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We the People, One by One

The worldwide celebration of Obama’s victory has made it clear that this election was about much more than turning out the vote. Nothing less than the nation’s soul was on the line. Individual voters need not have seen it that way, but this was one of those moments when the collective significance of the outcome went far beyond any individual interest or conventional political preference. The US was at a fork in the road, and only one candidate even knew that was so. Because he won, the election brought people together again on the best of terms: committed to equality, justice, freedom, and a better future for all. Democracy in American seems to have proved itself once again.

I think that the outcome is even more remarkable yet. Here’s one reason why:

This photo is a particularly good example of the hundreds of shots that were put up on November 4 and the day after. The slide shows featured long lines of ordinary people with their coffee cups and other paraphernalia of everyday life, all waiting together as if one community. But they weren’t a community pure and simple, and this image shows why. The silhouettes capture habits that might be overlooked when seen directly: each person is standing apart as a single individual. The sharp shadows also feature details of individual preoccupation that emphasize the point: a cellphone, book, or magazine are in each case technologies for avoiding interaction with the person next to you.

There are good reasons not to have to talk to a stranger for three hours, and I’m not going to knock any of the things people do to pass the time. But we ought to note that photographs such as this one record the social habits of a liberal democracy, that is, a democracy that has developed sufficiently to make individualism second nature. These people typically will be strangers to one another, gathered together for only a few minutes every several years. Otherwise they live their own lives and, as Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago, sever themselves from the community and willingly leave society at large to itself (Democracy in America, vol 2, Bk 2, chapter 2). According to Tocqueville, modern democracy doesn’t drive people to become a multitude, but just the opposite: to individuate to an extent that first “saps the virtues of public life” and eventually “attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in selfishness.”

Tocqueville’s claim can explain a lot of the habitual practices of American society, but not the election. The miracle of November 4 is that the majority of the voters affirmed a return to public virtues. They did so as individuals, as they is what they are, but they voted more than their individualism.

Our awareness that Americans are individuals rather than one people in shared solidarity leads to a second reason to appreciate what can be accomplished in a voting booth. Another of Tocqueville’s insights was that individual autonomy both elevates and dwarfs the individual. “When the inhabitant of a democratic society compares himself individually with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal of any one of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of his fellows . . . he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness” (2.1.2; and my apologies for the gender specific diction in the Reeve translation). In short, it is easy to recognize that your vote doesn’t count. A rational voter wouldn’t vote, and especially when one factors in not only the other voters but the enormous size, complexity, and power of the modern state.

I think this photo captures the paradox perfectly. Each of the voters is small, isolated, and surely incapable of matching the institutional power and inertia represented by the wall of the building behind them. That wall–complete with flag high above the rest, not to human scale–has all the features of governmental authority, impersonality, and indifference. And yet they vote as if they don’t know any better. Because they vote, democracy happens. It happens among strangers, among individuals devoted to living private lives, among people who have no power to speak of otherwise. It’s a miracle.

Photographs from huffingtonpost.com and Chang W. Lee/New York Times.


We the People, One by One


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