The Democratic Fable of ‘The People’ as Unaccountable Innocents

            I happened on two essays, in Academe and The Economist respectively concerned with democratic politics this week whose writers embraced what I have come to call the “unaccountable innocents fallacy.” The argument is ever the same in its essentials, that “bad elected leaders” have betrayed their blameless democratic flocks and created a real hash of things. These authors embrace a false dichotomy of democracy analogous to that W. H. Auden pointed up regarding evil and “others,” discussed in this space last week. In that case, the Anglo-American poet suggested that those adopting the argument he wished to critique contended that only some “other” delimited group, or perhaps groups, could behave cruelly and malevolently, and that “me and mine” could never so behave and could in no way be held accountable for the actions of those “others.” Auden revealed just how fallacious this claim was (and is) by reminding his readers that all human beings are capable of behaving in cruel and despicable ways. I want here to offer an argument analogous to Auden’s contention, but addressed to claims that the “people” cannot be held responsible when those they elect make poor or extreme choices, or posture endlessly or worse.

            Here is how Nicholas Behm, Sherry Rankins-Robertson and Duane Roen put their case for the unaccountable innocents fallacy in an otherwise thoughtful and much needed piece, “The Case for Academics as Public Intellectuals,” in the January-February 2014 issue of Academe (http://www.aaup.org/reports-and-publications/academe):

This necessary work, though, is complicated by pervasive public cynicism about politicians, the political process, and the role and value of government. In a recent Gallup poll, only 10 percent of survey respondents expressed confidence in Congress, which is the ‘lowest level of confidence Gallup has found, not only for Congress, but for any institution on record.’ While many elected officials would rather sloganeer and posture than collaborate, the country languishes in the residual effects of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression: inequalities persist in pay, social advantage, and education; the gap between the few who have and the many who have not grows ever wider; the possible apocalyptic effects of global climate change increasingly appear inevitable. The public pleads for compromise, solutions, and leadership only to witness political theater.

            The chief difficulty with this argument is not its statement of the sad fact of public cynicism, or even of the nation’s ongoing challenges, but its willingness to imagine that the “people” have no responsibility for the country’s present pass and for the fact that those apparently wickedly talented thespians in Washington and Sacramento and elsewhere are in office. In short, these authors’ contention sets aside the obvious fact those leaders are behaving as they are because they have found that it wins them favor with their constituents who vote, and that currying such approval results in election and reelection, and therefore, power. Voters in their districts and states elected these leaders to office. Ultimately, those Americans who vote are electing the individuals decried in this piece. And a share of these voters are becoming ever more radical as they cast about to identify who else (besides themselves and their favored officials, who are assumed not to be responsible) may be held accountable for the woes their elected leaders’ positions and policies are in fact, and ironically, helping to create. Public officials’ claims to these groups concerning the culpability of “others” for their challenges play well to citizens who continue to elect them and cheer them on in their posturing.

            This is not a question of elected leaders gone awry and hijacking governance from the citizenry, but of a share of American voters mobilized consistently to support just such “political theater” (as these authors appropriately label it) as if it bore any relationship to reality. Many citizens, it appears and for example, believe that hordes are attacking their borders and stealing their jobs, that long-disenfranchised minorities are discriminating against the nation’s majority by their very existence and that the provision of school lunches for children who otherwise would have no lunch, is somehow “Un-American” and insupportable. Sadly, this list could be easily extended. The so-called “leaders” who offer up this claptrap are not speaking simply to or for themselves, but also appealing to citizens who are moved by their claims, believe them and vote accordingly. This politics of blame-casting and feigned outrage would disappear quickly were voters unwilling to countenance it and it resulted in a loss of power and perquisites for the party propounding it. Instead, many Americans are active participants in this shadow play and very much complicit in it and its increasingly cruel virulence.

            If these analysts are concerned about this scenario, and it is easy to see why they would be, they need to look deeper than simply imagining that a share of the nation’s elected leaders have gone off the rails without voter support. Instead, many of those individuals offering the wildest rhetoric enjoy strong backing among the voters they seek to mobilize, whether elected officials such as Congressman Paul Ryan or Senators Rand Paul or Marc Rubio, or such media figures as Ann Coulter, who, in a deeply offensive and inflammatory way, told a gathering of conservatives last week that poor women should be told to “keep your knees together before you’re married.” The flights of rhetoric of another conservative GOP favorite, Sarah Palin, when understandable, are often crueler than those that Coulter routinely offers to her credulous public.

            The other essay I read that adopted the American voter as innocent victim argument appeared in the March 1 issue of The Economist and was considerably more nuanced in its contentions:

Yet in recent years the very institutions that are meant to provide models for new democracies have come to seem outdated and dysfunctional in established ones. The United States has become a byword for gridlock, so obsessed with partisan point-scoring that it has come to the verge of defaulting on its debts twice in the past two years. Its democracy is also corrupted by gerrymandering, the practice of drawing constituency boundaries to entrench the power of incumbents. This encourages extremism, because politicians have to appeal only to the party faithful, and in effect disenfranchises large numbers of voters. And money talks louder than ever in American politics. Thousands of lobbyists (more than 20 for every member of Congress) add to the length and complexity of legislation, the better to smuggle in special privileges. All this creates the impression that American democracy is for sale and that the rich have more power than the poor, even as lobbyists and donors insist that political expenditure is an exercise in free speech. The result is that America’s image—and by extension that of democracy itself—has taken a terrible battering.

            While it is easy to agree with much on offer here, the fact remains that those voting in gerrymandered districts continue to support extreme leaning leaders and that “partisan point-scoring” has become the popular form of politics du jour because elected officials perceive that it works in ensuring power and voter support, even when making it “work” contributes to the continued dysfunction and delegitimation of the regime or requires that the truth be sacrificed. Only the people can change these sad realities in our democracy. And that population is not only responsible for countenancing and actively supporting the growth of this style of politics, but equally accountable for continuing to tolerate it. Would-be demagogues will always threaten democracy, but far from absolving the body politic of its willingness to support them, analysts should be asking why it is that so many citizens provide that backing and what might be done to shift that course.