democracy. Citing reams of psychological research, findings that by now have become more or less familiar, Rosenberg makes his case that human beings don’t think straight. Biases of various kinds skew our brains at the most fundamental level. For example, racism is easily triggered unconsciously in whites by a picture of a black man wearing a hoodie. We discount evidence when it doesn’t square up with our goals while we embrace information that confirms our biases.
There are no footnotes in this piece so I don’t know which study of unconscious racism the author is referring to. I do know that one of the best-known tests to purportedly reveal unconscious bias, the IAT, is junk social science. If Rosenberg is relying on the IAT to inform his position then his position needs revision.
The author argues that democracy peaked in the 20th century and is slipping now but this seems counter-intuitive. Is there anyone who would argue racial bias is more prevalent now than in the 1950s when Jim Crow laws were still legal? Granted we may all have biases but hasn’t there been some social progress in the past 70 years? And if so, why is democracy struggling more now than it was then? It’s not clear if Rosenberg has addressed that question directly, but he does have an explanation for why things are worse now than in the past: elite control over the masses has waned.
When people are left to make political decisions on their own they drift toward the simple solutions right-wing populists worldwide offer: a deadly mix of xenophobia, racism and authoritarianism.
The elites, as Rosenberg defines them, are the people holding power at the top of the economic, political and intellectual pyramid who have “the motivation to support democratic culture and institutions and the power to do so effectively.” In their roles as senators, journalists, professors, judges and government administrators, to name a few, the elites have traditionally held sway over public discourse and U.S. institutions—and have in that role helped the populace understand the importance democratic values. But today that is changing. Thanks to social media and new technologies, anyone with access to the Internet can publish a blog and garner attention for their cause—even if it’s rooted in conspiracy and is based on a false claim, like the lie that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor, which ended in a shooting.
While the elites formerly might have successfully squashed conspiracy theories and called out populists for their inconsistencies, today fewer and fewer citizens take the elites seriously.
Don’t you feel terrible about the twilight of the elites who were so fragile they could be easily demolished by bloggers? You don’t? Me neither.
This whole tale strikes me as a very partisan reading of what is essentially a bipartisan issue. Professor Rosenberg apparently cites Pizza-gate (a stupid right-wing conspiracy theory) but doesn’t mention 9/11 Trutherism which at one point led 1/3rd of Democrats to answer that President Bush knew about the attack in advance.
In fact, there is evidence that both left and right are pulling away from each other, though the people doing the pulling on each side are a small but vocal minority. And neither side has a monopoly on authoritarianism. Reason reported on a study about left-wing authoritarianism last year:
Once all of the numbers were crunched, the researchers’ results were consistent with the authoritarianism symmetry hypothesis. In fact, after sorting participants into conservatives and liberals based on whether they scored in the top or bottom half of a 10-point conservatism scale, the researchers found that “the highest score for authoritarianism was for liberals on LWA.”
“Our data suggest that average Americans on the political left are just as likely to be dogmatic authoritarians as those on the political right. And those left-wing authoritarians can be just as prejudiced, dogmatic, and extremist as right-wing authoritarians,” Conway tells PsyPost.
Anyone paying attention to college campuses in the past few years can see that left-wing authoritarians are alive and well. In those circumstances, it’s usually the conservatives upholding the traditional liberal values of logic and mutual respect while their progressive opponents seek to shout them down.
As for the self-appointed elites, if they aren’t as respected as they used to be that’s partly because we’ve learned that their pronouncements often carry a lot of partisan freight. Indeed it seems almost anything can win the approval of today’s academic elites so long as it appears to give voice to progressive views.