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Thursday, December 30, 2004


I think I've arrived

Well, goddamn, I think I just made it into your cyberspace. I'm here to tell you that we cannot continue to think of ourselves as somehow smarter, or better, or whatever, than the rest of the electorate, the people, however you want to call them, no matter how old, or young, or educated--or not--we are. How about our fellow citizens?

It's comforting to think of them (voters, viewers, voyeurs, voldemortians) as stupid, as most of my fellow bloghounds want to, but where does that leave us? Yeah, we're superior. Who cares? Does the power of numbers matter any less, or more, than the power of [your] intellect, weapons, or money? I hope not. Otherwise popular government is impossible.

And do we, can we, believe in democracy? You ask if the electoral system is broken. Yes and no. Abolish the Electoral College, let ANY kind of state identification function as voter registration. BUT!

The elephant in the room is the other kind of politics, the kind that gets done "out of doors," the kind that Abraham Lincoln conducted. "Our government rests in public opinion," he insisted. "Whoever can change opublic opinion, can change the government, practically just so much."

First debate with Douglas, back in 1858, he says, and we should be repeating after me, "In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."

Notice what Lincoln said about public opinion. He was almost an abolitionist, but he didn't think his fellow citizens were stupid because they didn't, and couldn't, agree with him. He knew that public opinion was the practical embodiment of CONSENT, the principle that underlies and animates the Declaration of Independence and, not accidentally, that makes us Americans.

You can't assume your fellow citizens are stupid and try to move them. If they're stupid, there's nothing to be done about them, for them, with them. If you begin where Lincoln did, with the Declaration in mind, your question is, what happened here, why did a people "conceived in liberty" fall so far? He knew, and he said many times, that American political debate had coarsened in the years he came to maturity.

What was to be done? He could have said, these fucking peope are stupid. I know I would have. He didn't. Good thing, too. What he tried to say was, We've lost our way, here's how, here's why. We should try, too.

I know I'm late on the electoral question. Shoot, I'm late on the impending question, which I assume is unknown as yet.

I'm very much in support of open-mindedness and attempting to understand others. But, your argument suggests that everybody has their right to an opinion, and therefore anyone's opinion is as valid as everybody else's, now matter how well-founded it is. I find that assertion highly objectionable. I don't wish to write off people who I disagree with as stupid, but I do think people who make uninformed decisions that have bad consequences should be held accountable for that. That said... majority rules, minority rights, and we hope our representatives who are well-informed do the right thing.
I appreciate your comment, David, but I don't think we're talking about the same kind of opinion. You're right, individuals have good and bad opinions, informed and not. I constantly tell my students that an opinion is not an argument until it adduces evidence appropriate to the subject at hand.

But what if there is no independent body of fact out there to which good ideas (or opinions) correspond? What if our assumptions and our models, not to mention our intuitions and emotions, convene, that is, create and organize, a world of observable fact?

I'm trying to get us to where we can have a decent respect for the public opinion of our fellow citizens. To get there, we have to gain some sense of why a lot of them disagree with us so pointedly, so vehemently, and then we have to try to make their evidence commensurable with our own.

In short, we have to become the kind of intellectual historian Lincoln was. He didn't dismiss the pro-slavery sentiment of his time as stupid, although he believed it tended toward evil. Instead he tried to explain why it had begun to make sense to the majority of Americans (remember, he was elected in 1860 with only 39.8% of the popular vote).

He assembled scrapbooks of pro-slavery writings, he studied the rhetoric of Stephen A. Douglas (who claimed that he didn't care whether slavery went into the territories or not, also that the Declaration applied only to Englishmen and their descendents) so that he could understand the force of "popular sovereignty" in debates about Kansas, he tried desperately to figure out how a seemingly immovable consensus on excluding slavery from the Louisiana Purchase had collapsed after 1848, and with it the rigorous notion of equality embodied in the Declaration.

He respected public opinion enough, in short, to periodize it--and to try to change it without violating Constitutional scruples--rather than assuming that his fellow citizens were merely benighted, measurably stupid, and clearly irredeemable.

We should, too.
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