Democracy? Consent of the Governed? Buncombe!

Per official democratic ideology — the ideology inculcated by politicians’ speeches, election day rhetoric, and high school civics classes — the people are sovereign. The government — our “public servants” — is agent of the popular will, and the public is the principal.

But if you look at how people actually view the state’s authority on an emotional level — and how it views us — that doctrine turns out to be 99 and 44/100% buncombe. The attitude that’s actually encouraged among the general public, and that probably prevailed among a majority at least until recently, was described by Paul Goodman in Like a Conquered Province:

“We elect an administration and it, through the intelligence service, secret diplomacy, briefings by the Department of Defense and other agencies, comes into inside information that enables it alone to understand the situation …. [T]here is a permanent group of selfless and wise public servants, experts, and impartial reporters who understand the technology, strategy, and diplomacy that we cannot understand; therefore we must perforce do what they advise.”

We’ve seen this view expressed, on a much more vulgar level, in the public reaction to Bradley Manning’s so-called “treason” in allegedly leaking hundreds of thousands of State Department cables two years ago. This comment reported by Marja Erwin is typical:

“you are so right,americans do have hatred for traitors like you. it only makes sense. to think that the government should have no secrets and everyone have access to all infomation is absurd. your arguments about government is also absurd. dont you ever think about the ramifications of what you write about?”

The perspective of the state’s functionaries is similar. In 2004 former Clinton “National Security” Advisor Sandy Berger warned, regarding waning public support for the Iraq war: “We have too much at stake … to lose the American people.” So regardless of what the civics textbooks say, our “public servants” view the state as having interests in its own right — interests to which the allegedly sovereign public must acquiesce because the state knows better.

That’s essentially the view articulated by Samuel Huntington in The Crisis of Democracy in the early 1970s. During the postwar decades, the United States had been able to act as “hegemonic power in a system of world order” only because of a domestic power structure in which the country “was governed by the president acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the Executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private establishment.”

This should all be enough to disabuse us of the idea that “government by the consent of the governed” is anything but a fairy tale. As Erwin says, “if the government keeps secrets from the public, it cannot have consent, and therefore cannot have legitimacy, and it is incoherent to claim ‘treason’ when someone reveals its secrets to the public.”

Whatever the official ideology of democracy, most people’s emotional framing of their relationship to the state is colored by their childhood socialization in relation to parental authority. Developmental psychologists tell us that children are actually socialized to view government as an extension of parental authority. The President is first viewed as a sort of Mommy or Daddy, with the American people as the family. Gradually actors like Congress, the courts, and so forth enter the picture — at first understood as simply “helpers” to the President, and only later as constitutional checks to presidential authority. But the aura of parental authority persists, on a subliminal level, even then.

According to Alice Miller that general attitude toward authority into which children are first socialized in the family, and which is later extended to the state, is decidedly unhealthy. Miller (Thou Shalt Not Be Aware) refers to this value system, which punishes critical evaluation of authority in terms of one’s own judgment, as “poisonous pedagogy.” Without this authoritarian enculturation,

“… [i]t would be inconceivable … for politicians mouthing empty cliches to attain the highest positions of power by democratic means. But since voters, who as children would normally have been capable of seeing through these cliches with the aid of their feelings, were specifically forbidden to do so in their early years, they lose this ability as adults. …

“Our whole system of raising and educating children provides the power-hungry with a ready-made railway network they can use to reach the destination of their choice. They need only push the buttons that parents and educators have already installed.”

The only framework within which genuine democracy can exist is voluntary association of equals, in which we are all recognized as ends rather than means, and our right to informed consent on matters that affect us is respected. You’ll never find that within the state.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory