Presence and Absence and Democratic Agency

            The idea of participatory space for democratic political agency is an oddly paradoxical one in that it appears to suggest that emptiness is essential for a fully free possibility. I was reminded of that contradiction by three passages from the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese classic, by Lao Tzu:

We shape clay into a pot but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

We work with being, but non-being is what we use.

            Each of these deceptively simple, yet deeply thought-provoking observations suggests that absence is another form of presence, while also connoting that it is the space that often proves the most essential or useful dimension of the labor that wrought and structured it. But that outcome (or space) is, interestingly, not sufficient to itself. That is, those who inhabit a house and use the rooms it provides will determine the nature of that space and make it a home, or not. A dwelling must be occupied to realize its full function, but those who live within it will determine the qualities that characterize that use. Similarly, a clay pot must be used to accomplish its function, but some who use the vessel may fill it with water and others may use it for a plant or grain. Likewise, we daily act consciously on only a small part of who we are while drawing deeply on reservoirs of capability of which we are fitfully, if ever, actively aware. It is that mindfulness, however fleeting, that allows us to know of the capacities of which we are otherwise often quite oblivious. Some will be more aware of those faculties and seek actively to engage them; others will be less involved in doing so and not as sensitive to their presence.

            These examples could be extended, but by analogy they suggest how critical it may be for a democratic citizenry to realize that the freedom it enjoys is not the product of leaders, structure or institutions alone, but of populations’ daily engagement with and support of those, and of how conscious they are of the possibilities represented by each. These insights from the Tao indicate that human beings often sense the full import of an event, or an exchange or the absence of the once familiar only after it has occurred or has been lost. So it seems to be with democratic agency, by which term theorists mean to suggest that individuals believe themselves enabled and capable of taking political action to act upon and to preserve their individual and collective freedom. A government may provide formal space for the exercise of such efficacy and have it go unused, just as one may build a house and find it remain vacant in whole or in part or in practice. Individuals must exercise their democratic role to enjoy the full measure of its effects, just as to enjoy all that a structure’s space may provide, one must inhabit it fully.

            Many factors may prevent people from developing or exercising their political agency, including lack of awareness of its significance, active formal or informal discrimination (imposed by the state or practiced by fellow citizens), cultural norms, fear, apathy and so on. Government prevention of participatory possibility may be more or less complete. If it is total, a people cannot be free. If partial, only some selected among the whole can be free. And, again, even these cannot realize their agency if, for other reasons, they do not exercise it, even if they possess it. Women may have been acculturated to believe they could not participate in public affairs or should not vote. Certain ethnic groups or classes of citizens might have been the target of public animosity their entire lives, such as the Akhdam in Yemen or Dalit in India, for example. Or some people in a community may so distrust their government, for whatever complex array of reasons—some justified (corruption or lack of accountability and transparency) and some not (ideologically induced loathing)—that they turn from it and fail to act with efficacy. In such cases, too, agency is not realized.

            Put differently, unless a population possesses the space for civic participation, can act upon it and does so with some measure of consistency, it is unlikely either to remain democratically healthy or to retain the freedom on which that sense of efficacy depends in the long run. As I reflect, it seems to me that the ubiquity of legislative gerrymandering at state and federal scales in the United States now threatens the full exercise of agency, even when citizens possess it, as do efforts by some legislators to prevent exercise of the franchise by groups they do not favor on whatever grounds. A decades-long effort by some partisans to bring citizens to despise the governance institutions over which they are sovereign also undermines citizen efficacy. These major difficulties are intertwined with other cultural factors that hamper individual exercise of agency in the United States today, including the increasing role of market interests in policy-making and many citizens’ poor understanding of their regime’s institutions and political processes. Together, all of these influences are limiting U.S. citizen development and exercise of political agency. Sooner or later, we shall notice as a polity the combined claim of this absence as a singular presence in what once was our free and democratic way of life. Its enervation may be linked to many factors, but the house’s emptiness, the dearth of inhabitants making its space their own, or perhaps eventually, the evanescence of the dwelling that provides that opportunity, will be no less palpable for that fact.