As the Sopranos goes into its final season I realize (1) that I'm bored silly with the Mafia and (2) that I seem to be in the minority on this issue. Why is it that so many of my countrymen seem endlessly fascinated with the activities of a bunch of dumb thugs? It's perhaps one of the many symptoms of Americans' growing distaste for democracy.
This may seem like an odd statement to make, so let me explain. Robert Putnam once wrote a book about why the democratic ethos in Italy is so healthy in the North and virtually non-existent in the South. He found that while Northern Italians have a long tradition of egalitarian cooperation, in the South (which includes Sicily and Sardinia) horizontal relationships are minimal--Southern Italians tend to be individualistic, mistrustful of their neighbors, organized in vertical patronage systems, and deeply authoritarian. They long for stricter law enforcement and have many cynical proverbs, like "Damned Is He Who Trusts Another."
Putnam also found that the indices that predicted a democratic ethos in Italy--such as voting behavior, newspaper readership, and density of private organizations--have all declined sharply in the United States over the last few decades. We can see this decline in the increasing apathy and cynicism in the American electorate.
Studies have shown that cynicism is correlated with authoritarianism and a low IQ--that optimistic and altruistic people are more intelligent, more assertive, and have higher self-esteem. The decline of American democracy in recent years is perhaps due in part to the increasing acceptance of the "Nice Guys Finish Last", "Look Out For Number One" value system.
Many Americans, for example, seem to think the couch-potato slogan "None of the above" is a piece of devastating wit, rather than the total abdication of democratic responsibility. They see voting as just another form of consumerism. "I don't like the selection here, let's go have lunch."
Voting is not shopping. It's not the candidate's job to entertain us or turn us on. It's our responsibility to find and select those who will represent us. Corporations understand this very well, but only a small minority of the electorate seems to.
Americans even complain about the modest salaries paid our representatives, and sneer every time an increase is voted. Yet these representatives, who make the most important decisions affecting our lives, are paid a fraction of what a hamburger executive makes. And at the same time we expect them to be honest--immune to the seductions of lobbyists. Singapore pays its cabinet ministers a million dollars a year for this very reason--to prevent the corruption that characterizes countries like the United States.
Americans are particularly contemptuous of Congress because it devotes to difficult and complex issues the time and debate they deserve. The media sneer at 'government by committee'--at the very idea that the views of all Americans should be heard before making a decision. They prefer a "decisive" leader--someone who will make rash decisions based on ignorance and ideology. The media worship despots because they're more newsworthy--more dramatic, create more chaos and destruction, and utter simplistic slogans that are easy for lazy minds to grasp. Perhaps this is one reason Americans were so willing to elect and re-elect the most secretive, despotic, and anti-democratic administration in the history of our nation
Americans love the mafia because it represents a totally authoritarian system in which mistrust, cynicism, slavish obedience, and rash, violent decisions prevail. That seems to be the kind of world most Americans are looking for today.