[Our] democracy now practically must run on autopilot independently of a public that is happily and willfully ignorant of the issues and wants nothing to do with the dreary business of governing. And with increasing frequency, our form of government is under attack by bored working and middle-class citizens – led by clever political and television figures – who have no use for democracy other than as slogans and window-dressing around their need to be the constant center of their own reality show.
The January 6 rioters were the most extreme example of this stupefying level of narcissism. These insurrectionists were not disenfranchised or oppressed people trying to engage in a peaceful assembly. They could barely express a coherent political thought. Rather, the whole event was a day-camp outing for middle-aged, middle-class, gainfully employed Americans who wanted to be heroes storming Congress – and perhaps lynching the vice president in the process – and then go back home to sell real estate, attend work retreats in Mexico, and brag about it all on Instagram.
Over a half-century ago, the writer Eric Hoffer presciently saw the way such madness might overtake the democracies when he warned that anti-democratic mass movements begin not with deprivation and suffering, but with boredom and plenty. “Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some,” he wrote in 1951. “To a deliberate fomenter of mass upheavals, the report that people are bored stiff should be at least as encouraging as that they are suffering from intolerable economic or political abuses.”
Time is running out. If we are to recapture our civic life and reinvigorate our liberal and constitutional inheritance, we must stop, right now, and – unpleasant and searing though it will be – take stock of ourselves and our own role in the decline of our democracy.