Jennifer Mercieca Associate Professor Department of Communication Texas A&M University
Apathy, Disengagement, Civic Withdrawal Aristotle, “The good citizen must have the knowledge and ability both to be ruled and to rule”; the state is a “kind of partnership” in which citizens promote “the security of their community,” defend “the constitution,” and work for the “common advantage.” (Politics, 3: 1276b-79a)
Citizens are officers of the government, not mere members of a political community. Citizens have responsibilities and obligations, but what can citizens do?
The Rights & Freedoms of Citizenship
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of the Press
Right to Petition
Right to Vote?
Amendments: Fourteenth (Equal Protection), Fifteenth (Race), Nineteenth (Gender), Twenty-sixth (Age) & the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We do not have the right to vote for president, that right is retained by the states—the Electors of the Electoral College are technically the only ones who vote for president.
Voter Turn Out Between 1945 and 2000 the United States had an average voter turn out of 48.3%, which ranked us 114th out of the 140 nations in the world that hold free elections. (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance http://www.idea.int/vt/survey/voter_turnout_pop2-2.cfm)
2008 Election: 58.2% turn out, which would rank us # 99, right behind Tunisia.
Even with all of the excitement about Barack Obama,18-24 year olds were still the least likely of all age groups to vote: 44.3% turned out in 2008. If they were a nation, 18-24 year olds would rank 125th—equal to El Salvador—in turnout.
Table 1. Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2008: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/socdemo/voting/publications/p20/2008/tables.html
Other Indicators of Civic Engagement: Photo Credit: http://republicforwhichitstands.blogspot.com/2009/03/everett-tax-day-tea-party.html, March 25, 2009
Founding Fictions’ Research Questions: How have we imagined a government based upon the will of the people? How have we imagined American citizens? What do our historical debates about the role of the citizen tell us about how citizens can act in the government today?
Rhetorical History Founding Fictions is a “meta-rhetorical history” that examines how the structural elements within texts—the arguments, tropes, and figures—contributed to building the political fictions that permeated and dominated the contexts of which they were a part.
I studied political theory, American history, the biographies of the major figures and their friends and colleagues; I also studied the authors that the Founders were known to have read, the Founders’ published and unpublished papers, newspapers, public and private correspondence, literature, journals, public deliberations and the pronouncements of deliberative bodies. I moved back and forth from texts to contexts and back again—all with the goal of understanding the constitutive discourses of American citizenship.
Political Fictions Founding Fictions’ goal is to take political theory out of the realm of unquestionable elite discourse and re-place it in the realm of the public. Political theory is a simulacrum of dialectic: it is a rhetorical fiction that appears faithfully to describe political reality while it is also used to create political realities.
Political fictions are “narratives that political communities tell themselves about their government; like formal constitutions, they have a constitutive role in political discourse.” We find political fictions in just about any textual artifact that describes or is premised upon that nation’s view of its government. There could be a monarchic fiction, oligarchic fiction, aristocratic fiction, theocratic fiction, republican fiction, or a democratic fiction.
Differences between Democratic & Republican Political Theories It is easy to confuse democratic and republican forms of government because in both “the people” are sovereign. The difference between them is in answering the question “who rules” and how those who rule “administer” or make decisions in the government.
In pure democracy offices are drawn by lot—not awarded by election—and every citizen makes binding policy decisions on all questions of government— “the government of all over all.” In republics decision making power ranges from assenting to the original constitution and then taking no further part in government, to giving binding policy decisions to representatives who must faithfully mirror their constituents’ views. In democracies all citizens are equal; republics are hierarchical.
Republican Political Fiction Plato described a democracy as, “a state in which the poor, gaining the upper hand, kill some and banish others, and then divide the offices among the remaining citizens, usually by lot.” (Republic, Book VIII, 557a) Likewise, in the United States “democracy” connoted turbulence, chaos, leveling of the hierarchy, and mob rule.
For the first generation of Americans “democracy” meant: The rule of “a rude insulting mob”—Letters in Answer to the Farmer “Turbulence and contention”—James Madison, Federalist 10. “The government of the worst”—George Cabot, 1804. Perhaps prudently, the Founders created a republic, not a democracy. The US has embraced more inclusive practices of citizenship over its history, but it has never achieved equality or ever permitted “the government of all over all.”
Citizens as Romantic Heroes Despite this negative view of democracy, the Founders of the Revolutionary era imagined citizens as romantic heroes. According to Hayden White, romantic narratives are a “drama of self-identification symbolized by the hero’s transcendence of the world of experience…it is a drama of the triumph of good over evil, of virtue over vice, of light over darkness, and of the ultimate transcendence of man over the world.” (Metahistory, 8-9)
Romantic citizenship: a citizen was imagined to believe that he or she was a hero who would conquer adversity—whether the “adversity” was the gun of a British regular, the corruption of luxurious British goods, or the tyranny of Parliament and the King—and act in the republic’s best interest to ensure a safe, happy, and prosperous America. Romantic citizens were enabled to act for the common good.
Romantic Citizenship “Ought not the people therefore to watch? To observe facts? To search into causes? To investigate designs? And have they not a right of JUDGING from the evidence before them, on no slighter points than their liberty and happiness?” John Dickinson, 1767, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, VI, 37)
King George was the “chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government, erected for their use, and consequently subject to their superintendence …While those bodies are in existence to whom the people have delegated the powers of legislation, they alone possess and may exercise those powers; but when they are dissolved by the lopping off of one or more of their branches, the power reverts to the people, who may exercise it to unlimited extent, either assembling in person, sending deputies, or in any other way they may think proper.” Thomas Jefferson, Summary View of the Rights of British Americans, 1774
Citizens as Tragic Victims Rebellions after 1783 proved that the Articles of Confederation were woefully unsuitable for the needs of the 13 states, leaders assembled in Philadelphia in the hope of providing stability in government, even at the expense of citizen control over the government. Citizens had turned from romantic heroes to tragic victims.
According to Hayden White, tragic narratives reflect the “resignations of men to the conditions under which they must labor in the world…man cannot change them but must work within them.” (Metahistory, 9) Tragic Citizenship: political corruption is eternal, citizens are not the patriot heroes who will act for the common good, but rather complicit victims of corruption. The only solution is to give more power to the system, which will provide stability.
Tragic Citizenship The insurrections “exhibit a melancholy proof…that mankind when left to themselves are unfit for their own Government.” (George Washington to Henry Lee, October 31, 1786) “The general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the US labored; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy and some check therefore was to be sought for against this tendency in our Governments.” Edmund Randolph, 1787.
“The people immediately should have as little to do as may be about the government, they want information and are constantly liable to be misled.” Roger Sherman, 1787. “My idea of the sovereignty of the people is, that the people can change the constitution if they please; but while the constitution exists, they must conform themselves to its dictates.” James Madison, Debate Over the First Amendment, 1789.
Democratic Political Fiction Americans began to call their government a democracy rather than a republic in the 1820s, but the constitution was never changed from a republic to a democracy. What we think of as the “rise of Jacksonian democracy” can be more profitably understood as the “rise of the democratic fiction.”
1816—Compensation Act and the shift from republican to democratic representation. 1824— “corrupt bargain” and the shift from republican to democratic campaigning. 1828—Andrew Jackson wins the grudge match election and consolidates power in the Executive Branch while extolling the virtues of the “common man.” 1840—Whigs use the Democrats’ democratic fiction to get their “Man of Hard Cider & Log Cabins” elected, even though William Henry Harrison was a member of a family that had ruled in America since well before the Revolution, which meant that he was no man of the people.
Citizens as Ironic Partisans Political leaders used the democratic fiction ironically, as a legerdemain; the people used the democratic fiction earnestly, to demand the power that they knew was theirs. One effect of the democratic fiction was to change the locus of controversy from political theory to political organization—it was no longer possible to openly debate political theory. A second effect of the democratic fiction was to turn citizens into partisans, thus adding another layer of stability between the people and their dangerous opinions and the administrative power of the government.
“We hold it a principle that every man should sacrifice his own private opinions and feelings to the good of his party and the man who will not do it is unworthy to be supported by a party, for any post of honor or profit.” Martin Van Buren’s Albany Argus, 1824.
How do American Citizens Act?
Stability vs. Participation “There is a “practical absurdity” in the contradiction between our claims to popular sovereignty and our commonplace judgments of the popular will, who would say that the ‘King’ is sovereign, but in the next breath deny the ‘King’s’ ability to resist sophists, accuse him of such ignorance that he cannot tell his own interests, and then top the argument with the claim that public ethics force officers of state, who owe their power to the ‘King’ to pay not attention to him.” Michael Calvin McGee, 1978
Do America’s political fictions enable the people to control the government? No, they do not. Popular governments are profoundly unstable, because when the people rule there can be no settled question, no unquestioned rule, no ruling power, and no powerless citizen. America’s political leaders have simply dismissed public opinion as irrational, ill-informed, and the product of demagogues because it provides justification to protect stability.
Why Are Citizens Apathetic? “Why am I so interested in politics? But if I were to answer you very simply, I would say this: why shouldn’t I be interested? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct…So instead of asking me, you should ask someone who is not interested in politics and then your question would be well-founded, and you would have the right to say “Why, damn it, are you not interested?” Michel Foucault, 1971.
I have argued that Foucault’s “density of ideology” can be thought of as America’s founding fictions. Why are citizens apathetic and disengaged? Because the Constitution’s tragic republicanism was designed to prevent citizen action and while we call our government a democracy, we treat citizens as tragic victims and as ironic partisans rather than as romantic heroes.