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Putting the Responsible “Self” Back in Self-Government

We can’t leave our virtues at the door.

Thomas Koenig

The viability of the idea of American democracy hinges on two separate assertions, one moral and one practical. The first is that We the People deserve to govern ourselves. The second is that We the People can in fact govern ourselves. Maintaining government of, by, and for the people is an ongoing struggle to prove through word and deed that both assertions are true. Today, we still have much room for improvement in forging a truly broad-based consensus on the moral principle of democracy. However, we may have reached a period in our national life in which the practical question is the more pressing one.

For much of American history, the battle for self-government was fought more on the moral than on the practical plane: Did we have the right to govern ourselves? Were we in fact endowed with the equal and unalienable rights that warrant a governing system of constitutional democracy? And who is a part of We the People, anyway? Could certain groups be excluded because of the color of their skin, their sex, or some other characteristic?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are still contested in various corners of our politics. The Capitol assault of January 6, the persistence of racism and racially motivated violence, and the rise of cancel culture and snuffing out of democratic debate all attest to the fact that many Americans on the left and right still have trouble accepting one another’s equal dignity and right to liberty, as well as the governing upshot of that equality—constitutional democracy.

Still, we should acknowledge the immense strides we have made. On the moral plane of self-government, the American story has been one of halting but real progress. From the Revolution, to the Constitution, to the outcome of the Civil War, to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s, we have increasingly lived up to our moral, democratic ideals. There has been horrendous backsliding (as with the failure of Reconstruction, for example), but in fits and starts, our direction has been overwhelmingly positive. Our duty today is to build upon and preserve that ever precarious progress.

On the practical plane of self-government, however, we are called to something quite distinct: wholescale renewal.

While the story of American democracy on its moral plane has been one of stumbling progress, on the practical plane, it has been one of steady decline, particularly over the course of the past half-century. With the rise of televisual media and the withering away of mediating political institutions like party organizations, our politics has grown detached from our real lives and has assumed the veneer of entertainment. As a result, we are increasingly tempted to separate out our personal conduct and principles from our political conduct and principles.

When politics is primarily carried out on a distant, national scale through a television screen or a Twitter feed, politics and real life can quickly become two very distinct realms in our minds. That conceptual separation lays the groundwork for depraved political behavior. In our political lives, we forsake the principles that guide and sustain us in our real lives. Upon entering the political sphere, we become someone else. The self splits in two, so that self-government becomes more challenging than it should be. Rather than balancing and advancing the interests and principles of imperfect but well-meaning individuals (our everyday, real selves), government is now tasked with regulating the affairs of irresponsible, lying, conspiratorial knaves (our political selves).

The Disconnect

In our real lives, we govern our private affairs more or less successfully by trying to practice certain virtues, like recognizing limitations, coping with complexity, making trade-offs, thinking for ourselves, telling the truth, and exercising patience, among others. Abiding by these virtues helps us successfully navigate and cope with the world as it is. Human nature and the natural world set certain constraints on us and open the door to certain possibilities. Practicing these virtues is our way of coping with those constraints and making the most of those possibilities. There is no good reason to believe that we free ourselves from such necessities when acting in concert with others—when engaging in politics, for example. Yet we try.

The conceptual gap between our real lives and the nation’s political life is now so wide that some very strange and worrisome developments are afoot. Affluent liberals post #DefundThePolice on Twitter from the quiet of suburban neighborhoods with well-funded police forces. Kind, conservative grandmothers who volunteer at church believe that leaders on the other side of the aisle are satanic pedophiles.

Neither the affluent lefty tweeter nor the right-wing church lady should have such a destructive influence on our public discourse and politics. They are law-abiding, good-natured, reality-cognizant individuals in their real lives. They follow the laws, pay their taxes, care about their families, and are involved in their communities. The problem is that they do not treat politics as part and parcel of real life. They instead view politics as a separate affair, a vessel into which they can pour fears, grievances, conspiracy theories, and fantasies. Our political discourse and public affairs have grown distant enough from our real lives so that too many of us have given in to the temptation to lose track of our real selves when we enter the political arena.

The tweeter and the grandma are extreme cases, but they are emblematic of pathologies to which many of us fall prey to some degree. And the fact that we fall prey is understandable, albeit not excusable, because the connection between our politics and our real lives has indeed withered.

As thinkers like Walter Lippmann pointed out a century ago, mass politics poses a challenge to self-government. When politics extends beyond the self-contained confines of the town hall meeting, the citizen is distanced from the levers of power, his or her elected representatives, and what constitutes the “news” of the day. We lack direct contact with and deep knowledge of the topics under debate, many of which are highly symbolic. As Lippmann wrote in his 1922 book, Public Opinion, “The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind,” so that “public opinion deals with indirect, unseen, and puzzling facts.” This is partly why committed small-d democrats like Thomas Jefferson were so wary of a complex economy and a centralized state. For self-government to persist, thought Jefferson, public affairs had to remain as tangible and near to citizens as the private affairs of home and field.

Jefferson ultimately lost the battle about the nature of the American economy and government to Alexander Hamilton, so that today’s public sphere is far less self-contained and localized than the yeoman’s republic of which Jefferson dreamed. Given such conditions, mediating institutions are essential to help us approximate the Jeffersonian dream as best we can—to make political debates and government concrete and tangible, to connect the citizenry to public affairs, to tamp down the temptation to divide our normal selves from our political selves.

Distant Political Theater

In the past, we successfully mediated that distance through robust local, state, and national political party organizations. In the words of the late political scientist E.E. Schattschneider, the “domain of the parties” is the “zone between the sovereign people and the government.” Strong parties bridge the divide between an otherwise distant central government and real, local communities inhabited by real people. They mediate the divide between the government and the governed by filtering the interests, concerns, and principles of real people up into the halls of power. They help make politics and government concrete and tangible spheres of life.

Unfortunately, the currency of party politics for much of American history was corruption and patronage. This left many crucial issues—like the inequalities unleashed by industrialization—outside the confines of the major parties’ national political debates. However imperfect the system, though, the parties did bring government and public discourse to bear on real life and vice versa. The new bridges built, the plum government jobs procured—these were ways in which the parties connected the people to their government. Politics was concrete, if corrupt.

Today, political parties have grown “hollow,” in the words of Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld. The parties lack the organizational capacity to maintain surveillance of the pulse of voters’ real lives and real concerns, then transport that substance and texture into the national political debate. They are no longer organizations so much as brands that are vulnerable to capture. And the captors—mainly TV and radio personalities, celebrities, special interest groups, and social media influencers—are neither capable nor interested in organically filtering up the concerns and lived experiences of real people and real communities into the halls of power. Rather, they are made to either tell a particular grand narrative about the nation or entertain citizens in service of clicks and eyeballs—or both.

This system of incentives turns politics into a top-down affair rather than a bottom-up one. It distances the political realm from the personal realm. Politics becomes more like a consumer product and entertainment than a realm of real-world reflection, debate, and action. Poor behavior ensues. We begin to use politics to try to escape the real world rather than to cope with it. And the fact that we conduct so much of our public discourse through television screens and Twitter feeds is distinctly unhelpful.

As the media theorist Neil Postman argued in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, televisual communications media are primed to entertain. While the bias of the printed word tilts toward the communication of assertions and arguments, the image does not. In this sense, the screen is an inherently unserious form of communication. It is not fit for carrying out weighty public debate. Screen politics makes for an unhealthy and unserious politics. As Postman puts it,

Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.… Everything about a news show tells us this—the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials.… A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.

Weak political party organizations, TV screens, and Twitter feeds now define our political landscape. As a result, we are led to flood the public square with our passions and fantasies. We leave the better angels of our nature at home.

This is not sustainable.


In The Federalist (No. 55), James Madison wrote, “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government”—that is, self-government—“presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

Our system of democratic republicanism attests to the Founders’ belief that we are endowed with sufficient virtues, enough “qualities … which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence” so that we can indeed govern ourselves. I believe the Founders were right, but only if we translate those estimable virtues—virtues to which we hold true in our personal lives—into our conduct as citizens and our approach to politics.

The American experiment does not rest solely on our equal dignity and consequent right to govern ourselves, but also on our capacity to do so. It is easy to conserve all our virtues for our real life and allow our vices to run wild in public life. Yet it is quite difficult to govern ourselves if we are not being ourselves. In order for our democracy to persist, we need to throw our real selves into the task of self-government. Maintaining democracy in a modern mass polity like ours demands nothing less. It requires constant, steady efforts on our part to ensure that we do not fall prey to the temptation to view politics as a form of entertainment or an abstract, quasi-unreal realm of life. We ought to step up to the challenge.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University. He will enter Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. Twitter @TomsTakes98

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