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Which 'Public' Matters in Representative Systems?

Taeku Lee's picture

The 2008 presidential election in the United States has been touted as an epic battle over many things – over whether and how to continue US military involvement in Iraq, over whether and how to boost private companies’ efforts to dig their way out of a global financial markets crisis, over whether and how to change the overarching course of the country from the trajectory it has been on for the past eight years.  These contours of the fight are demonstrably in evidence.  Perhaps the most divisive aspect of 2008, however, has been a soul-searching struggle over who is the “American public” and which candidate best represents that imagined electorate. 

The regulative ideal of a “public” has had a long and contested existence in the electoral history of representative governments.  The tension arises between a democratic public as an ideal and a democratic public in practice.  As an ideal, democracy is premised on popular sovereignty – the belief, dating back to Aristotle’s Politics and the Marquis de Condorcet’s Jury Theorem that the people, tout ensemble, are better suited to judge what is in their best interests than any one all-knowing ruler.  In the U.S. context, this ideal also carries with it a strain of anti-intellectualism, as reflected in William F. Buckley, Jr.’s oft-quoted declaration that “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”  In practice there has never been a shortage of deep suspicion and distrust of the public’s ability to rise to democracy’s ideal – from the Federalists’ fear of “mob rule” to Sir Winston Churchill’s punchy remark that “[t]he best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”

This seesaw is again in full evidence in the 2008 presidential elections in the United States.  The simultaneous longing and loathing for electoral politics to be more “public” is manifest on at least three fronts: (1) the struggle over whether we want our political leaders to be just like us or better than us; (2) the struggle over whether we really, truly want as many people to participate in the electoral process as possible; (3) the struggle over whether all views among the electorate have equal standing, no matter they are based in accurate information, critical thought, and free and equal deliberation or whether they redound to Walter Lippmann’s idea of public opinion as a “blooming, buzzing confusion.”  The first of these fronts has, of course, drawn the greatest Sturm und Drang, but the latter two are at least equal in importance.

Examples of the struggle over cognitive models of representation – whether we want our next President and Vice-President to be just one of us or to be first among equals – abound.

  • Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for Vice-President is greeted with huzzah for being a “hockey mom” from the small town of Wasilla, Alaska, mother of five, wife to a blue collar husband, and loyal Walmart customer.  At the same time, she is also pilloried for having bounced around six colleges, for apparently being (euphemistically put) a “low information” candidate, and for switching, for the purposes of campaigning, her consumptive habits from Walmart to Saks and Nieman Marcus.
  • Joe Biden, her Democratic counterpart, is publicly promoted by his party’s campaign for his workaday upbringing in the gritty Rustbelt town of Scranton, Pennsylvania and vaunted for his everyday heroism as a “family man” who commutes daily from Delaware to Washington, DC.  At the same time he is scored by the Republican Party’s campaign for his training as a lawyer, his silvery tongue, and his having worked in no other profession than United States Senator for more than 35 years. 

At the top of the ticket, this cult of personality for the common American is expressed in the exchange of rhetorical blows over Senator McCain and Obama’s descriptive claims to represent “America” and their qualifications to lead the nation.  The Obama-Biden campaign is unabashed about pointing voters to Senator McCain’s many homes and cars, with the implication that McCain represents interests of Wall Street and not Main Street.  This Jacksonian longing is even more acutely pricked in the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama.  Obama touts, in his keynote speech before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, that “in no other country is my story even possible.”  Yet Obama’s biography, while perhaps uniquely American, is far from commonplace – son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, born in Hawaii, a child in Indonesia, and a young adult at Columbia and Harvard universities.  Thus the McCain-Palin campaign routinely and with ever-increasing stridor raises the question, “Who is Barack Obama?”  This question carries with it the innuendo that Obama is an elitist – one who does not put “Country First,” cannot be trust, and must be presumed guilty of rapport with Muslims, socialists, terrorists, and the like until proven otherwise.

As I noted earlier, there are at least two other, more quiet fronts in which the dialectic over “the public” is being waged in the 2008 U.S. elections.  The first is over how inclusive and participatory an election should be before we accept it as a fair and valid judgment of “the people.”  As a democratic ideal, Americans champion, almost in the form of an incantation, full inclusion and equal participation.  In 2008, we have already seen the great fanfare given to the record levels of primary voting and voter registration.  Yet at the same time, there are diehard examples of efforts to demobilize and disenfranchise the electorate, starting with widespread allegations of vote fraud (e.g., in the recent scrutiny over ACORN voter mobilization efforts and shenanigans in battleground states to “scrub” voter registration rolls) set in a backdrop of an estimated 5.3 million Americans (disproportionately African American and Latino men) who are disenfranchised due to felony conviction records. 

The other front is over the quality of the public’s judgment.  As with the ideal of full and equal participation, there is a deep Habermasian yearning for electoral judgments to be settled by the better angels of accurate information, critical thought, and free and equal deliberation.  The yen full disclosure is evident in the emergence of numerous online watchdog initiatives such as Media Matters for America, the Wisconsin Advertising Project,, and MyFairElection.  The candidates too clearly see a groundswell of public support for greater transparency, deliberation, and accountability, with Senator McCain touting his widespread use of town hall meetings and John Edwards’ campaign promise to institutionalize a permanent Citizens’ Congress under his administration.  Yet here too, efforts to move closer to our idealized conception of a democratic public appear hampered, if not derailed, by the dismaying prevalence of negative, misleading political advertising and of candidates who “misremember” or try to be too clever by half with the American public.

By all accounts, the current presidential contest in the U.S. will be remembered as a pivotal election, one for the history books.  But it is far from clear which public will prevail in the process.  What then is to be concluded from this consideration of the ideal of a democratic public?  Perhaps nothing more than a recapitulation of Gandhi’s judgment on Western civilization: that it would be a very good idea.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Thirthy30 Photography