America’s Attention Deficit: Political Ritalin in 2008?

Assistant Professor Ben Berger examines how democracies have struggled to keep citizens’ attention throughout history. He closes by discussing the 2008 presidential election and asking whether Barack Obama’s charismatic appeal will be only a temporary stimulant or an opportunity to re-engage citizens with political institutions and each other.

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Assistant Professor Ben Berger examines democracy’s history and looks at its future. Too many contemporary theories of democracy are premised on a widespread yearning for more politics, more deliberation, more activism. But those theories, while well-intentioned, fit poorly with empirical evidence of most citizens’ expressed preferences. Not only now, but since the days of ancient Greece, democracies have struggled to keep citizens’ attention and energies focused on political affairs. Even Alexis de Tocqueville, widely (but wrongly) considered to be an unqualified optimist for American “civic engagement” in the Jacksonian era, worries about the elusiveness of citizens’ attention and energy. So while popular governance has almost always been a story of “attention deficit democracy,” Tocqueville gives us strategies for engaging citizens more effectively. Berger closes by examining the 2008 presidential election and asking whether Barack Obama’s charismatic appeal will be only a temporary stimulant or an opportunity to re-engage citizens with political institutions and each other.