There is a strand of U.S. political culture that distrusts democracy, considers it malignant, and wishes to keep it safely contained. Yet, Americans also celebrate democracy, fight wars to defend it, and even hope to spread it throughout the world. In the first instance, democracy is a disease, which its critics hope to quarantine. In the second instance, democracy is diseased when the people lose their capacity to exercise it.
When Robert Reich says, “American Democracy Is Diseased” (August 20, 2014), he means the people have lost their power of collective self-rule. “Most Americans feel powerless, and assume the political game is fixed,” he observes. Only 13% currently approve of the work of Congress, which is supposedly the people’s branch of government. Over 40% didn’t even vote in the last presidential election. People don’t think their opinion matters in today’s political climate, and they are right. Reich reports that a forthcoming study in Perspectives on Politics (“Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”) by Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) confirms the perception of the public’s powerlessness. Economic elites, business groups, and mass-based interest groups influence public policy. The preferences of average citizens, the study concludes, “have only a miniscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Democracy is mere dogma, Reich suggests, only if the people give up on politics. “Powerlessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he contends. “The monied interests are doing what they do best—making money. The rest of us need to do what we do best—use our voices, our vigor, and our votes.” The people need to get politically active. They need to get organized in order to become a countervailing force.
But is getting organized and active going to make democracy healthy? Not necessarily; not if political attitudes and actions are narrowly based on an exclusive rather than inclusive notion of the democratic self. Pursuing narrow interests—getting mine at your expense—is a recipe for acrimony or cynicism, probably both. Democracy is a politics of contestation but with regard for the interests of the community at large. Reviving democracy, making it healthy, requires articulating a wider band of identification among the multiplicity of differences that constitute “the people.” Government of the people, by the people, and for the people cannot presume a monolithic definition of the public or its interests. Nor can a democratic people exist as a polity when they address opponents as aliens and enemies.
The borders between you and me, us and them, must remain permeable for democracy to thrive. That is something each of us, in our everyday lives, can influence in the way we choose to think of political issues and speak about one another. Today’s political discourse is undemocratic in its singular pursuit of incompatibility and its relentless rituals of irreconcilability. A healthy democratic discourse renders hostilities—political or armed—harder to justify by managing the ongoing tensions of making political boundaries more porous and political community increasingly inclusive.