Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Future of Democracy?

I just finished reading Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason. I found his critique of American policies and actions under the Bush administration strong and persuasive. His statements about having a contemporary American society where individuals pay little or no attention to their role as citizens also seems right on target. And I was impressed by his argument that what’s most crucial today is to have a well-connected citizenry rather than just focusing on education and a well-informed citizenry. His hopes for the internet as a way to “pursue truth” and build this connection through uses like blogging and wikis seem a little pie-in-the-sky but were also intriguing.

Having said all that, I was troubled by Gore’s underlying assumption in his argument that the power of reason was and remains the central premise of U.S. democracy and that we need to be able to return in our communications to is enlightenment sense of reason if democracy is to function successfully. Gore talks in his book about how the world changed when printing presses allowed more people access to information so he seems to understand the shift from premodern to modern culture. He doesn’t seem aware, however, of a similar shift from modernism to postmodernism, a shift that takes us away from the truth as some objective principle that everyone can sign on to toward the truth as relative, growing out of reason combined with experience. As the title of his book suggests, Gore is putting ultimate value on reason as the way into a deep life when postmodernism has begun to look at reason alone as a shallow approach, missing what’s gained from the use of the heart and experience as well as reason.

Because of Gore’s interweaving of reason and democracy, The Assault on Reason raises a whole series of unanswered questions. Is Gore correct that democracy and reason are so intertwined that they are inseparable? Is democracy only a form of government that can thrive in a modern world or can it survive in postmodern culture? Does democracy only function well when all the decisions are based on reason and a common understanding of truth (as Gore seems to imply) or can it truly adapt itself to a world where decisions are based on experience, emotions, and reason combined? None of these questions are ones that Gore sees, much less addresses, in his book and yet they seem to be at the very heart of our political culture these days.

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