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Democratic Libel

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He had a “hideous hermaphroditical character”; another's mother was a “common prostitute brought to this country by the British soldiers”; and a campaign slogan, “Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?” played off accusations that he had a child born of an illicit affair.


When did these slurs originate? The 18th and 19th centuries: John Adams was the hermaphrodite; Andrew Jackson had the prostitute mother; and James Blaine's campaign slogan in 1884 skewered Grover Cleveland for his supposed bastard son.


For all the talk about the recent mudslinging and libelous campaigning, perhaps we should take pause before bemoaning the lack of civility in today's politics. The argument that libel is destroying democracy is, well, ahistorical. Instead let me posit a different theory — it is the spectator's passivity of our citizenry that is problematic.


Instead of our society's lack of cordiality, which is not the same as rationality, let me argue that we need an active citizenry, one that engages on various levels. Democracy is based on the clash of groups. It's not an aesthetically pleasing style of governing. No beacon of symposia the Acropolis. Instead it is as Mary Ryan, a historian from the University of California at Berkeley calls it, “civic warfare.” We are supposed to engage in conflict because the issues are too important not to use all of the weapons in our arsenal.


The kind of efficient, conflict-free democracy that many reformers and technocrats call for is not democracy but instead a bureaucratization that takes accountability away from elected officials and instead gives power to the professional bureaucrat who's never up for election. This is undemocratic at its most well-intentioned and authoritarian at its worst. One can see inklings of this in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's desire to overturn term limits in New York City though the public has twice voted for them. This from the ultimate self-described reformer, the man who believes rationality and bipartisanship must win the day, but only while he's in charge.


Indeed, groups such as MoveOn.org are promising because they look to be the nascent reinvention of a group-based democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about when he traveled in the United States in the 1830s. He recognized that in a democracy the individual voice had little effect and therefore groups were necessary for action.


“In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons whom equality of conditions has made disappear. As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have conceived a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce in the world, they seek each other out,” de Tocqueville wrote. “From then on, they are no longer isolated men, but a power one sees from afar, whose actions serve as an example; a power that speaks, and to which one listens.”


In other words being civic in a democracy is not just voting but also actively engaging the government to ensure accountability and to force reform from the bottom up, not top down.


The Internet and modern technology have allowed vitriol to amplify and multiply, but they also have allowed us to return to this more participatory, grass-roots democracy. In a second, thousands of text messages can go out. In a day, thousands can petition their government, and over time, interest groups can hold elected officials accountable, as the liberal blogosphere did during the U.S. attorney general's scandal of 2006. 


Looking at the 2008 presidential election, you can find sundry examples of this approach, especially through the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama. He has tapped into this form of democracy in a variety of ways, including informing his supporters of his vice-presidential pick through text messaging and organizing an online network of supporters who autonomously organize and campaign. 


That a politician is tapping into this new form of organizing is an indicator of a shift in democratic culture. More importantly, however, is how his supporters have become active decision makers in Obama's candidacy by seeking each other out. For example, when Obama supported a revised bill that governs domestic wiretapping, a new online group formed from within his own campaign Web site. It rallied 16,000 members in protest, forcing the candidate to respond to their concerns in public.


So instead of tut-tutting those engaged in partisan bickering, I say keep it coming. Democracy is not a debate between Plato's fabled philosopher kings. Instead it's done among average people — whether on television, in chat rooms or on the streets. And in this realm, cordiality is a hindrance, not a democratic value.


An active, engaged citizenry is what's needed to secure our democracy as we move into the 21st century. When government gets bigger it becomes less accountable to the people because elected officials are doing less of the governing. So we need less of its patrician condescension and elitist bureaucracy. Instead, people have to take it to the streets by joining interest groups that openly engage in the civic process. It should be ugly, inefficient, and, yes, at times corrupt. But anything else would be undemocratic.


In 1800, John Adams' surrogates called Thomas Jefferson “a meanspirited, low-lived fellow, the son of half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” This accusation came during an election that would determine the interpretation of our young Constitution, the economic nature of our country and whether we would align with Britain or France. The stakes were high, and could have gone in two extremely different directions. Sound familiar? Who said, then, that there is anything irrational in doing anything it takes to govern? S

Schuyler VanValkenburg is a graduate student in the history program at Virginia Commonwealth University and teaches high school government in Henrico County.


Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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