American Democratic Politics and Deliberative Possibility

            George Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, recently wrote a poignant piece on the travails confronting Southside, Virginia, that sprawling region in the south central part of the state along the North Carolina border. He focused in particular on Martinsville, a one- time furniture and textiles center, now experiencing Great Depression levels of unemployment. His article treated how the politics of the dire economic situation is playing in the region, and especially for President Obama. Prior to the March 15, 2010 publication of the story, Packer shared snippets of his interviews with relevant congressional and White House officials on his blog (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2010/03 obamas-lost-year.html - entry-more). One exchange he quoted with an individual identified as a “senior congressional staff member,” is significant for what it revealed about the current character of American politics:

One of the problems with this Administration is it has tried to have a grownup, sophisticated conversation with the public. That is the President’s instinct, it’s Tim Geithner’s instinct. And that itself is tone deaf…. The President is having a very eloquent, one-sided conversation. The country doesn’t want to have the conversation he wants to have.

             This remark is both a commonplace in today’s politics and fascinating for what it suggests about how public policy/politics is increasingly conceived by those in powerful positions. One might offer a number of observations concerning it, but here are three for consideration. First, one plain implication of the statement is that one may not have an “adult” conversation with the polity’s citizens today. But why that is so or what it might portend, even in the immediate term, is left unaddressed. Instead, the implication is that the President and Geithner are foolish for trying. This staffer implies that theirs is a quixotic quest. Second, apart from being foolish, they are also, at least by implication, electorally naive. Why bother to seek an “adult conversation” if the citizenry is not listening, does not want to listen, and it does not help one’s poll numbers?

             Third, and most important, the staffer assumed that the leaders should first check the public pulse and then speak and act accordingly. But this orientation raises several age- old and well-known red flags. Indeed, theorists and philosophers have expressed skepticism for centuries about the possibility of creating enduring democracy. Primary among their concerns is the fact that democratic tyranny may be born not only of individual despotism, but also of shared misunderstanding, lack of deliberation or lack of knowledge. Empowered majorities across history have acted in haste or without sufficient information or consideration or have been swayed by revenge or pride or other emotions and tyrannically deprived fellow citizens of life or limb as a result. Accordingly, democracy theorists have argued for at least as long that preservation of freedom is ultimately not about current desires or preferences, however popular those may be at any given moment, but about ensuring action in accord with a considered or deliberative understanding of the common good in ways that secure freedom. This staffer’s comment raises the enduringly significant question of whether democratic leaders may simply abandon their responsibility to that aspiration in favor of addressing the currently popular, however inaccurate or juvenile. Perhaps the question is, is the majority popular preference of the moment sacrosanct, or shall we as citizens expect our leaders to demand that we consider our current preferences in light of broader criteria of justice or community aimed at the common weal? Is simple preference, considered or not, a sufficient standard to ensure responsible self-governance? Put differently, a simple- minded and preference-focused majoritarianism is freighted with dangers for freedom. We abandon our common quest for an “adult” and deliberative conversation at our collective and individual peril. Let us hope some of our leaders, at least, continue to believe that an adult conversation is at least worth a try. Our capacity to remain a free and self-governing nation may well be at stake.