By Pat Slutske

(Reprinted with permission from Grassroots North Shore)

Lately we’ve been calling your attention to specific challenges progressives are facing right now — issues like the attempts to gut our open records law, or attacks on the Legislative Audit Bureau and the Government Accountability Board. The attack on the venerable civil service, created more than 100 years ago to stymie corruption and cronyism in government, is simply the latest of these outrages.

These are matters calling for intense and immediate action. But to understand fully why these sorts of things keep cropping up, it helps to put them in a wider context and to see how they form a coherent pattern.

In On Democracy, political theorist Robert Dahl argues that democracies require five preconditions, especially voters who have an enlightened understanding of the political and policy debates of the day.  Not all voters, however, are well-informed.

Those who vote but who are generally poorly informed and/or misinformed about politics, who have little interest or understanding of political affairs, who rarely watch the news, and who can’t name major political figures or national events make up the group we generally call low information voters.Light bulb with a pen (On Democracy, Yale University Press, 1998.)

Despite thin knowledge or scant interest, low information voters can sway elections. By wowing, wooing, and manipulating, parties and candidates can persuade them to commit to a candidate.  Wowing them involves offering a charismatic, cool or celebrity candidate — they are drawn to these superficialities and become loyal adherents.

Wooing means providing potent sound-bites announcing a candidate’s support for something they value – like abortion curbs or LGBTQ rights.  And while wooing subtly manipulates, overt manipulation uses catch-words, phrases, and symbols — dog whistles, if you will — so that messages are internalized without conscious thought.  Thus do false ideas become gospel. These three methods for reaching low information voters stand in opposition to educating and informing voters.

Dahl considers enlightened voters — people who can access facts from many sources and make informed decisions through rational thought — a requirement for democracy.  Even enlightened citizens are stymied, however, if vital information becomes unavailable.

So while Dahl does not discuss it, government plays a crucial role in fostering a well-informed electorate. Parties in power seeking to remain in power often deny access to deliberations and decision-making to aid their efforts. But when government conducts the public’s business behind closed doors, the “information” from wow-ers, wooers, and manipulators clogs the system, frustrating the public’s ability to be well-informed.  So it is no accident that Wisconsin finds itself bombarded with a rash of laws to change public access to government information

Many changes over several decades have put the foundations of democracy at risk.  The chronology and sequencing of these changes suggest that they are not random, but rather a methodical, strategic plan to erode the power of ordinary citizens to understand and thus to influence government policies.  The WI legislature’s assaults on the Government Accountability Board, the Legislative Audit Bureau and our Open Records law all amount to assaults on the public’s right to know what elected officials and those aspiring to hold public office are up to.

Filling civil service positions with political cronies exacerbates such problems. Aggressive moves like the ones Republicans are now undertaking constitute brazen and destructive attacks on democracy itself.

Is democracy on the ropes?  Not yet!  But it is being pummeled from many directions.  Enlightened citizens see and understand the dangers these actions pose. And it is our duty to fight back.  Tell our legislators we know what they are doing.  Write letters to editors of publications, both local and national, decrying these moves to undermine democracy.  Then share this information with others to help them join the fight.