Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Fielding A Question Regarding Democracy:

Here at Pravda Kid, I try to be responsive to my readers. In this spirit, here is a comment from one Michael K, regarding my earlier post, involving the Horner/Baker study of Salt River Tickets in 19th Century U.S. elections. Says good Michael K:
Let me see if I follow you here. Schudson is right that there is too much emphasis on intersubjectivity in democracy studies; but Horner and Brewin are right that there isn't enough of it in contemporary democratic practice? Which of these theses seems more plausible to you? Or, is there a way to resolve the apparent contradiction and assert both?
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here, but I (think I) get Michael K.'s point. Some say Democracy could use some good ol' bodily involvement, some visceral punch, a forum where people get together, get drunk, party, argue, and vote. This approach finds its roots in Deweyan thought (sometimes dried up like a prune and turned into Habermasian thought). Meanwhile, an opposed camp tells us that this love of conversation/affiliation/intersubjectivity misses some important issues. Schudson, for one, tells us that conversation has all kinds of problems and should not be theoretically situated as as the 'soul' of democracy. Amongst other things, the well-nigh single-minded focus on conversation tends to undervalue the role of information in modern ('mass'?) democracies.

Fine. So, Michael K.'s question stands: How do I resolve this? To resolve this, I begin by pointing out something that may very well not be true: there is no zero-sum situation here. It is possible for a social polity also to be well-informed while also being engaged on the bodily level (showing up to rallies, arguing loudly, getting drunk on election day). So, let's go for well-informed people with strong community allegiances. An emphasis on rationality/information (in theory or in practice) is always going to be in danger of masking underlying interests that fuel politics (Chantal Mouffe makes this point much better than myself). An emphasis on bodily engagement--often exemplified by political rallies--is always going to be in danger of being fascist. Instead of having the poorly informed, uninterested (alienated) citizens (the situation in which 'information/rationality' and 'involvement' are both 'low' on the magical democracy-meter), why not have well-informed, involved citizens?

This is all kind of obvious. The bitter pill to swallow is that I'm not finding any way to get us to this dreamy synthesis of engagement and information. So, I conclude on the following note: hanging above all of this is the idea of social control. The fear of the masses (smelly, irrational, prone to bouts of genocide) pervades this debate, as well it might after the last 100 years. The call for rationality and an informed electorate have done duty as appeals for social control. In light of this, a warping of Michael K.'s question would be as follows: "Which option [information or involvement], if each is boiled down and opposed to the other, would be the most dangerous now?" I think we're living in a situation where the culture of journalism/politics (two institutions with a 'bureaucratic affinity' for each other, as the fella says) has leaned strongly in the direction of disengagement. We're paying the price for that in terms of alienated citizens, low voter turnout, etc. But (and I think this is largely consistent with Brewin & Horner's ideas) creating greater bodily involvement--making democracy literally more fiery--might simply embolden the trampling of reason that the Frankfurt school dudes (Horkheimer especially) feared so much. I bow to Schudson, who reminds us of the limits of conversation (which I'm extending into the world of 'bodily involvement' here), and of the not-so-terrible role played by information in politics. Once again, I seem to be taking the side of gesellschaft.


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