For the People to Exist, You Must Believe in Them
"The people" are a fiction. That doesn't mean they aren't real.
I believe in something called “democratic minimalism,” which I outline in greater detail in my recent book. In brief, democratic minimalism is about reconceptualizing democracy as a system and means of governing and rotating power with no prejudice to substantive ideological outcomes. In other words, if democracy produces liberal outcomes, great. If it produces illiberal outcomes, it might not be what we as liberals might prefer or hope for, but our hopes and preferences are not binding on the electorate. Our liberal preferences are certainly not binding—or really relevant—in other people’s countries.
But the content of the idea isn’t particularly relevant to what I want to say in this Monday Note. Whatever democratic minimalism might entail, I said I believed in it, as one might a religion. To some, this might seem like an odd choice of words. Even to me it seems odd. As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve thought more about how I’d like to live the next stage of my life—for more on that, read my recent “short story”—I've become increasingly interested in the act of believing.
I think the word “believe” is appropriate here insofar as it requires a leap of faith, just as I suppose pretty much any sentiment that we insist on holding dear ultimately requires a conscious act of deciding. At some level, even if it’s subconscious, we decide to believe in God, we decide to love, we even decide to hope. These feelings are not pre-existing; they must be willed into existence through human choice and agency.
As Radiohead’s Thom Yorke puts it in one of the band’s under-appreciated classics: “Just cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.” Just because you believe in something, does it mean it’s true? Well, of course not. The notion of a “leap of faith” is a cliché, but like most clichés its status seems to be deserved.
When it comes to small-d democracy, this “leap” is one that my Wisdom of Crowds co-founder, Damir, has not necessarily been willing to take. (For the longest and arguably most entertaining exposition of our differences on this, see our recent, extensive back-and-forth in Pittsburgh). As Damir once described it, the difference between us is deep. But it’s also, in a sense, simple. I am a believer and he is not.
I believe in a minimalistic conception of democracy because I think there’s a kind of beauty to the alternation of power. But I also believe in it because I’ve looked at all the available alternatives and have found that they are both morally and politically inferior. And so I’m willing to accept democracy’s flaws, because it is not perfect, but it is the one procedural system that wears its imperfection proudly. It is also the one system that is most aligned with our present reality of messiness. The messiness is the point.
Because I see no plausible route to consensus in a country as diverse and unwieldy as America’s, my preference is to concede this instead of pretending it can be resisted. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the lack of consensus is what gives the United States a particular kind of creative chaos that is hard to find even in other advanced Western democracies. I think this is also where I tend to be most most vulnerable to criticism, something Damir indirectly alludes to this in his recent essay on deep difference and its limits.
Damir and others will raise this point: there must be something other than a belief in small-d democracy to hold a democracy together. Fine, ideally, there would be other things—and in a sense there are. For instance, Americans are held together by the fact that they’re all American, but then we’re back to the same problem. Why should this be enough? If anything, it’s our shared American-ness that heightens the intensity of our disagreements: We all still believe in the idea of America—and we’re passionate about this “idea”—but we have utterly divergent notions of what that idea actually entails.
As Damir emphasizes in his piece, the fiction of a “people” who were sovereign was always a fiction, fashioned and sustained by the genius and creativity of the Founders. In theory, the people were more empowered in America than they were under the British model of parliamentary sovereignty. In practice, however, American elites could gatekeep well enough to constrain and limit popular impulses without necessarily notifying the populace that this was actually happening and, moreover, that it was meant to happen. All successful political regimes require such “sleight of hand.”
As the historian Edmund Morgan once colorfully put it in Inventing the People:
The success of government thus requires the acceptance of fictions, requires the willing suspension of disbelief, requires us to believe that the emperor is clothed even though we can see that he is not.
In the context of the United States, the fiction of the Founders is what allowed Americans—despite their disunity, which was always there—to proceed as if there was more consensus then there actually was. But now we know the truth, and it becomes more and more difficult to pretend otherwise. And what is life (and politics) if not the constant struggle to come to terms with that which we know and perhaps know too well?
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