A Further Word On Democracy and Exclusion

The separatist impulse behind the "Benedict option" is a problem for democracy. Here's why.

By Nathan Pippenger

In my last post about the “Benedict option,” I repeated a point I’ve made a few times before (albeit in a different context) about democracy and separatism. I think there are good reasons to approach separatist movements within democracy—of which the “Benedict option” is just one example—with a measure of skepticism. But this point might be worth further elaboration, since talk of inclusion tends to generate a lot of ahistorical sentimentalism. I don’t think democracy demands that we adopt a kumbaya-ish skittishness about political disagreement, or that we idealize consensus. Nonetheless, I think there are forms of division that do pose a threat to democracy, and it’s worth clarifying what they are.

When we talk about democracy, we often justify it by reference to “the people” who, collectively, are sovereign. Rule in a democracy emanates not from a king, or from a group of oligarchs, or from a set of clerics, but from the people—and when the people lose sovereignty (say, because economic elites are capturing the political system), we say that democracy has been diminished or harmed. This is all straightforward enough, and its most important implication is familiar: if the people are collectively sovereign—if rule comes not from one of them, or some of them, but (in some sense) from each and every one of them—then when a set of citizens are walled off from political power, it is not only that group, but democracy itself which is threatened. This principle is behind just about every political reform movement in American history, each of which sought not only equality, but inclusion in political life for groups of citizens who had been walled off from it, intentionally and perniciously.

There is a further question, however, that leads beyond this familiar ground. Is the kind of comprehensive exclusion just described only pernicious if it’s imposed by a dominant group, or is voluntary exclusion a problem as well? On the description of democracy offered above, the erosion of collective sovereignty seems to occur even in cases wherein a group remains under the rule of a democratic government while excluding itself from political life. This might not apply to all separatist groups: those that are geographically concentrated, live largely in isolation from the wider society, and govern many of their own affairs (like the Amish) don’t fit this description. But it certainly seems to apply to the voluntarily quietist lives of those who would choose the “Benedict option.”

To be clear, this is not a novel worry among democratic thinkers. Without realizing it was his 196th birthday, I spent part of this weekend reading Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, and I had the humbling experience of seeing my own thoughts rendered in far superior language. Take it away, Walt:

The great word Solidarity has arisen. Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn—they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account. Much quackery teems, of course, even on democracy’s side, yet does not really affect the orbic quality of the matter. To work in, if we may so term it, and justify God, his divine aggregate, the People, (or, the veritable horn’d and sharp-tail’d Devil, his aggregate, if there be who convulsively insist upon it)—this, I say, is what democracy is for; and this is what our America means, and is doing—may I not say, has done? If not, she means nothing more, and does nothing more, than any other land.

This idea applies, so to speak, in both directions: It may require of groups inclined towards separatism that they resist the retreat from politics. This is especially the case with defeated religious conservatives—their once-eager participation in democratic politics can’t suddenly be reversed after political defeat. But it also demands an inclusive, expansive attitude among the majority. If the people are collectively sovereign after all, that idea should mean something. If nothing else, it means that our understanding of democracy is incompatible with whole groups of the people systematically cut off from sovereignty. That’s a principle worth keeping in mind not just when we’re discussing the alienated citizens of Ferguson, but also the demoralized conservatives of Indiana.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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