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Posts Tagged ‘democracy

“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom”*…

Lynn Hunt on Alexis de Tocqueville, who left France to study the American prison system and returned with the material that would become Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville was a study in contradictions: a French aristocrat of proud heritage who trumpeted the inevitable, salutary rise of democracy, using the United States as his exemplar; a cosmopolitan with an English wife and many friends in the Anglo-American world who brandished a fervent French nationalism; an antislavery advocate who felt no discomfort in supporting the French colonization of Algeria and hired as his main assistant Arthur de Gobineau, who later published one of the founding texts of white supremacy; and finally a man of delicate constitution who undertook an arduous trip on horseback into the wilderness of northern Michigan in order to see Native Americans and new settler communities for himself. Such inconsistencies make for a fascinating story, and in The Man Who Understood Democracy, Olivier Zunz, a French-educated historian who has taught US history for decades at the University of Virginia, shows that he is ideally suited to tell it.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, became an instant classic and has remained one to this day. On its hundredth anniversary in 1935, the French government presented a bust of the author to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an article at the time referred to the book as “perhaps the greatest, most lucid, and most impartial commentary that free institutions in general, and American self-government in particular, had ever received.” Democracy in America served as a kind of textbook for US students for many generations, but it is now more often cited than read. That dutiful disregard may be the fate of all such masterworks, especially one that runs about eight hundred pages, but Zunz has succeeded in restoring its appeal, first by vividly retracing its origins and then by skillfully evoking the enduring excitement and relevance of its analysis…

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who unpacked the tension between freedom and equality in the United States: “‘A Great Democratic Revolution’.”

* Alexis de Tocqueville– who went on to observe that “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”

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As we dedicate ourselves to democracy, we might note that today is Fibonacci Day, as today’s date is often rendered 11/23, and the Fibonacci sequence (also here and here) begins 1, 1, 2, 3…

Five Ways to Celebrate Fibonacci Day.

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“A republic, if you can keep it”*…

Democracy’s meaning has always been contested. The problem with substantive definitions of democracy, Michael Ignatieff argues, is that there’s no agreement on what democracy is nor what it should be. Democracy itself is not just an unruly contest for power, but also the site of an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be. Yet letting that struggle become a battle between existential foes risks upending the whole democratic project…

The problem with substantive definitions is that democrats with plenty of substantive commitment to democracy do not agree what it is or what it should be. When conservatives talk about democracy, they often express the desire to use democratic institutions to contain and control change. When liberals and progressives talk about democracy, they turn it into a vessel of aspiration into which they pour longings for civility, community, and justice.

What gets missed, in either side’s definitions, is that actual democratic politics is a fierce, no-holds-barred competition for power. Those who think of democracy as a way of life risk framing partisanship as an abnormal rupture in democratic practice, when in fact partisanship is the driver of all democratic competition. When we theorize civility as the norm and competitive partisanship as a threatening exception, liberals and conservatives alike risk being hypocrites about their own partisanship or being helplessly nostalgic, bemoaning the breakdown of a comity that may have been a fantasy in the first place. It is thus a mistake, with large practical consequences, to confuse what we wish democracy could be with what it actually is.

This elision between what democracy is and what we wish it to be occurs, in part, because the democratic theory we teach, and the civics lessons we imbibe in school, lift democracy into an abstract realm of ideal types and pious ideals that is indifferent to historical context. There is no such thing as democracy in a pure state. All actual democracies bear the contours of the historic struggles that gave them shape. While there is a family resemblance in democracy’s basic form—majority rule as the source of legitimate authority—this feature is enacted in and through institutions specific to the societies that created them. Democracy displays crucial historical variations over time and from one society to another.

One salient feature that makes democracies differ from one another is the way each democracy has been shaped by its encounter with violence. Some democracies were born in the violence of revolution. Others that have replaced authoritarian or colonial rule with free elections have struggled to contain the violence unleashed once democracy was achieved. Encounters with violence are recurrent even in successful democracies. Violence cannot be understood as an exceptional irruption overturning democracy’s natural resting state. Many a democracy owes its birth to violence, and violent challenges to democratic order continue to defend themselves as necessary last resorts to save democracy itself.

The modern version of democracy created by the American and French revolutions began its life… with the task of converting violence into politics. In our own time, national-liberation struggles in Africa and Asia have faced the same challenge. This has remained democracy’s core purpose ever since. When democracy achieves this, it realizes what defines it as a form of government. The prohibition of violence—whether as an instrument of politics or as an instrument of rule over citizens—and the related commitment that all coercive measures must be justified to citizens and receive their consent, are the core principles that separate democracy from all forms of authoritarian rule…

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European liberals, faced with working-class and feminist demands for the right to vote, reluctantly agreed that inclusion was the best way to maintain democratic order in the face of revolutionary challenge. These classic liberals accepted as a basic premise that societies are not natural equilibria, but sites of constant social, cultural, and economic struggle, with a potential to boil over into violence. Democracy’s function was to keep conflict political and to prevent the war of all against all.

Today, in democracies that are more diverse and pluralistic than anything nineteenth-century liberals could have imagined, the priority they placed on democracy’s role in preventing political conflict spilling over into violence is more relevant than ever. In this perspective, democracy’s ultimate purpose is peace rather than justice, or rather, sufficient justice to secure peace, defined as a minimal, constantly tested and renegotiated willingness by competing groups, factions, and parties, to obey the rules of the democratic game. When competitors accept democratic outcomes as legitimate, they accept closure, at least until the next contest starts. If they win, they do not seek to crush their opponents. If they lose, they do not seek to take revenge or seize power. Legitimacy is thus contingent and performative and always conditional on the willingness of political competitors to abide by the same rules.

The saving grace of democracy is the possibility that losers get to become winners. Whenever a group, faction, or party believes that victory was stolen from them or that they are fated to be permanent losers, violence becomes a possibility in the democratic game. Successfully managing peaceful democratic transitions between competing elites is the sine qua non of democratic legitimacy.

Democratic assemblies and elections have regulatory codes that restrain extremist speech, but such codes will always be vulnerable to being gamed and manipulated by scheming opportunists. Democratic systems are built to moderate political competition, but moderation sometimes surrenders to hatred. As Tocqueville warned us more than a century and a half ago, more social justice need not make us more civil.

Neither is it the case that virtue and courage can always hold the line when institutions fail. Men and women of both parties did their duty during the insurrection at the Capitol, while others betrayed their oath of office. The result, as the Duke of Wellington famously said about the Battle of Waterloo, was the “nearest run thing you ever saw.” The most effective measures taken since the insurrection have been the holding of Congressional hearings to establish exactly what happened, so there is a true record for the future, and also the prosecution of leaders. This should discourage others from a similar course.

Even so, it is America’s very revolutionary traditions that will continue to provide justifications for the use of violence in the defense of liberty. These traditions, whether we like it or not, will continue to give desperate and misguided citizens the belief that they must take the law into their own hands.

Democracy is fragile, because it is a sacred thing vital to our liberty, easily lost, easily damaged, and like all such sacred things dependent for its survival on prosaic, daily acts of faith and sacrifice that are made in its defense.

In the end, there are simply no guarantees of democratic order. There is only the inherited belief—transmitted across generations among citizens and politicians alike, reproduced election after election, vote after vote, year after year, in speeches, classrooms, media outlets, civics courses, and all the various fora that a free society uses to figure out what it is doing—that violence can kill democracy and that violence endangers everyone, especially those who would use it to defend democracy itself…

“The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil Society” – George Washington, in a 1790 letter to Catherine Sawbridge Macauley.

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Politics of Enemies,” from @M_Ignatieff in @JoDemocracy.

See also: “America Can Have Democracy or Political Violence. Not Both” (gift article from the New York Times— no pay wall).

* Benjamin Franklin, in response to a question from Elizabeth Willing Powel as he walked out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787

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As we cope with conflict, we might recall that on this day in 2000, the U.S. presidential election ended in a statistical tie between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, only to be settled on December 12 by the U.S. Supreme Court after a bitter legal dispute.

As the Supreme Court debated, protesters gathered.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 7, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do”*…

André Forget with an appreciation of an all-too-timely classic…

One hundred years ago, a young American journalist named Walter Lippmann published a book called Public Opinion. Though it is one of the most important books of the twentieth century and still acknowledged as a foundational text in the study of social psychology, media, and propaganda, its centenary has passed, for the most part, unacknowledged. This is ironic, because its central question—put simply, “How can a truly self-governing society function under the conditions of ‘mass culture’?”—has rarely been more relevant. Our current debates about disinformation and the pernicious effects of social media could be rather more productive if the participants would bother to read Lippmann—not because Lippmann provides any workable solutions, but because his analysis of the extent of the problem is so clear-eyed.

Lippmann’s book stands as the first attempt to comprehensively explain how individual psychology, political and social movements, and the mass media both create and unravel shared experiences of reality. The argument he lays out is fairly straightforward: Most of what we think we know about the world has been filtered down to us through external sources, and this information creates a sort of mental map, a collection of simplified representations of the world that help us navigate it more effectively. Inevitably, the accuracy and detail of our maps is directly related to our individual needs and interests—my mental map, for example, contains a great deal of information about Canadian literature, and almost none about how my computer works—but even the things we think we know are mostly just agglomerations of facts we’ve taken on trust from people and institutions relaying them at second- or third-hand. My confidence in saying that reality as I understand it corresponds to the real environment around me is a barometer of my faith in the sources of my information.

The mental maps we carry in our heads determine how we will act in the world, though they will not determine the outcomes of our actions. If I believe that Alaska has white sand beaches, I might book a holiday in Anchorage, but I will probably be disappointed after I arrive. While personal experience can help us correct misconceptions, not everyone can have personal experience of everything that affects their life, so the more abstracted from our personal experience a problem becomes, the more we will need to rely on the guidance and expertise of others. But these guides and experts are also finite individuals who must rely, in turn, on guidance and expertise from other sources, and the information they provide is shaded by their own prejudices and interests, as well as the inevitable distortions and elisions involved in any process of simplification and transmission…

If Lippmann is basically right—and it seems difficult, then as now, to argue that he isn’t—then the implications for democracy are troubling. When we invoke the rule of “the people,” we are invoking an abstraction, because the public body is in fact made up of an endless array of sets and classes and interests, cultivated and then pandered to by opinion-mongers and press barons who inflame the worst impulses of their audiences in order to create a steady market for their content. This is the opposite of the sort of feverish conspiracy about how the press works that cranks of all kinds have stipulated. If there is a larger purpose at work, it is generally of the most venal sort, often directed by nothing more than the need to present an opinion opposite to that of one’s competitor. If you squint, something like consensus may emerge during one moment of crisis or another, but it is usually illusory, and always fleeting.

Arguments about the relationship between freedom and information are present in the founding of modern democracy. A decade before the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain, the rebel John Adams had argued that “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” But the president John Adams sang a different tune when “general knowledge” became a threat to his administration. Seen from a certain angle, the Sedition Act of 1798 is the U.S. government’s first attempt to combat disinformation. The relationship between a truly free press and functional democratic government has been strained from the beginning, and if the tension between the two seemed particularly fraught in Lippmann’s age, it wasn’t for the first or the last time…

Walter Lippmann’s seminal work identified a fundamental problem for modern democratic society that remains as pressing—and intractable—as ever: “Public Opinion at 100,” from @ayforget in @BulwarkOnline. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

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As we contemplate civil discourse, we might recall that it was on this date in 1897 that The (New York) Sun ran an editorial entitled “Is There a Santa Claus?”  Written by Francis Pharcellus Church in response to a letter from 8 year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, it is now remembered best by one of its lines: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

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“Our beauty lies in this extended capacity for convolution”*…

John Semley contemplates an America awash in junk mail and junk science…

… In the long interregnum between Trump’s loss and his unceremonious retreat from the White House, the postal service would play a critical role in what the pundit class liked to call his Big Lie. He framed mail-in ballots, baselessly, as being especially susceptible to fraud and manipulation. Even before the election, back when he could still avail himself of Twitter, Trump tweeted that such ballots would lead, irrevocably, to “MAYHEM!!!” His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, freshly clowned-on in the new Borat movie, would likewise crow that hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots tilted the results. Elsewhere, on newly struck TV ads, postal workers were framed as pandemic-era heroes, delivering parcels to communities squirming under stay-at-home orders.

This contest over the image of the postal service—and mail itself—revealed a more profound tension, a deeper crisis facing democracies in America and elsewhere. It is a fundamentally epistemic crisis: about the control and promulgation of information, and how that information comes to shape a worldview, and how those worldviews come to bear on the world itself. And it’s just one front in a war of epistemologies that has been raging since at least the republic’s inception. Because to control the mail, as [Seinfeld‘s] Newman himself once memorably snarled, is to control information.

The control of information is key to any ideological project….

There follows a fascinating historical rumination on postal services and America’s history with information and mis/disinformation, and a consideration of our current moment, replete with insights from observers ranging from Scientific American to Thomas Pynchon– richly informative, genuinely entertaining, deeply provocative, and, in the end, at least mildly optimistic: “America, Ex Post Facto,” from @johnsemley3000 in @thebafflermag.

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

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As we scrutinize sense and sensibility, we might recall that it was on this date in 1998 that Clarence E. Lewis Jr. was named Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of the U.S. Postal Service, becoming the highest-ranking African-American postal employee to that date. He had started his postal career as a substitute city letter carrier in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1966. On his retirement in 2000, he was given the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Postal Service’s highest honor.

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“Oh, down in Mexico / I never really been so I don’t really know”*…

In this moment of altogether appropriate attention to the autocratic threat to Ukraine, it’s too easy to forget that genuine democracy is under threat all around the world. Nathan Gardels cites two examples close to home: Mexico and California…

The core crisis of governance in open societies today is the distrust that has grown between the public and its institutions of self-government. The response to this breach of trust has largely been unfolding in two directions — the autocratic tendency toward decisive strongmen who fashion themselves as tribunes of the people, or seeking to re-legitimize democracy through greater citizen engagement and participation.

Now, a new and concerning hybrid is emerging that exploits the tools of citizen engagement and participation (such as the recall of elected officials, the referendum, and ballot initiative) either to affirm autocratic leanings or to protect and promote the very special interests these tools were meant to challenge…

Participatory democracy unmediated by impartial institutions of deliberation or guarded against manipulation by the powers that be poses as significant a risk to citizen control of government as unchecked executive power or rule by those with the most gold. When plebiscitary practices are deployed from the top down to affirm the rule of a present regime, or hijacked by the most monied, instead of initiated from the bottom up, the very notion of citizen empowerment is nullified.

Top-down direct democracy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: “Mexico: On The Path To A Perfect Autocracy?“, from @NoemaMag.

* James Taylor, “Mexico”

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As we watch our backs, we might note that not all exercises of direct democracy (even when they are structurally flawed) end badly: on this date in 1992 a referendum to end apartheid in South Africa passed by a vote of 69% to 31%… a margin that would surely had been larger had the election not been restricted to white voters. (Universal suffrage was established two years later.)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 17, 2022 at 1:00 am

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