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November 2, 2004

People, Nation, Republic: Reflections for Election Night

As election night traffic heats up on the Net, and the hunt for the latest data begins, PressThink counter-programs. Three philosophical passages about The People, The Nation and The Republic. From books that inform this blog, and could inform your viewing tonight.

Seeking words of wisdom for election night, I went back to some of the books that have informed this weblog at a level deeper than content.

Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. This book taught me about political fictions, and why they matter. A fiction, in the sense Morgan means it, is not a lie, but a leap of imagination. “The sovereignty of the people” is one such a leap.

The people cannot really be sovereign in the sense of running the government, and pulling the levers of power. But the fiction itself has power. It expresses something that is very real, not fictive at all: the human urge to be free of domination. And by trying to realize the principle, “the people shall rule,” we begin to give it factual footing, as with the election being held tonight. So political fictions are not lies and they are not fairly tales. They are the sources of meaning in our national story. They shape people’s aspirations. We live inside them.

“The press” is one of those enabling fictions. It too expresses something deep and real: the urge to share knowledge and spread it widely so that others may know. Many have this urge; not just the people who are “in” the press and who claim it, professionally.

Here’s Morgan on the strange radiating power of our fiction about sovereignty:

From its inception in the England of the 1640s the sovereignty of the people has been filled with surprises for those who invoked it. It was a more dynamic fiction than the one it replaced, more capable of serving as a goal to be sought, never attainable, always receding, but approachable and worth approaching. It has continually challenged the governing few to reform the facts of political and social existence to fit the aspirations it fosters. The presumption that social rank should convey a title to political authority was only the first casualty in its reformations, and we have not seen the last. The fiction endures. The challenge persists.

Got that? Political fictions work by challenging “the governing few” to reform the facts of our existence to fit the aspirations the fiction had earlier fed. And in this way it becomes fact. Listen, then, for how our most potent political fictions fill the airwaves tonight.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Benedict Anderson offers a similar idea. The nation, he says, is an imagined place even though it covers a real stretch of earth. You cannot have a modern nation without tools and rituals for calling it to mind, giving it life and motion. Tonight’s rituals—especially the electoral map on TV—are crucial for bringing alive the very idea of an American nation.

“An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000-odd fellow-Americans,” writes Anderson, attempting insight on the obvious. “He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady anonymous, simultaneous activity.” He goes on:

I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community— and imagined as both limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion… In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness but by the style in which they are imagined.

The particular style in which the American political community is imagined— this is what’s changing today The Net is changing it, for one. And when you watch election coverage tonight, tune into how television, a tool of national identity, gives us “complete confidence in the steady anonymous, simultaneous activity” of other Americans who are voting and watching.

James W. Carey, A Republic, if You Can Keep It. James Carey calls the public “the god-term of journalism, the be-all and end-all, the term without which the entire enterprise fails to to make sense.” So while journalists like to remind us that democracy is impossible without them, Carey likes to remind journalists that they and their kind are impossible without democracy. He says the proper subject matter of journalism is actually the conversation the public is having— or needs to have.

Carey thinks we should “value the press in the precise degree that it sustains public life, that it helps keep the conversation going among us.” We should “devalue the press” in the degree that it seeks only to inform us or, worse, “turn us into silent spectators.”

Republics require conversation, often cacaphonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can be generated only by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it. We have virtually no idea what it is we need to know until we start talking to someone. Conversation focuses our attention, it engages us… From this view of the First Amendment, the task of the press is to encourage the conversation of the culture, not to preempt it or substitute for it or supply it with information as a seer from afar.

Not to be a seer from afar. The networks were supposed to have learned their lessons about that. I guess we’ll find out if that’s so.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 2, 2004 8:29 PM