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The Limits of Deep Difference
A reply to Shadi’s “Consensus” essay.
Shadi’s most recent essay serves as a very tidy exposition of why he and I have been doing Wisdom of Crowds for all this time: “Agreement is nice. Disagreement is better,” to quote our freshly-minted motto. Here, in broad strokes, we agree: carefully thinking about disagreement is incredibly important.
But I tend to put things in a more somber register than Shadi does, in ways that don’t necessarily make for pleasant mottos. Rather than optimistically latch on to the fact that modern democracy appears to have been able to manage deep difference over time, I’m more drawn to breaking points and limits. I’m interested in exploring where some sunny assertions about democracy—and assertions that flow from the idea of democracy—cease to make sense. (Maybe that makes me “reckless”? Whatever.)
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One such limit case pertains to political community. Democracy operates on the premise that the people decide. But who are these people? Shadi has a passage in his most recent essay that jumped out at me:
First, consensus is only possible in homogeneous societies with a strong, shared national identity, something that most Western democracies can no longer claim. And because Western democracies tend to have strong enough liberal streaks, there’s no plausible path back to sameness, whether real or imagined. It’s too late, in other words.
I think this flattens things; “Western democracies” as a catch-all troubles me. I don’t think Western democracies have the same conceptions of “the people” and their role in governance. And I’m not sure homogeneity is the right frame through which we should look at democracy being able to function.
There’s a passage in Gordon Wood’s fantastic pamphlet Representation in the American Revolution that has stuck with me through the years. Wood tells the tale of how the rambunctious debates leading up to the ratification of the Constitution shaped up, and how the Federalists triumphed over their naysayers in legitimating the innovative system of representation that forms the bedrock of American democracy.
The problem in post-Revolutionary America was that large swaths of the country no longer believed in the kind of representative model that defined English democracy. They clamored for a more direct model of participation. The country was always very diverse, and the various factions and interest groups demanded to have their say.
The Founding Fathers, steeped in classical philosophy on the subject, had created a federal structure that strove to both balance branches/estates—the monarchical executive, the more aristocratic Senate and the more democratic House of Representatives, and the completely insulated clerical judiciary—but also insulated the federal center from the narrow interest politics that dominated the more dysfunctional state governments.
But their model was distrusted. It smelled too much like what many Americans felt the Revolution was fought against—the kind of model which allowed Britain to claim that its colonists were adequately represented in Parliament, and as such that they had to abide by the laws that Parliament passed on their behalf, from taxation on down.
The Federalist response was an ingenious one. They made the rhetorical argument that the American system of representation was fundamentally different from all the models that had come before. Even though the President, the Senate, and the judiciary appeared aloof, they too were just as representative of the people as any other representative body, from the local to the national level. This was revolutionary.
Here’s the memorable Wood passage:
In England, once the House of Commons was elected, the people went out of existence until the next election. But this was not true in America. Even after electing their agents, the American people never lost their political presence. Ultimately, these contrasting ideas of representation separated the English and American constitutional systems. In England, Parliament came to possess sovereignty—the final, supreme, and indivisible lawmaking authority in the state—because it embodied the whole society, all the estates of the realm, within itself, and nothing existed outside it. In America, however, sovereignty remained with the people themselves—and not with any of their agents, or even with all their agents put together. The American people, unlike the English, were never eclipsed by the process of representation.
Two things worth noting.
First, here we have two key “Western democracies” starting from two very different perceptions of the role of “the people” in government. And while the role of the people has evolved in the American direction—through modern polling, political parties across the world are much more responsive to their constituents, thus elevating “the people” in politics—the psychological distinction seems important.
Second, the Founders’ move, of “democratizing” the concept of representation, was also a sleight of hand. In reality, the early Republic was in fact quite aristocratic, and insulated from the passions of “the people”. John Adams was perhaps the most hostile to the unwashed masses of all our great leaders, but even Jefferson’s presidency functioned as a remove from local passions. It wasn’t until Andrew Jackson’s time that popular, populist democracy broke through.
And even after Jackson, the practical limit to the implementation of the American ideal of true popular democracy was technological. It simply was not feasible for “the people” in all their multifaceted, dissenting pluralism—present from the very beginning—to meaningfully participate in national government. They were too busy with their own lives to bother, they were too poor to care. Communication was too slow. Federal laws didn’t impact their lives, because the federal government was simply unable to enforce its writ over so sprawling a land mass.
So, for a while, the Founders’ rhetorical sleight of hand—assuring the rambunctious “people” that they are in fact sovereign on the national level—did not cause contradictions. Only the “better sorts”, the educated scions of successful families, could even afford to busy themselves with national government.
But that’s changing fast. Technology and wealth is finally making it possible to test whether the Founders’ rhetorical move can actually work in practice. As I argued to Shadi and Osita Nwanevu a few episodes ago, might the arrival of true mass democracy, where social media makes everyone far too interested in politics, actually be encouraging demagoguery? And can a democratic system withstand repeated assaults by such unscrupulous political entrepreneurs?
The good news is that democracy has continued to surprise us on the upside. We underestimate that at our peril. And what Wisdom of Crowds has been wrestling with since its inception is how to continue this streak—how to mediate deep difference with the full knowledge that some difference is in fact irreconcileable.
Nevertheless, as the stockbrokers say, “past performance is not indicative of future results.”
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