american democracy

Perrin-AmericanDemocracy-2My new book on American Democracy is out (hooray!). I tried to write it as an accessible argument for understanding democracy as essentially a social and cultural achievement: the back-and-forth interactions among citizens and institutions of government, structured through rules, ideas, and technologies that foster the formation of publics. Below the break are a few points and ideas from the book – not so much a summary as some provocative claims to consider. I don’t consider these claims as proven or demonstrated, just interesting and hopefully generative.

Democracy is inherently a representative process.

Representativeness is not a second choice to “direct” democracy but part and parcel of democratic functioning. At various times in American history, reformers have sought to create “direct” democracy, wherein citizens would debate or vote directly on matters of importance. Indeed, many states offer the opportunity for voters to put matters directly on ballots, a practice that goes back to the Progressive reforms. And a common claim is that representative democracy is a necessary shortcut: a way to approximate direct democracy in a public that’s simply too big to handle direct democracy. This idea reaches back to John Adams: “In a large society, inhabiting an extensive country, it is impossible that the whole should assemble, to make laws: The first necessary step then, is, to depute power from the many, to a few of the most wise and good.” But even a direct democracy would only serve to change the point in the process where representation occurs. Any democratic process must always seek to represent citizens’ preferences in policy, and like representation in music, art, and science, those preferences always get changed, shifted, distorted, clarified, magnified, and even created through the representation process. This fact doesn’t make democracy impossible, or even imperfect – it highlights the fact that we should understand what it means to be represented, what the different options are, and how modes of representation have long-lasting, profound effects on democratic citizenship.

What is to be represented in democracy is the demos — the collectivity of the people, not just a collection of people.

“The people” of the Founders was a unified whole. Other languages have better words for this concept: in German it is Volk; in Greek a demos. Both of these concepts connote a collective, combined people, not just a collection of individuals. By the late nineteenth century, the American conception of the people had morphed into a collection of individuals instead of a combined collectivity. In the language of Rousseau, the image of the public will began to shift from the “volonté générale” (the general will, or the common good), to the “volonté de tous” (the will of the people, or the collected individual preferences). This nineteenth-century development is crucial, as it marks the point at which the increasing freedom and autonomy of the individual overtook the collective nature of the public.

Representation is generative.

As political scientist Anne Norton declares, “representation alters the represented … representations (some more than others) alter the public world” (Norton 2004, 93-4). It is not just impractical – though it is – but also literally unthinkable for the ideas and preferences that citizens develop in their private lives to be transmitted unchanged through any democratic system. Some scholars say this is a reason to keep as many decisions as possible outside the democratic process to avoid distortions (Pincione and Tesón 2006), but in fact that alteration is how publics are created and maintained. We should recognize the value of representation as a creative, not just transparent, process.

One example of this is from one of my favorite scenes from the West Wing:

Charlie Young: In 18 months I’ve been to Oregon four times and not a single person I’ve met there has been stupid.

CJ Cregg: Everyobdy’s stupid in an election year, Charlie.

Charlie Young: No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year, CJ.

Culture (sometimes) trumps structure.

Recent emphasis on the technical mechanisms of voting is misplaced, important as it can be in very tight elections. The main reality that needed to be represented in the 2000 Florida case, for example, was that the population (of the state and of the country) was very closely divided, with a tiny fraction of the population making the difference between those preferring the Democratic and the Republican candidates. The complication that resulted in the 2000 Florida debacle was not primarily a technical one: it was the fact that the public being represented held conflicting preferences. Focusing on democratic culture – on developing publics with a stronger collective understanding and preferences – might well have allowed a more decisive victory in the election and avoided the technical breakdowns.

At least as important about, e.g., voter suppression is the cultural message it sends, not the marginal effects of structure.

In 2012, some of the biggest debates surrounded Florida’s reductions in voting opportunities, particularly in poor and minority communities. Some journalists argued that the changes could mean the difference between Florida’s result being for Obama or for Romney, and in turn could mean the national election. As it turned out, voters in the affected areas made extra efforts to vote, in some cases waiting hours in line to do so. In his 2013 State of the Union Speech, Obama highlighted one such voter, Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Florida voter who waited for hours to vote. He held her up as a symbol of the need to make voting easier. But again, the focus on the systems and mechanics of voting masked an important, deeper reality: Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania alike, all states that had been criticized for enacting voter suppression measures, eventually voted for Obama, with turnout figures in line with the rest of the country. This was a triumph of democratic culture over structure: voters determined to vote overcame many structural impediments to do so. Indeed, they may well have been encouraged to do so because the publicity around voter suppression measures convinced them their vote was important.

Civility is overrated.

Or, at least, incivility is underrated. Focusing too much on civility can keep us from saying what we believe is right because we don’t want to offend others. And all too often the accusation of incivility is used as a way of silencing people instead of listening to and considering their points. Incivility may even be a “weapon of the weak,” one of the relatively few resources the less-powerful have at their disposal to voice disapproval of the status quo. Norms of civility and truthfulness are very important, and of course non-violence is a must, but it’s also important that genuine and frank concerns be able to be aired.

Why people engage in political reasoning is very important to how they reason and what conclusions they reach. There are many reasons people may be motivated to reason politically, including to match their friends’, neighbors’, etc., views, or even to oppose those views if they prefer; to avoid cognitive dissonance, that is, to avoid the discomfort that comes with holding beliefs that contradict one another; to confirm their existing biases; to expand their minds (a pro-intellectual state of mind); or to be true and accurate. Depending in part on the motivation, the emotional state people are in when they are thinking politically makes a big difference in what they think. Probably the most important facet of that emotional state is “hot” vs. “cold” cognition. In hot cognition, people are emotionally aroused and likely to reason more automatically; maybe even subconsciously. In cool cognition, they tend to be careful and analytic. It’s tempting to just say that cool cognition is better and leave it at that, but many of the ways we expect citizens to express themselves are quick and automatic. In fact, most people’s everyday political thinking is probably more hot than cold.

Civility is really not the right primary goal. As Danielle Allen (2004) has pointed out, if we require civility and openness as the tickets to admission to deliberation, we’ve avoided doing most of the work involved. I’d suggest, instead, that civility and incivility are tools people use for engaging in political conversations (see Herbst 2010 for an extended discussion of this idea). While civility is a good thing, it’s far more important for people to be frank: to be able to express, fully and passionately, their ideas and preferences. In another context, Susan Bickford’s article, “Anti-Anti-Identity Politics” (taking off from Clifford Geertz’s classic “Anti-Anti-Relativism”) argues that even if identity politics is imperfect, the opposition to identity politics is worse. Similarly, I advocate an “anti-anti-incivility” position. Even if incivility is bad, the opposition to incivility tends to silence people who ought to be allowed to speak and be heard.

Audience fragmentation is really, really bad.

One important effect of media changes since 1990 is epistemic closure: the tendency for citizens and leaders alike to be insulated from opposing opinions and even inconvenient facts. The trend in communications technologies is to offer greater access but also greater choice in what media individuals consume. The effect of this has been a reduction in individuals’ access to disagreement. Changing technologies and the social and political opportunities they afford, the increasing ownership of media by a few very large companies, and practices of isolation and audience fragmentation on the part of both media producers and the public make the current media landscape an area of concern for democracy.

In the era of the mass media (relatively similar news messages broadcast through print or electronic means), one of the products was the mass itself: the kind of audience and the bonds among members of that audience. The mass public created by the twentieth-century mass media has been replaced by multiple, fragmented publics created by multiple, fragmented media sources.

The radio, declared Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, was “democratic,” while the telephone was “liberal.” They meant that the very form of the technology – the radio creating a mass audience, the telephone an individual communication outside the public – shaped the kinds of political ideas that could be imagined and discussed in these media. Since the 1970s, a series of social and technological changes have wreaked havoc with the golden-era, mass-media model. Overwhelmingly, the technologies that have emerged have been liberal in character more than democratic; they have tended toward privatizing and individualizing communication, entertainment, and information. The trend began in earnest with the introduction of cable television, which meant that viewers suddenly had the ability to select their particular news source, which in turn encouraged television producers to create “niche news” tailored to specific sub-groups of viewers. This change, in turn, led fairly quickly to declining political knowledge, as evening television audiences were no longer forced by technological necessity to pay attention to a nationally- oriented news broadcast if they were to pay attention to anything at all (Prior 2007).

Cable television was only the beginning. In fact, the relationship between broadcaster and audience is formally similar for cable and over-the-air broadcasters. It remains essentially vertical, in that on-air personalities make statements that are carried to the entire audience without audience involvement or conversation. The social and technological changes that came later have been overwhelmingly individualizing: the affordances they provide allow for dramatically more individual expression on the part of citizens but are dramatically less collective; more horizontal, less cross-cutting. In addition, the distinction between entertainment and information became increasingly blurred, as both were combined into what industry insiders call “content.”

Adorno worried about recorded music requiring too little work to consume, thus lowering the quality of listening. Similarly, news, information, and ideas have become so individualized through contemporary technologies that they may be too easy to read, requiring relatively little attention or intellectual commitment by citizens.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

6 thoughts on “american democracy”

  1. Congratulations, Andy! I enjoyed getting a glimpse at your book through this post.

    I was particularly struck by the shift from the collectivity of the people to a collection of people, perhaps because this is related to some of my interests in social psychology, including small-groups research I’ve done in the lab. Is this something that you develop in more detail in the book? Or are there others who delve into this who you might recommend reading?

    P.S. I love the cover!


    1. Thanks! Yes, I do spend a considerable amount of time in the book on the question of collectivity vs collection, both conceptually and historically. I think the big moment in terms of constitutional shift is the post-Reconstruction amendments, which fundamentally shift the idea of “the people” from a singular, collective noun to a plural noun. I’d be really interested to know whether this mirrors changes in social theory and/or social psychology in your work.


      1. Wonderful, thanks!

        Social psychologists are less interested in mapping the changes over time, but would focus on the sources of those conceptions (e.g., the framing of those amendments, as you note), how they’re maintained in interaction and discourse, and the effect of those orientations on behavior (whether cognition, affect, or actions toward others or the group). After I’ve read more of your thoughts on it in the book, I’ll let you know if I think of something that could be potentially fruitful for you to explore.


  2. Congrats! Looks interesting. In my theory course I start with a module on social contracts (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) and later do one on the Frankfurt school. I can see how the book fits well with those. Are there other ways to fit this book into an undergrad classical theory class?


    1. Ken, I honestly hadn’t thought about that angle. It is a deeply theoretical book, and the two links you noted are certainly there. There’s also a Durkheimian streak in understanding the symbolic nature of political collectivity; my take on voting as ritual draws directly on that. And I don’t know if you consider pragmatism “classical” theory, but there’s a heavy dose of that too. Thanks!


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