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Two brothers and

It has been mentioned before in this Tohu Bohu that the relationship between YHB and the blogging brothers Bernstein is old and close. About maximally old, from my point of view, and comparably close. What I’m getting at is that many of the various forces that influenced the blogging brothers Bernstein as they were growing up also influenced YHB, probably in similar ways. Which is not to say we agree on everything, but that our disagreements are often informed by a similar background of theoretical assumptions, and proceed from largely similar principles, diverging at our higher education and life experiences, and even more so by the professional training the blogging brothers Bernstein have had in their fields.

Which, by the way, is why it’s so frustrating that the Boston Phoenix didn’t jump on the opportunity to make a regular feature of the blogging brothers Bernstein last summer, when their views on the Other Party’s nomination process would have worked particularly well. The next cycle, in which Our Party will lack an incumbent, will be interesting, but my experience is that it’s more difficult to separate analysis from activism when discussing one’s own Party. Ah, well.

What does happen, now and then, is that for one reason or another they speak to each other through their blogs. They both recently spoke about the founder’s visions of democracy, and although they aren’t technically responses to each other, they are speaking to the same point, and are thus very interesting (in my proverbial) to read in each other’s light. And being such an old and close and so on, I thought I would chime on in.

On Wednesday, Jonathan Bernstein, pixel-stained wretch for the Washington Post as well as Salon and Slate and The New Republic and other virtual street corners, blogged about When Madisonian Democracy Breaks Down over at his Plain Blog about Politics. He talks about the ways in which the Constitution sets up minority veto points. “Madison, as I see it, considers majority tyranny the worst enemy of democracy,” he says, with some caveats, and our system prevents majority tyranny by empowering impassioned minorities to thwart the majority will, particularly when the majority is only weak-willed on an issue. The post goes on to discuss, well, when the system breaks down, but what I wanted to bring out is the way he talks about the initial Constitutional set-up as an experiment in making democracy stable by (often) thwarting majority rule.

Then David Bernstein, broadcast personality and hashtag superstar for the Boston Phoenix, wrote about Pols, Parades, & Pets, essentially defending his fondness for pictures of politicians with their pets. He admits to bringing the full disdain most of the time, but he celebrates the goofy stuff (parades and pets and playlists uswusf) pretty much unironically. Part of that is that he’s a goof, sure, but part of it, he explains, is that all this stuff symbolizes the surprising historical fact that not only did our Founders set up a national government with some popular sovereignty, but that we have increased that popular sovereignty again and again since the founding.

The downside of this progression has been that our government, rather than being insulated from, is largely guided by the whims and passions of the poorly educated, self-interested, short-sighted, easily swayed, self-contradicting, prejudiced, unsophisticated general populace. … What do we get in return that makes it worth the nonsense? We get the knowledge that it’s truly our government, our country, in a way that you just can’t have without meaningful popular sovereignty.

In other words, while you could see politicians’ appearances at parades and little league games and so forth as pandering to the masses, the great part is that they are pandering to the masses. Because we are the masses. That’s us. Not only is there no democracy without the masses, the whole point of democracy is that it is the masses. And candidates are forced to show (or fake) their commitment to popular sovereignty by putting pictures of themselves with their pets on his tumblr.

I should, however, point out that it’s possible that the Blogging Bernstein Brothers are just goofy about stuff like that anyway. I think it’s telling that I can’t remember which of them proposed that the best campaign finance reform would be to allow unlimited donations, but any donations over a certain amount ($10K or so) would be required to take the form of one of those giant novelty checks, and that the candidate would have to be photographed accepting it from the donor and shaking hands, with all the balloons and confetti in the background. Whether it’s a good idea or not, my point is that either of them could plausibly have come up with the idea, which may mean that they both like goofy Americana as a matter of taste. OK, that was probably a digression.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about these two posts was the way that Jonathan Bernstein, political scientist (he has a master’s degree! in political science!), is interested in institutions and incentives, whereas David Bernstein, Journalist (he also plays a journalist on teevee!), is more interested in individuals and the public. However, neither of them when facing a question of this kind ask themselves as a matter of course What did Rashi say?

Not that Rashi talked about the American Constitution. But they also didn’t ask themselves What did Spinoza say? What did Santayana say? More important, what would Whitman say?

For Walt Whitman, of course, the point of all of it is to make a democratic people. I have, I think, referred to it as a journey from isolation to participation, but for Walt Whitman, it’s more than that. It’s a journey from isolation to embrace. The government may be corrupt, the successful men may be grasping or rude, the nation may even be ripped in two by war, but if democracy is progressing toward making every man a brother, it is working.

And here’s where things get tough, because I do not believe in progress the way Walt Whitman did. I view history as one damned thing after another, rather than as a grand arc rising toward Paradise. For every cultural movement, there is a contemporary contrary movement; the pendulum does not so much swing back and forth as follow a drunkard’s walk with Heinsenbergian uncertainty (so you can’t both know what is going on and where the trend is going) while speeding up and slowing down like a penguin in a videogame. So while I am certainly with Walt Whitman on the purpose of democracy being the creation of a democratic people, I do not see it as a march towards success so much as the constant push for incremental achievements and against the inevitable retreats.

Looking at Madison and participation and breakdown—I think it’s very hard, right now, for us to embrace politicians. And it’s very hard to embrace each other, across Party lines or even into the indifference gap between them. As a f’r’instance, I came across a FB thread the other day in which somebody described being in some acquaintance’s house, having a lovely chat, and then upon seeing the bookshelves stocked with the works of the conservative marketplace, suddenly felt threatened and unwelcome. Which, considering that many those works call me and my friends everything from morons and dupes to traitors and fascists, right in the titles, is understandable. I myself have no such similar titles (and my perspective is that titles in the liberal marketplace tend to insult individuals on the Right rather than more the more general populace, but of course that’s my perspective; anyway I’m a library guy for read-once books of political insult) but I could well imagine that some acquaintances, when I describe myself as an old lefty, think themselves rejected with hostility, whether I show it in my manner or not.

So. To me, the problems are not primarily institutional but social. The worst enemy of democracy, viewed as the effort by a democratic people to create a democratic people, is the effort by a democratic people to create an authoritarian people, or an isolated people, or just the lack of effort to create anything. The symbolic democratization of politicians with pets is not a likely solution (a nice thing, though, sure) to these efforts, or to the lack of effort. The solution may in fact be Walt Whitman’s solution: a great national literature. I don’t think a tumblr is the great national literature Walt Whitman is still looking for, either. It probably will be a webwhatsit (the web, the web, the web, Walt Whitman needs the internet as much as it needs him, singing the avatar digital, the great democratic isolating enervating embrace of the web, who will sing the stickiness of it now) but probably not greatnationalliterature.tumblr.com.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.