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Rituals of democracy

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 14, 2018

At The Atlantic, Yoni Applebaum argues that a decline in democracy isn’t just about voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and radical inequality, but also the decline of smaller civic institutions. The 19th century saw a boom in democratic governance of public/private associations, not just local and federal government:

By the latter half of the 19th century, more and more of these associations mirrored the federal government in form: Local chapters elected representatives to state-level gatherings, which sent delegates to national assemblies. “Associations are created, extended, and worked in the United States more quickly and effectively than in any other country,” marveled the British statesman James Bryce in 1888. These groups had their own systems of checks and balances. Executive officers were accountable to legislative assemblies; independent judiciaries ensured that both complied with the rules. One typical 19th-century legal guide, published by the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order, compiled 2,827 binding precedents for use in its tribunals.

The model proved remarkably adaptable. In business, shareholders elected boards of directors in accordance with corporate charters, while trade associations bound together independent firms. Labor unions chartered locals that elected officers and dispatched delegates to national gatherings. From churches to mutual insurers to fraternities to volunteer fire companies, America’s civic institutions were run not by aristocratic elites who inherited their offices, nor by centrally appointed administrators, but by democratically elected representatives…

This nation of presidents—and judges, representatives, and recording secretaries—obsessed over rules and procedures. Offices turned over at the end of fixed terms; new organizations were constantly formed. Ordinary Americans could expect to find themselves suddenly asked to join a committee or chair a meeting. In 1876, an army engineer named Henry Robert published his Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies, and it improbably became a best seller; within four decades, more than 500,000 copies were in print. It was, a Boston newspaper declared, “as indispensable as was the Catechism in more ecclesiastical times.”

We were, as the University of Georgia’s Walter Hill said in 1892, “a nation of Presidents.” And the decline of those traditions, those rituals of democracy, tracks a corresponding decline in respect for and interest in political democracy. That, at least, is Applebaum’s take.

I’m less sure. I think the history and sociology of these voluntary associations is fascinating, and deserves to be part of what we talk about when we talk about democracy writ large. But I think (and I would guess this would probably be taken as a friendly amendment) we also have to think about the transformations in other institutions we know are connected to democracy, like the media, public schools, and public institutions like libraries. Places that don’t necessarily have elected officers, but likewise help preserve certain rituals of democracy that we all have to learn in order to interact in a democratic society. How we read, how we think, how we share space — all of this matters, the anthropology as much as the law.

In other words, there’s a formal and informal side to democracy, and neither one of them is necessarily more important than the other. Not to mention that elections and officers are features of only a certain kind of democracy, and there are other, more radical forms of democracy that are available to us — all of which were experimented with in the 18th and 19th centuries too, by anarchists, socialists, and other people who didn’t take the US’s electoral model has having definitively solved the question of what a democratic society might look like.

The broader truth I take from this is that, to borrow from Aristotle, we are what we do repeatedly. If we’re not a nation of Presidents any more, it means we’ve become a different kind of democracy, not necessarily an un-democracy. And that’s significant. We’ve mutated into something else: a different kind of mass democracy, linked together by a different set of institutions with a different set of principles, leading to a different set of possibilities.