Do the experiment

Democracy is not a single, mono-cultural form of governance. When I studied democracies in college, the single most striking thing that I learned is that no two democracies are exactly alike. There is U.S. democracy, French democracy, German democracy, Russian democracy . . . every place where people have asserted their right to govern has led to a new experiment in democracy, and a new variation on this seemingly singular idea. Democracy  and evolution go hand-in-hand. It is at the least ironic, at worst fatal, that free peoples in a democracy like the U.S. are more and more rejecting evolution as a law of nature; the very idea they reject is at the foundation of their freedom to think wrong things.

But I say, do the experiment. If Americans want to reject evolution and take on a faith-based approach to life, then too they must abandon vaccines and expose themselves to easily treated but deadly disease; they, too, must forgo technology, the latest stage of human evolution, and become candle-powered Luddites in an electric world. If they wish to abandon understanding and knowledge in education and instead replace it with feeling and “common sense,” then let them live with the consequences of a total misunderstanding of the universe. After all, if democracy is a million experiments all playing out at the same time, then wrong ones must necessarily fail while useful ones must necessarily succeed.

Is that really a good idea, though? Such thinking seems dangerously pre-20th century, when abuse of the original notion of evolution led to confirmation bias for Victorian ideas about “class” and “fitness to survive.” The danger of abandoning the ignorant to themselves is that their threat is not confined to their own kind. Those who fail to vaccinate because of a total misunderstanding of vaccination threaten the innocent children of those who understand the benefit of vaccination; whooping cough and its resurgence is just one warning sign of the dangers ignorance brings to all free peoples. The idea that evolution is just one notion among many in biology threatens the next generation of doctors and nurses; those who hold to anti-scientific biological views will inevitably¬† become real threats to the health of a nation. Should we cede our nation to armies of homeopaths and chiropractors, people who seem to hold little understanding of simple chemistry, statistics, or the movement of gas in the joints of the human body?

Science gives us a chance to understand the consequences of our choices, and so we cannot abandon our democracy to the ignorant. The founders of the U.S. rightly foresaw that an educated public is necessary to the proper functioning of a democracy. Democracy cannot long survive if individuals en masse are cheated of the tools of thought and reason. Science and education are crucial to this. Democracy is science, a principle that yields a hypothesis that yields a test and a result of the test. Democracy is science, but it also critically depends on science.

And so I am intrigued by the experiment playing out in Wisconsin, a state quite dear to my heart. It’s a political experiment – the first real test of “Tea Party” ideas being thrust upon a free people. The Guardian hosts a nice opinion piece about this experiment [1]. A Tea Party-backed Governor is trying to rapidly change the landscape of Wisconsin politics using the ideas that brought him to power: ideas of rejecting federal support (no money for broadband access), breaking unions, and depriving public employees – including teachers – of the only benefits that make their jobs an alternative to private sector employment. Wisconsin has become a petri dish, a phrase I gladly borrow from the Guardian piece, for the Tea Party.

So let’s do the experiment. If these Tea Party ideas win, we’ll see what happens to public education and state infrastructure in Wisconsin. I’ll see if my nephews and nieces still can have a quality public school education, or if instead they are thrown into a place where teachers have no incentive to teach (e.g. no job stability).¬† We’ll see if my sister-in-law, a state social worker, has any incentive left to do her job or any control remaining over her employment destiny. Yes, it threatens a great and formerly progressive midwestern state. But one assumes that if these ideas are wrong, their failure will be so spectacular that they will serve as a terrible warning to other states about tea Party ideas. If they are right, then Wisconsin should prosper and become an educational and scientific hub. For if democracy thrives on education and science, then surely the signs of a healthy democracy are educational superiority and scientific prowess. If Wisconsin can continue to be a leader in these things in a decade, then we know the Tea Party was right. If not, then we’ll know the Tea Party was just Right-wing.

To paraphrase a great scientist: there is grandeur in this view of democracy, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this country has gone cycling on according to the Constitution, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/feb/16/wisconsin-republicans

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