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.