Political aeons ago—a week before January’s inaugural rites worked their magic on President-elect George W. Bush—the political philosopher Michael Sandel took to the op-ed page of The New York Times to bolster both the legitimacy of electoral democracy and the legitimate anger of Democrats who remain unpersuaded of the election’s integrity and outcome. Sandel assured senators that they could “question Mr. Bush’s mandate to implement an ideologically conservative agenda” without having to “dispute his legitimacy as President” or “undermine respect for the institution” itself.
The reassurances were superfluous, not only because the Ted Kennedys and Chuck Schumers knew how to feign combat without them, but because it’s too late to forestall a general ebbing of respect for the presidency, the Congress, and of course, the Supreme Court, which has shaken “confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law,” as Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent. Beltway players and those who would advise them may be smart to hold their cards to fight another day. But how much legitimacy can be salvaged that way? What might it take to restore the credibility our institutions have lost?
Ever since Al Gore made his consummate player’s concession on December 13, we have watched professors, politicians, and pundits huff and puff to keep credible the notion that our democracy is more than a shell game. We have watched the inauguration give the new emperor a new suit of clothes, even as politics-by-Internet roused a few thousand demonstrators to wistful protestations of a lost civic love. Only hours after Gore’s concession, a rare, forlorn-looking young Republican told a CNN studio audience, “I voted for Bush, but I didn’t want him to win this way.” There was a brief silence on the set, as if everyone already knew it was Time to Put This Behind Us and Move On, and that the poor fellow had spoken out of turn.
Speaking out of turn, too, apparently, was Pam Iorio, the Democratic elections supervisor of Florida’s Hillsborough County; she cheerfully told a reporter, the day the Supreme Court stayed the last official recount, that her canvassing board had kept right on separating “undervote” ballots that afternoon, the better to tally them expeditiously should the count resume. Inspired by Iorio to a fantasy of civil disobedience, I wondered in a Los Angeles Times column how the court or the Florida Legislature could withstand the spectacle of sheriffs’ deputies carting American citizens away from ballots they’d kept counting, in defiance of authority but in affirmation of the principle that democracy should not be palmed off to lawyers, let alone statisticians.
No sooner had I praised her for implying this than Iorio, reportedly contemplating a run for mayor of Tampa, felt moved to “clarify” her views: “There is a feeling that if only hand recounts had been allowed to continue, we would know the truth,” she told a reporter the next day. “But the truth is very elusive in this race. And I think what we’ll find is that the truth remains elusive.” Apparently I, too, had spoken out of turn by preferring elections to epistemology.
Peace By Any Means
“There are no tanks in the streets!” exulted the pundits. But the reason had changed subtly, from public trust in the system’s legitimacy to public resignation to the truth that a pivot of civic faith has slipped out of our lives. Sensing this more acutely than most, Bush himself protested in his inaugural address that we need “a determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.” But trust can’t be secured in the lawyers’, statisticians’, or pollsters’ nets that corralled his victory, much less in the markets that were so much on James Baker’s mind in the crisis. It has to emerge from a culture of debate and dialogue, free of any strong-armed rush to consensus or blithe assurances that what matters isn’t consensus at all but liberation by the Invisible Hand. No wonder the loss of public trust has become almost unmentionable in our public discourse, except as a grace note. By invoking it more urgently than that, even Bush was speaking somewhat out of turn.
The problem of trust has little to do with the newly selected president’s positions—I say so as one drawn to some of them on education and race. The problem isn’t partisanship, but paralysis. In 1992, E.J. Dionne urged that “a politics dominated by false choices and phony issues is worth being angry about. That anger is beginning to have an impact.²
Where, though, in 2000? The morning after Gore’s concession, a friend who is a federal prosecutor e-mailed me his account of our anomie:
“As for last night’s speeches, reconcile, schmeckoncile. It’s all staged democratic psychodrama designed to let everyone commute to work relatively relieved that the election is over so they can focus on the important things in life, like whether to remodel the kitchen, whether to sleep with some colleague at work, whether to put some ailing parent in a nursing home, or confront their kids about their obvious drug use, or buy a DVD player or some other gadget to make them feel better about what otherwise will seem like a morally void mélange of indistinguishable days preceding inevitable death.”No clean civic anger there.
Candidates Bush and Gore strove almost desperately to prove that government is mainly about quotidian preoccupations like those my friend mentioned. But government can’t be credible if public life is “morally void,”if citizens hunker down defensively in religious sodalities, unions, neighborhood, racial and other groups that no longer point them outward to a larger civic life.
Without a deeper civic trust in a sovereign, democratic polity, this country is little more than a slippery web of contracts and rights, open to every subtle tug, seduction, or seizure. The lesson of recent months is that if citizens stop engaging one another as shapers of a common destiny, society will drift witlessly, from alarm to alarm, and all the social scientists’ horses and men won’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.
How Far, How Fast?
There is a pea under the new prince’s bed that won’t disappear just because Beltway players affirm his legitimacy and pundits slather the republic’s foundations with an ooze of false comity, or because lawyers for both sides proclaim the historical contingency or indeterminacy of “equal protection.”Even if a private recount of Florida ballots had buried Gore’s claims to the state, another nail in his political coffin wouldn’t dispel the surrealism of his hailing a winner without anyone’s having a credible idea who’d won.
Nor can we retire doubts with excuses like Iorio’s about the elusiveness of the truth. “The margin of error in the voting machines was greater than the margin of victory for either candidate,”claimed Andrew Sullivan, intoning the conventional statistical wisdom. But that doesn’t mean that no count was better than another. The one killed on Dec. 13 would have been better than the one of Nov. 7 not because it would have yielded very different results (who knows?) but because it was restoring civic faith that who won matters less than whether ballots cast are ballots counted. Churches don’t give communion statistically; neither can a republic abide a ruling that thousands of the faithful who entered the temple of democracy and took wafer and wine weren’t communicants, after all. There is a difference between keeping a faith whose fulfillment is imperfect and being in denial about the fact that it has been traduced. We are learning to lie to ourselves more subtly, and therefore more casually.
A Phantom Public?
“The kind of self-education which a self-governing people must obtain can be had only through its daily experience,”wrote Walter Lippman 80 years ago. “[A] democracy must have a way of life which educates the people for the democratic way of life. It is social control not by authority from above but by a common law which defines the reciprocal rights and duties.”As early as the 1920s, Lippman blamed the waning of popular sovereignty on something conservatives have since come to champion: Relentless, ever-more-intrusive consumer marketing. A “buying public”wasn’t a deliberating one, he warned; mass marketing showed “that consumers are a fickle and superstitious mob, incapable of any real judgment as to what it wants.”The state, seeing this, gets into the act, cajoling the public with demagoguery and lotteries, reducing popular sovereignty to a euphemism.
Lippman concluded that consent of the governed is manufactured by leaders who conjure up the majorities they seem to obey. The “manufacture of consent”is assisted, even guided, by purveyors of news-as-entertainment. But even Lippman didn’t foresee today’s plague of political commentators, so beholden to entertainment-conglomerate employers that CNN’s Bill Schneider delivered his day-after-Christmas political commentary wearing a Santa cap while listing “gifts”that would help Bush succeed. To hear the praise and relief lavished on Gore’s concession by such “Disney pundits,”one might have thought the election merely a game decided by a referee’s bad call.
The commentators’ skittish contempt for the public in the moment of its disenfranchisement rode a deluge of hypocritical pieties about democracy—the kind supposedly exposed by satirists such as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. But the anti-politics behind the pieties is only strengthened by those like Dowd who serve as safety valves for cynicism about media happy talk, shadow boxing, and attack ads. Conservatives, too, are cynical: Lippman wouldn’t have been surprised by the Moral Majority’s easy metamorphosis into a conservative moral minority, moving swiftly in black robes above a media cacophony that has become an almost universally distrusted caricature of discourse.
Witnessing Civic Faith
When democratic deliberation is degraded like this and the constitutional system is down, it sometimes falls to a few uncommonly brave citizens to demonstrate what’s best, if dormant, in the rest of us. Principled civil disobedience isn’t for everyone, but like the occasional referendum, it can sometimes cut through litigation and partisan backbiting that cloud or asphyxiate public conversation. Civil disobedience tells the authorities and its adversaries, “Our understandings of justice are incommensurate. Here is ours, in action. Explain yours, in terms ordinary people can test against their experience and commitments. We recognize that, since one group’s or person’s oppression is another’s idea of justice, we need law to mediate our passionate convictions. So we break the law peacefully only to show that this law or ruling is wrong, and we pay the legal penalty to affirm the law’s larger promise.²
The clarity of such a challenge always takes pundits and politicians by surprise, as Pam Iorio’s feint toward continued ballot-counting would have done had she and others followed it through. But democratic renewal can’t be conjured up in newspaper columns overnight or happen in a few great televised moments. Lone Rangers like McCain or Nader can’t sustain it. It has to be prepared for by social education, political organizing, and public outreach, worthy of that envisioned by John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, and others. The early civil-rights movement was many years in the making, struggling to find historic moments of opportunity to stir comfortable whites and draw sympathy to Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr.
Parties that serve plutocracies can’t nourish such faith or action. George W. Bush is too tethered to such ways of knowing the world to nourish it. But I think he does yearn for a civic faith whose renewal he came close to glimpsing in his senior year of Yale. Bush was in the class just ahead of mine; he lived in the entryway next to mine for three years, and was president of DKE, my roommate’s fraternity. One wintry morning in 1968, as I plodded along on my way to class, I noticed about fifty undergraduates gathered silently around three seniors and the university chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. One senior, a member of Bush’s class, spoke into a gusting wind and against fear. “The government claims we’re criminals,” he said, as I leaned in to listen, “but we say it is the government that is criminal in waging this war.” He and the others were handing Coffin their draft cards, identical to the ones in our wallets, and refusing conscription upon graduation six months hence.
Coffin was there to bless a courage few of us fully understood. “Believe me,” he said, smiling, strands of his graying hair flying in the wind, “I know what it’s like to wake up feeling like a sensitive grain of wheat lookin’ at a millstone.”I can’t say we laughed at that burst of Calvinist humor, but something in us grasped at that ray of hope, because we were scared. As far as we knew, these guys were going to prison, and we were arrested morally by their example. Yet something in their bearing made them as deeply American as Rosa Parks when she refused to move to the back of the bus. As the quiet dignity of her performance credited her white oppressors with some integrity, even while exposing their shortcomings, it had reconstituted our civic life instead of trashing it. Now, too, as the seniors before us took grave risks to resist the United States government in the name of a civic nation transcending “blood and soil”and even capitalism and Cold War ideology, American civil society seemed to have risen from slumber and to be walking again, remoralizing the state and the law. As we watched, the silent, wild confusion we were feeling gave way to something like awe.
One might call gestures like this foolish, even elitist; the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas called them “constitutional patriotism”and marveled that so many ordinary Americans resisted the state on behalf of an experiment, testing, as Lincoln put it, whether republics relying on a higher faith and virtue can endure. But Edward Gibbon reminds us in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Rome slid almost imperceptibly from republican self-governance to imperial rule because Augustus sensed that “people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.”
Rome was a caste society, of course, even when it called itself a republic. We are not quite that, but Bush, his father, and Coffin were in Yale’s most powerful secret society, the intergenerational Skull and Bones. Coffin seemed a traitor to it, but arguably he was its conscience, while his younger Bones brother missed the little demonstration that morning that changed my life. “There wasn’t a lot of protest at Yale in 1968,” Bush told a reporter. “I don’t remember that.” Breaking Bones tradition in a different way, he got out of the war.
I performed two years’ alternative-to-military service as a conscientious objector, but I’ve never faulted anyone who served out of duty or conviction. It’s those who duck wars and dodge elections who make me uneasy. I don’t know whether Bush feels the pea under his own bed, but how bitterly ironic it is that his non-election is the first time since our Yale years that I’ve found myself thinking so hard about civil disobedience and better ways to resist the seductions of false comity.
I’ve been thinking, too, of our president’s other fellow Bonesman, the strands of his hair flying in the wind, leaving us with Dylan Thomas’ admonition, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” We need a pedagogy and a politics that can open new conversations about the First Amendment “rights” of campaign financiers, media conglomerates, and consumer marketers who enjoy intrusive power in our own lives, yet deny us much free speech in theirs. We might have begun such conversations had defiant ballot counting been carried out by people like the young Bush voter who didn’t like how his candidate had won. We might have it even now if more journalists would risk their jobs to recover their profession as a public trust, not a comedy of manners or a marketing device. George W. Bush is in Lincoln’s house in much the same way the “Disney” pundits are in Lippman’s chair. Shouldn’t the rest of us be in opposition?