My New Love: Gatekeepers in the Bookstore

I’m not sure how my wife feels about it, but I’ve fallen in love. I know she’s aware of the new relationship and seems to tolerate it all right.  My new love isn’t with another woman, I don’t think that I have the energy for such things.  My new love is a small independent bookstore, The Writer’s Block Bookstore, on a side street in Winter Park, Florida.  In their small rooms lined with wooden shelves they don’t carry nearly as many books as my local Barnes and Nobles, and their prices are much higher than Amazon.  I like having a large selection and love to save money, but this little bookstore offers me something that is disappearing in our world and it’s the primary reason for my infatuation.  This small bookstore is very selective in the titles they stock, and I’ve found that their recommendations are excellent. A bad book is a waste of time, and I’m very protective of my time. So far, they’ve delivered great me great titles that are well worth the time spent reading. This has great value to me as I often find myself searching through book stacks or amazon search results for books that are well written and appeal to my tastes. What they offer, that I’m not getting in the big stores or online is gatekeeping. The people who work in this bookstore love books in the same way I do and they’re experts in locating and recommending great reads.

We live in time when gatekeepers are disappearing while our choices are exponentially increasing.  Many people, and with good reason, welcome the era of self-publishing, not just in books, but in almost all areas of life.  Growing up the music I heard all came through record companies who carefully selected which artists to record and market. Back then, no record company meant that you were very unlikely to have a large audience, have your records in the stores, or be heard on the radio. Today, we can create very professional recordings in our living-rooms and directly offer those recordings to the entire world through online platforms, no matter how great or poor the music may be.  This gives us more options, but I also find that I waste a lot of time searching through bad music looking for the good stuff.   People talk about this as bringing democracy to the marketplace. For news, we used to rely upon journalists who largely operated under the supervision of publishers and editors.  Today, we have news aggregators that learn our preferences and send us stories that reinforce our world view. Setting up an online newspaper or a YouTube News Channel is so easy that any teenager with a smartphone can do it and potentially draw a large audience. Our choices have expanded, but we’re no longer sure who to believe.

For me, this begs the question: What are the pitfalls of expanded democracy?  I’ve lived my life being told that everyone should have the right to vote and that all votes should be counted equally, that we should empower the people to choose, that there is wisdom in the people, and that we should expand access to the podium. Until recently, I never questioned this.  Power to the people has been my mantra.  But what if I am wrong?  Is this the right approach in all parts of our lives? I recently listened to a speech by late Supreme Court Justice Scalia in which he talked about the difficulty democracy and how easy some things become with a totalitarian government.  I think this is a good question.

Should we apply the democratic process more broadly?  If we’re flying on airplane, does it make sense to allow the passengers to vote about how to handle an unexpected thunderstorm along the flight route? If you’re on the table in an operating room and you start bleeding unexpectedly should the input of the scrub tech be given equal weight to that of the surgeon? If you’ve been arrested and are in jail, should you take legal advice from the other prisoners or your lawyer (I’ve seen this one more than once and it rarely ends well).

I think gatekeepers, people with experience and knowledge that the general public lacks, have great value and there times when we need their counsel and to empower them to act on our behalf.  Certainly, it’s a balance, but we need to be aware of the short-comings of the democratizing our society.  Not all voices are the same and should be given the same weight in all situations.

The framers of the Constitution were afraid of the popular vote, which is why we have a republic rather than a true or pure democracy.  When the Constitution was first written the vote wasn’t extended to everyone.  Only wealthy white males voted.  Yes, it was racist and sexist, but it was also elitist.  Even under that paradigm, the President was not a direct election. In the past 200 years we have greatly expanded the vote to almost all adult citizens, which I believe is a good thing.  However, our choice for President has been largely under political parties control who selected their candidates. It was virtually impossible for an outsider to run a competitive campaign.  However, the power of political parties has been diminishing for the past 50 years with the rise of popular vote primaries that took selection of the candidates out of the back smoke-filled rooms and made the party conventions more ceremonial than functional. We saw this in the most recent presidential election where Donald Trump ran and was elected as a Republican party outsider. Although most Republican party leaders feared Trump and the damage he would inflict upon our Democracy, they were powerless to stop him. Likewise, Bernie Sanders, who has historically been an independent, came from outside the party and nearly became the Democratic candidate.  The impact of Super Delegates in the Democratic party, who make up 15% of the convention votes and are not obligated to follow the votes of their state helped ensured Sander’s defeat, reinforcing the party’s role as gatekeeper.  The Republican Party also has superdelegates, but they make up only 7% of the convention votes and are bound to their state’s primary votes.

However, in our Court system, where the framers envisioned unrestrained juries and contested trials, democracy is in rapid retreat.  Civil jury trials, where we allow the average person sitting as a juror to weigh facts that decide a case, are becoming increasingly rare.  For many years most written contracts that we use for everyday transactions have included a waiver for jury trial.  More stunning is how we’re doing away altogether with our civil Courts through binding pre-dispute arbitration agreements and class action waivers that take away the right to even enter a courtroom.  What is different from the Courtroom than the ballot box?  I think it’s the fact that when the average person enters a Courtroom to tell his or her story of being wronged, they have a lawyer as their gatekeeper who knows how to tell their story in a way that’s effective.

What’s the future of democracy in America? I don’t know.  Maybe it will be that more democracy and removal of the gatekeepers is a good thing.  However, I do know that I would pretty nervous if I were on a plane where anyone could become pilot, regardless of qualifications, through a popular vote.  On the other hand, if you gave people the choice of 3 experienced, trained, and licensed pilots, I’d feel better.