This piece is part of the OOPS Series, “Social Interaction.”
This past May, Andrew Sullivan — political blogger extraordinaire — made his much anticipated return to the land of talking heads with an essay on hyperdemocracy and the rise of tyranny. In it, he argued that the overexpansion of direct democracy and the culling of representative democracy (in particular, the inability of elites to direct the conversation taking place in the public sphere) was contributing to the rise of a tyrant in the land of Jefferson: Donald J. Trump
Taking Plato’s framing of the tensions between democracy and tyranny as his jumping off point, Sullivan argued that democracy is inherently unstable. The root of this instability, according to Sullivan, was the systematic elimination of the role that elites play in democratic societies. As the “authority of elites fades,” he wrote, “as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending.”
It came as little surprise when Sullivan’s analysis was lambasted. Amongst all the critiques offered — that he has forgotten the role of the military industrial complex, that Republicans had brought this upon themselves, that neoliberal capitalism had left us with too little rather than too much democracy — the most strident was aimed at his solution: the role that elites ought to have in maintaining a democracy. Michael Lofgren’s words are emblematic: “Donald Trump is a product of elite structures like the Republican establishment and our corporate media, as well as the anti-democratic tendencies that have become…increasingly prominent” in American democracy. The problem, Sullivan’s many critics agreed, was not hyperdemocracy at all, but anti-democracy. And the solution wasn’t more elitism, it was the expansion of a more genuine democracy.
Looking at contemporary debates from up close, in real time, often produces more heat than light. Perhaps we can shed some light on this conflict by turning, not to Plato, but another seminal theorist of democracy and public: John Dewey. What would Dewey say about Sullivan’s elitist critiques of hyperdemocracy? Would he align with Lofgren and the others, or would the light of his pragmatist perspective shine elsewhere?
On the face of it, Dewey would seem to have no patience for an elitist solution. After all, in The Public and Its Problems, he who once wrote, the “world has suffered more from leaders and authorities than from the masses” (p. 208). But I think Dewey has more to offer us here than simply reinforcing Sullivan’s critics. We can begin to see how this might be the case by asking what Dewey by “the public.”
For Dewey, the public and the private do not simply correspond to our human social and anti-social tendencies, respectively. Instead, we must first see that all action is interaction. Then, we can notice that human interaction remains private when its consequences affect only those directly engaged. Likewise, interaction becomes public when it effects a broader circle beyond those who are directly involved. “The public,” in other words, “consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions…[all those who are] indirectly and seriously affected for good or for evil” by interactions in which they are not involved (pp. 15, 35).
Dewey’s question then becomes how those persons who are affected by interactions in which they are not involved can be safeguarded from the negative effects of those very interactions. His answer: they must be represented and protected by the state. This state may assume many different forms, including democracy; yet, it must be properly understood as “the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members” (p. 33).
According to Dewey, the central problem of the modern state is that the public has been “eclipsed.” From his bedrock of all action as interaction, he argues that the form of the state present in modern society has emerged, not from modern technology collapsing distances and calling into being new and changed publics, but more fundamentally from “local town-meeting practices and ideas” (p. 113). Yet, even the society Dewey knew between the 1850s and 1950s — from Industrial Revolution to Cold War and nuclear proliferation — could not be characterized as such.
Recognizing these technological forces, Dewey saw the “elimination of distance, at the base of which are physical agencies, has called into being a new form of political association” (pp. 114-15). In other words, technology has circumscribed the private such that myriad “intimate” conversations can now in directly affect many more people not directly involved. As such, many publics are called into being simultaneously because the human capacity for interactions that indirectly affect those not included in a conversation has expanded so greatly. But that is not the problem.
The problem is that these new expanded publics have not coalesced into a community. Thus, the problem is actually twofold. First, Dewey says, it “is not that there is no public [but that] there is too much public, a public too diffused and scattered and too intricate in composition.” Second, there “are too many publics, for conjoint actions which have indirect, serious and enduring consequences are multitudinous beyond comparison, and each one…generates its own group of persons especially affected…How can a public be organized, we may ask, when literally it does not stay in place?” (pp. 137, 140)
Returning to Sullivan’s accusations of hyperdemocracy, we must note Dewey’s solution to this poignant question is to propose the construction a new social imaginary — a new set of signs and symbols that allow for the full and clear communication of common thoughts and aspirations. This new social imaginary must match the modes of production, the technological substructure, upon which our interactions are built. But who should construct this foundation? Experts who lay out the plan beforehand? Elites who inform the masses as to how they ought to live? Certainly not.
Ever suspicious that “experts” will forget the context of those whose lives are structured by their expertise, Dewey advocates for conscientization — the teaching and social upbuilding and empowering of the very masses who can then be their own articulators of how they are being affected by the interactions of others that have made them a public. And yet, though clearly not standing with Sullivan, Dewey is also not simply against Sullivan’s position.
One possible way to reconcile their positions is to look more closely at what Sullivan thinks is the role of elites. Although Sullivan never fully specifies the role of elites in his article, he does specify the problem for which elites can provide a solution. Sullivan writes, our “views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending.” Our problem is mutual incomprehension.
Read in this way, we may well be reminded of Dewey’s analysis of the “multitudinous” publics that are so difficult to reconcile. The diagnoses are similar. But why do Sullivan and his fellow advocates offer an elite-infused representative democracy as a solution? What is the role of such elites? And how will they be linked to the needs of those they are representing?
If the role of elites is to create some coherence amongst the multitudinous publics, it must not be played as substitutes for the further democratization and conscientization of these publics. Such elites, Dewey might say to Sullivan, must not speak for, but instead make space for the public to be formed. But then, the best word to describe such players might not be “elites,” but “educators.”