Last week, drawing on the work of Walter Lippmann, I raised several concerns about the about inclusion of popular voice in democracy.
In some ways, these concerns seem at odds – what is democracy if not the free governing of the people by the people? To reduce the voice of ‘the people’ in any political system is to draw it away from democracy and, perhaps more critically, to violate democratic ideals.
It cannot be denied that there is a tension here. A tension between the noble goal of empowerment of every day citizens and the truly hard work of governing itself.
What good is allowing the people to govern if ‘the people’ are not truly fit to govern?
At its core, this debate boils down to one of education versus problem solving. Myles Horton, educator, organizer, and long time director of the Highlander Folk School, spoke about this debate through the lens of organizing:
If the purpose is to solve the problem, there are a lot of ways to solve the problem that are so much simpler than going through all this educational process…But if education is to be part of the process, then you may not actually get that problem solved, but you’ve educated a lot of people. You have to make that choice.
If you’re a community organizer whose goal is to solve a problem in the community, you may need ‘the people’ in the sense that you need the strength of their support; you need the power that comes from numbers. Any good community organizer would also want the identification of the problem and definition of a solution to come from the community; but this is still a somewhat shallow form of engagement.
An organizer, working in partnership with the community they are organizing, guides the direction of action; provides professional feedback and support on what strategies and tactics are most likely to succeed. This type of organizing is more empowering than what community members might experience otherwise and can lead directly to much-needed positive outcomes in the community.
But it is not education.
Horton describes a particularly memorable scene in which, gun to his head, he refused to tell a community member what action to take. “Go ahead and shoot if you want to, but I’m not going to tell you,” he recalls.
In recollecting the moment, Horton explains his reasoning. If he had told what to do “all would be lost.”
He saw himself not as an organizer, trying to work towards a just system, but rather as an educator, developing citizens capable of building their own just systems.
From this, I find that theorists such as Lippmann are right: if we want a political system which most fairly distributes resources, which is just and thoughtful in its approach, the broad and unfiltered inclusion of the mass of public voices is not the best way to accomplish that goal.
But such a concern overlooks a critical point: is that indeed our goal?
If instead we want a political system which empowers every person to participate; which truly believes that all people – all people – have a right and responsibility to engage in public work; if we want a society that truly values the input, insights, and voice of every single member – that is a different goal to work for.
And, indeed, such an educational approach is not the best way to achieve immediate political goals.
If you want to change policy, engage the people; if you want to change systemic structures, educate the people.
Of course, all this hardly settles the debate: if no amount of education and preparation could prepare ‘the people’ to govern, such efforts would find long-term as well as short-term failure.
As a matter of practicality, one can argue this course without degrading the people too much. That is, to say that ‘the people’ are unalterably unfit for the lofty task we set them to is not intrinsically to claim that commoners are too stupid, lazy, or uncaring for this task.
The world is a complicated place. With the constant influx of information and the deep histories that have brought us to the societies we have today, no individual person could hardly be expected to have all the knowledge and expertise needed to justly rule.
Considering that this task would be deeply challenging for even an idealized world leader, whose sole task is to consider such issues and whose efforts are supported by a staff of experts – you can hardly expect an average person, whose time and worries are reasonably devoted to other matters, to be up to the task.
Arguing this path isn’t an insult to the common man; it is rather a recognition of impossible goal society’s ideals have set for them.
The challenge that I see is that we find ourselves caught between these two paths. It is a sort of pseudo-democracy, in which we comfort ourselves that we, the people, are the ones to govern, but in which we each deem the majority of our peers as unfit for the task.
In this way, we can always blame the “them”: if political engagement were only restricted to those who are correct (like us), than we could have the ideal government we long for. Such disenfranchisement would be the most efficient way to achieve our ends, but – knowing how unjust it would be if “they” were to disenfranchise “us” – we instead settle into a deep melancholia for the world.
And, if one thing is certain, such political ennui fulfills its own unfortunate goal – to maintain the status quo and cement the standing of those with the most power; effectively disenfranchising both the “us” and the “them.”