In democratic societies political leaders serve (and derive their legitimacy from) a collective master. In U.S. style liberal-democracies the collective, legitimizing sovereign force goes by the name of “We the people …” Of course, “the people” is a metaphor for the “body politic,” itself an abstraction which lacks any objective material reality. Lacking objective material reality however, does not mean that it lacks influence or force; following the terms of the metaphor, that influence is typically cast as “the voice of the people.” And so the problem for political leaders who want to retain their legitimacy to serve/rule is to be able to claim to be the material embodiment of “the people,” literally to speak for “the people.” I call this a problem, but of course it is as much an opportunity as anything, for since “the people” lack an objective material reality it is difficult to countermand a duly elected leader’s claim to speak for “the people” in any objectively verifiable or decisive way. Think, for example, of how difficult is was to contest President Nixon’s claim to speak for the “great silent majority.” Of course, being difficult and being impossible are two different things.
The photograph below made me think about this political dynamic:
It appeared above the fold on the front page of the NYT as part of a story concerning popular protests against recently elected South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s decision to “resume imports of American beef.” The image is an aerial view of “thousands of South Koreans” massed along a major avenue in Seoul. Shot at dusk and from both a long distance and an acute, high angle, no individual person is identifiable in any sense at all. What we see instead is a vibrant and speckled mass—later described in the accompanying article as “South Koreans with candles”—that appears almost to pulsate with its collective energy as it surges like flood waters between and among the buildings for as far as the eye can see. And indeed, what appears initially to be a beautiful expression of unity resonates as well as a sublime, natural force totally beyond control. 1 or 100 or even 1,000 protestors might be seen as malcontents or perhaps as a small minority whose concerns will be duly noted before being ignored. But hundreds of thousands of individuals (the estimates range from 100,000 to 700,000) collected in one place, appearing to be animated by a common cause, make it much harder—and far more dangerous—for a leader to discount or ignore. And so it should come as no surprise that Lee’s newly appointed cabinet members offered to resign in recognition of their failure to meet the needs and expectations of “the people” (or whatever the comparable moniker is for the collective sovereign source of political legitimacy in South Korea).
What is particularly interesting here is how the above photograph operates as an allegory for the democratic process. On one hand it helps to create the illusion that we can see “the people” as an objective material reality—a collective body with mass that is not easily reducible to the individual, even though the flickering candles call attention to the fact that the individual is in there somewhere. On the other hand, it serves as a reminder that however beautiful such a representation can be, nevertheless, “the people” can be a sublime democratic force and leaders who toy with its will or interests do so at their own peril.
Photo Credit: Dong-A Ilbo/AP