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Good Morning and Good Night in America

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on the nature of our democracy. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

Now that the elections are over, journalists are trying to drum up interest in the transition, the court intrigue of impending appointments, the personalities of the new DC aristocracy. But most citizens would have none of it. While the punditry will keep up its obsession, the American people, Rip Van Winkle will go back to sleep. And that is not a bad thing. This is our democracy, where citizens are free to go back to their business once they have picked their new president, who should now be free for the next four years to exercise his own judgment on their behalf. We will reassemble again soon enough to judge him, but until then, we wish him good luck and godspeed.

Throughout the late 90s, it became fashionable to decry the disengagement of citizens, the solipsism of citizens living politics vicariously via television and bowling alone. This year we saw that the American people can be awoken and roused to action. When in crisis and dire need, we have demonstrated our ability to rise to the occasion to care, to engage, and to vote. Most times our message is divided and diluted, but once every generation We the People speak with a strikingly clear voice, commanding and responding to a new leader’s call for change. This is America, where a revolution can happen every generation, where our covenant with each other is reaffirmed and its meaning redefined.

If we are ever to end the permanent campaign – the pox on American politics – we should embrace and endorse this aspect of representative democracy that permits citizens to go back to their own private affairs and allows our officials to conduct the nation’s business. Ours is not a direct democracy in which citizens are asked to approve and to bless every governmental decision to be made; ours is a representative democacy in which the people choose to defer their opinions to the judgment of their elected representatives. This is the paradoxical luxury enjoyed by a democratic people who remain sovereign even as they are governed.

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2 Responses to “Good Morning and Good Night in America”
  1. While I agree with the American right (and possibly privilege) to forget about who is leading the country, I don’t think forgetting will be that easy. The current media-frenzy dynamic will cause the mainstream to devour itself like the last cannibal on a deserted island. I do think that American interest will lag, but the current events pushers won’t give up without a fight. And without interested readers, a beleaguered medium like newsprint will be hard-pressed to react fast enough.

  2. Evan Ravitz says:

    Yes, tell us another about the luxury of “representatives” in Congress who OK torture, perpetual war and debt, domestic spying, bailouts for the parasite class, ad nauseum.

    Actually, in 24 more advanced states (including MA next door to you) we have a hybrid direct/representative democracy. It’s the ultimate check and balance on those who otherwise would be absolutely corrupted by power.

    Solutions to initiative problems have been generally agreed on and available for many decades. But legislators NEVER improve the process, only make it harder (not affecting the wealthy much) and hobbling it in various ways (this year, with AZ Prop. 105 and CO Ref. O, both wisely defeated by voters).

    Voters on ballot initiatives need what legislators get: public hearings, expert testimony, amendments, reports, etc. The best project for such deliberative process is the National Initiative for Democracy, led by former Sen. Mike Gravel: http://Vote.org. Also http://healthydemocracyoregon.org/ and http://cirwa.org

    In Switzerland, petitions are left at government offices and stores for people to read and sign at leisure, so there are less aggressive petitioners, more informed signers, and less $ required. The Swiss vote on initiatives 3-7 times a year so there’s never too many on one ballot. Because they have real power, the Swiss read more newspapers/capita than anyone else.

    In Switzerland, representatives are humbler and more representative after centuries of local and cantonal (state) ballot initiatives, and national initiatives since 1891. They call their system “co-determination.” This works for all relationships!

    Evan Ravitz, founder, Vote.org

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