With great consternation, throughout the land, we hear the complaint of Russian interference in US elections. Notwithstanding the hypocrisy of the complaint (take note of how our elected leaders, in our name, given that we elected them, have interfered in the elections of other nations, Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Israel, to name a few examples; and note, in some instances, such interference has included violence and the overthrow of legitimately elected governments), the possibility of Russian interference is predicated on the ignorance of American voters, a situation of our own making, that has nothing to do with Russian interference (I am sure we would interfere in Russian elections as well, were there any actual elections in Russia). After all, it is not as if Russian operatives were hacking into voting machines and changed people’s vote. It is as simple as using what everyone has access to, namely social media, and flooding that media with false or misleading information (recall Nyberg: power depends upon consent and consent can be achieved by means of outright lies, misleading or partial information).
It seems, in fact, that the possibility of manipulating our democracy is predicated on the fact that we do not practice democracy in the first place. And so as not to be naïve, we ought to be clear that the method of manipulating how people vote is not limited to the Russians, but is practiced by a plethora of operatives representing every US political party imaginable. Was it not Malcolm X who said, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything? And that’s the point: what does it mean to stand for something? To carry the metaphor further, to stand requires that you have a position.
Alexi de Tocqueville, in his study of American democracy, ascribed the vibrancy of democracy in America to three institutions: the family, the church and participation in local politics. In present day American politics, the first two institutions, the family and the church are used like ketchup, something that is poured over everything but has no substance and adds nothing (those who pour God over all their political speeches and platforms would have to stand shamefaced before the electorate were they to be confronted by the pronouncements of the Prophet Amos). The last institution is by and large ignored.
Nonetheless, it is by virtue of these three institutions that we develop political positions (and consequently, not only do others know where we stand, but we ourselves understand where we stand). Political positions are not innate, they are dialogical. This is to say, that political positions emerge in conversation with others, about family, neighborhood, community and the issues that challenge the wellbeing of these social institutions. The key ingredient here is the notion of conversation (not to be confused with communication) understood as “public,” i.e. not among family members but among those with whom we share the wider community (neighborhood, city, county, etc.). The possibility of such conversations requires local institutions (such as churches, schools, etc.) in which it is appropriate to conduct such conversations (sadly, a very small minority of these institutions open their doors, or understand it as an element of their mission, to be a public space in which these conversations can take place. Institutions in which it is appropriate to engage others in public debate and conversation have become fewer and fewer: certainly not the local mall or the grocery store).
These public conversations begins with how participants understand their own individual interest; not with a discussion with what is best for everyone together, but what is best for me and my family. But it is in the context of these conversations that people begin to negotiate with one another, in a sense they practice politics, and come to a political (i.e. public) position. This takes place in the context of compromise, a decision reached by mutual concessions, as opposed to a consensus. Recall Lindbloom: those groups that achieve positions are those that begin with what is best for me, not what is best for the group.
It is through these discussions, through compromise, that we emerge from these conversations with a wider understanding of interest, in that it now includes the interests of my neighbors and fellow citizens, given that I will not be able to achieve what I want without the cooperation of others and visa-versa. I will concede your need for street lighting (and consequently my commitment to work with you) if you concede my right for a neighborhood park (and consequently your commitment to work with me). Imagine the difference in a citizens’ assembly (as opposed to a candidates forum) in which candidates are not asked to tell us how to address the issues that they face (and then are able to tack snappy slogans that obfuscate such as “make America great again,” or “hope that you can believe in”), but in which citizens (understood in the moral sense, as one who engages in the development of public life as opposed to a legal understanding) have identified the issues, have researched and reached a position on how to address these challenges, and in which they ask candidates to commit to their solution. The former exposes people to verbal diarrhea; the latter requires a simple yes or no on the part of the candidate. This is what it means to stand for something, to take a stand, to hold a position. It is in fact, how we create the possibility of standing with one another.
But it takes focused and intentional public work. It is in the context of such a citizens’ assembly that people will not “fall for anything.” Recall again Nyberg: power depends upon consent, and another way of achieving consent is informed judgement – we have enough information to understand how our vote will affect our self-interest (expanded in the context of community conversations). This is not about endorsing any candidate, or telling people how to vote. If people have developed political judgement, they will understand how to vote without anyone having to tell them as they are herded to the polls.
The threat to democracy is not the Russians; it’s the fact that, by and large, we have not practiced it; we have not taken the time to develop a praxis of practical democracy and have settled for sloganeering and the manipulation of consent in a cynical power grab based on the love of money over neighbor. Was it not Jesus who said, you cannot serve both God and money; you will love one and hate the other. To serve God is to be a neighbor.
A possible solution: back to Tocqueville – family, congregation and local politics. Who are the pastors, the school principals, the directors of private social service agencies and clinics, the presidents of labor locals, who will open their doors to the people and the public conversations through which democracy is born, and re-born, and re-born.