Our Language is Undemocratic
You can’t say that you’re doing what the American people elected you to do when you lost the popular vote. It makes no sense to say that since roughly half of the American people chose you, the American people want you to do what you promised you would do. What makes statements like these problematic is that they are almost always followed by calls for unity. In other words, in one sentence they can actively exclude half the population and then condemn them for being excluded. Virtually every president does this. The problem is most obvious when one loses the popular vote, but in fairness it is inappropriate even when one does win the popular vote. If a president wins by 51–55% of the popular vote, then states simply “I won. We’re doing it my way. Get over it.” this would at least be internally consistent. It would still cause the injury but refrain from adding the insult. I use the active “refrain” rather than simply the negation, “not,” because it is often the natural tendency of people to either add the insult or cause further injury. It takes an active restraint to avoid such impulses. If it was the sincere wish of a president to unify the people, the correct language would be to say that, while a large portion of the electorate sent a clear message that they liked the direction a given candidate wanted to take the country in, an almost or greater than equal portion also sent a clear message that they did not.
As a population increases the prospects for true democracy become grim, but, thanks largely to technological advances, we have been able to manage its stability (or at least stave off it’s complete collapse). However certain problems still remain. Those technological advances have enabled the governing body to disseminate information to the people, but have done little to enable meaningful communication between the two. Not that everyone does not have a voice. Quite the contrary. EVERYONE has a voice and they are usually all heard at once in a white noise of arguments, opinions, grievances etc.
As a result of this we are only capable of asking very broad based questions calling for simple yes or no answers. This is what going to the polls is all about. It is as much (or more) about what they want for the country as it is about who. Usually the answer to the latter is neither — as was depressingly obvious during the 2016 elections. When one person ‘wins’, the “who”, in an immediate and superficial way, is gone, but it is an egregious error to believe that the “what” has gone with it.
As always, at the heart of the problem is language. We call this a presidential “race” and refer thusly to the “winner.” But it is not a sport. It is not a situation where one wins and another loses and goes home. Rather than a “race” between “competitors” it is a question among the people. And while one candidate may come out on top the others don’t exactly “go” anywhere. If we are serious about forming a more perfect union than it is incumbent on a new administration to assure the people that they have been heard. It is not, “we won now get out of our way” but rather “given the obvious disparity of the people’s wishes we will have to rethink, compromise, or temper some of our positions.” The incoming president is in fact more obligated to work with the apposing party to ensure that the half that did not ‘win’ is still being adequately represented. This is not to say that principles should be abandoned or promises broken. When it comes to issues of human rights, for example, like desegregation or marriage equality, one cannot simply compromise with a population blinded by irrational prejudices. And it will inevitably be the case that the apposing side will refuse to come to the table or that the victors will be resolute in their convictions regarding proper actions, in which case the language should still not be “we won. Get over it.” But “I understand it is unpopular, but after long deliberations, hours of consultations with experts, and careful examinations of all the facts, we truly believe that this is the way to go.” The task is then not necessarily about convincing the people of your plan so much as assuring them that the position has been reached by means of appropriate and educated examinations. If the path proves wrong, or if the argument is not made then the people can say as much in the next election. In a speech made on Nov. 4th 1774, Edmund Burke explained this with greater elegance than I ever could so, if it is acceptable, I will defer to him to pick up the slack of my argument.
“Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These, he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
The president, it is said, is never off the clock. Whether they are working in the Oval Office, or playing golf at Camp David, they are never at liberty to give up the war they must wage within themselves, between the wishes of the people, and their own judgment; to question the basis for every opinion and belief and admit to themselves if the foundations can be universally applied. The ability to do this is not a common one and it is rarely, if ever, explicitly listed among the characteristics demanded by the people. But it could not be more crucial to the position. We all know this even if we cannot articulate it. Nothing goes further in assuring us that this characteristic is not present, then the ‘we won, get over it’ narrative. How often do our leaders (and I use that term as loosely as is humanly possible) call on the people to come together? Immediately after this the pundits all rightly point out that it is one thing to say such things and quite another to create the conditions in which it is possible. However what has not been addressed is that the very language we use negates even the possibility of such conditions. It is not a “race” and there are no “winners” or “losers.” We all know that the majority of people are not voting for who they like, but for what they want, or more likely what they don’t want. While it may be impractical to exclude completely language like “race,” “winner,” or “loser,” such topics must be conceptually taken as a footnote to what is actually going on. This is not a spectator sport in which the people are mere passive audiences to an Olympic race, but rather a democratic conversation being had, in which the runners and the spectators are all on the track. If that sounds chaotic and messy that’s because it is. If any order is to come to it, if our notions of democracy, freedom, or power-to-the-people are to have any meaning whatsoever, it will not come until the language itself changes.