New Hampshire Primary Day

I don’t think I want to run my standard election day post every time there’s a primary or caucus over the next several months, plus I don’t feel like writing an ode to rituals of democracy after unfortunately missing the voting in Dixville Notch late last night (I assume CSPAN had it as usual) so how about instead a quick tribute to the people who have been working so hard in the days and weeks leading up to the voting today: the politicians, the campaign professionals, and the volunteers.

I’ve said this before, but without meaning any disrespect, I’m always a little miffed when I see those bumper stickers telling me that if I like freedom I should thank a veteran. It’s true that the US owes a debt of gratitude towards those who serve as troops. But when we say that the US is a “free” nation, we don’t mean that it’s not dominated by some foreign power; the contrast is to nations that are not free because they don’t have liberty and democracy.

We mean it because the US has a democratic government. To have such a government, however, requires a lot of people choosing to devote a fair amount of time to democracy. Granted, many who do so are motivated by much less exalted things: people are in it for power, or for money, or for other self-interest. But that, in the end, doesn’t matter; the system is set up to exploit all of that to make democracy work in a world in which most of us are self-interested much of the time.

Moreover,the particular kind of democracy that the US has always had is, at least in my view, based on the belief that it’s not just about getting policies that match popular preference. It’s based on the belief that participation and self-determination is inherently a good thing — that part of true liberty is to be involved in public affairs. And the truth is that one cannot do that alone. I’ve talked before about the notion of “public happiness” and the ambiguity in Jefferson’s peculiar turn of phrase. The “pursuit of happiness” may mean private happiness — the ability to fully enjoy our individual lives and exploit the opportunities that a non-oppressive government makes available. But it also may mean public happiness, which is a concept the revolutionary generation had for the particular pleasure they found when they entered the public sphere and took political action together (and here I’m leaning as usual on Hannah Arendt, especially in On Revolution). The thing is that public happiness is only even potentially available (okay, I guess with the exception of starting your own revolution) if there’s already a public sphere in which to operate. Now, we could talk at some length about the extent to which door-to-door campaigning for a presidential candidate really matches what they were talking about in 1776. One might argue, for example, that the civil rights movement — which produced, by the way, similar reflections on public happiness — is a better fit. But there’s a lot to be said for non-movement politics in normal times, too.

So let’s hear it today for everyone who has been  been up there in New Hampshire hard at work getting the voters to the polls; for everyone who has been working in the campaign headquarters in Washington or wherever they’re found; for the volunteers who drove to New Hampshire or Iowa, sacrificing their own time to work for what they see as a better nation; and especially for the candidates, whatever their motivations. You don’t get any democracy — you don’t get liberty — without them.

I wish everyone a happy New Hampshire primary day. Good luck to all the candidates, and if you have the good fortune to be a citizen of the Granite State: vote early, vote often.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.