The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] The Wisdom of the People [Chalice]

Presented November 13, 2016, by Doug Muder

Listen to a recording of "The Wisdom of the People"
32:09 minutes - 29.4 MB - The Wisdom of the People .mp3 file.

Opening Words

The opening words are from John Adams: "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people."

Meditation

When something bad and unexpected happens, it hurts. That pain is part of the mind's normal functioning, its healthy process of keeping order. Those buzzing expectations of things that now are not going to happen need to be switched off and unplugged. Hopes that have become hopeless need to be boxed up and returned to storage. Through this process, space is made for new plans and new hopes and new expectations, even if we can't yet imagine what they're going to be. And while all this is happening, we hurt.

It's tempting not to let this process play out. It's tempting to skip past the period of adjustment and jump straight into new action. It's tempting to skip past the time of hurting and leap into anger at those we blame for our misfortune. Sometimes it's even tempting to turn that anger on ourselves, to goad ourselves into ever-deeper levels of guilt and recrimination: "If I had done this. If I hadn't done that. Why did I let my hopes get so high? Shouldn't I have known better?" And while we're running in circles, and raging, and recriminating, that inner work remains undone.

So right now, let's take a moment to sit with our pain and disappointment. Not goading it on, not telling it to go away, not trying to jump over it.

That pain has work to do. Let that work be done. Someday, maybe sooner than you think there will be a time for new plans, a time for new action, and even a time for new hopes. But all that will happen much better, after the debris has been cleared away.

The Wisdom of the People

Did anything important happen this week? Is there anything we need to discuss?

When I agreed to speak on the Sunday after the election I knew I'd have to talk about it. I know I'm not ready to think seriously about anything else yet, and probably a lot of you aren't either. At the same time, I knew I wouldn't be able to digest the election and put a service together in four days.

So instead, I decided to present a long-term view of the state of our political system, and write a talk that wouldn't depend on knowing who the next president would be. Since Tuesday, I've done my usual editing, but haven't changed the thrust. We'll see how well that works.

Let's start with some readings. The first reading is from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The second reading is from the 1922 book Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann:

The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined.

Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time are but a few moments of insight and happiness. . . .

I argue that representative government . . . cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions.

I attempt, therefore, to argue that the serious acceptance of the principle that personal representation must be supplemented by representation of the unseen facts would alone permit a satisfactory decentralization, and allow us to escape from the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs.

Third, we hear from conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes, in an interview this past August with Business Insider:

We've basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers. There's nobody.

Let's say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it's a falsehood.

The big question [with] my audience, [is that] it is impossible for me to say that. "By the way, you know it's false." And they'll say, "Why? I saw it on Allen B. West." Or they'll say, "I saw it on a Facebook page." And I'll say, "The New York Times did a fact check." And they'll say, "Oh, that's The New York Times. That's bullshit." There's nobody -- you can't go to anybody and say, "Look, here are the facts."

And I have to say that's one of the disorienting realities of this political year: You can be in the alternative media reality and there's no way to break through it. And I swim upstream because if I don't say these things from some of these websites, then suddenly I have sold out. Then they'll ask what's wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true. There's got to be a reckoning on all this. We've created this monster.

Look, I'm a conservative talk show host. All conservative talk show hosts have basically established their brand as being contrasted with the mainstream media. So we have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media. (And by the way, a lot has been justifiable. There is real bias.) But, at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there.

And I [am] feeling, to a certain extent, that we are reaping the whirlwind [for] that. And I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, "To what extent did I contribute?"

In patriotic speeches, we often hear about the great vision of the Founders, and their glorious experiment in creating a government of the People. But we are much less likely to remember or commemorate how profoundly ambivalent the Founders were about the wisdom of the People.

On the one hand, the Declaration of Independence had made a clear case: The only legitimate source of sovereignty is the People.

And yet . . . who were these People? Farmers, backwoodsmen - many of them illiterate, almost none schooled in statecraft, military strategy, law, or economics. How many had studied previous republics like Greece, Rome, or Venice? How many were familiar with the ancient critiques of democracy by Plato and Aristotle? How many had read Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws or Locke's Treatises on Government? How could the Founders trust these People to form a new government?

Well, in fact, they didn't. Both the Declaration and the Constitution were drafted by small groups of well-to-do, well educated men whose claim to represent the entire People was questionable. They met in secret, and published only a finished product: Here is your independence. Here is your system of government. Do you want it or not?

Two quotes sum up that ambivalence. Jefferson wrote about "the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god."

But his close friend and ally James Madison wrote: "In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."

That dilemma has dogged American government ever since: Sovereignty has to originate with the People, because there is no other place to find it. A nation is not an heirloom for a royal family to pass down father to son. God refuses to rule us directly, and if anyone truly speaks for God, so far we have been unable to agree on who it might be. And so, we are left with nothing but each other, created equal, and none of us born with saddles on our backs.

But we're also not born knowing anything about how to run a nation. So how does expertise ever find its proper role? How do our armies, our embassies, our schools, our currency, and so on wind up in the hands of people who know what they're doing, rather than demagogues who are just popular or persuasive? How do we keep what Madison called "passions" - or simple wishful thinking - from controlling our response to climate change or the Zika virus?

The Founders' answer was to root government in the sovereignty of the People, but to put as much distance as possible between the People and the actual decision-makers. So the People chose representatives in their state legislatures and in the House. The state legislatures chose senators and (in many states) the members of the Electoral College. The Electoral College in turn picked the president. And the president and Senate together appointed officials and made treaties.

In short, the People were not expected to know anything about the actual business of government, but only about who in their local communities was able and trustworthy. The voters would not rule, but they would pick the people - or perhaps pick the people who pick the people - who would run the country.

And even at that distance from actual power, not everyone was considered worthy of the vote. Children, obviously, needed their parents to look after their interests. And women - those pure and unworldly creatures - would be represented by their fathers and brothers and husbands. Slaves were seen as simple people from an inferior race, so their masters would look out for them. And finally, free men without property - the amount you needed varied from state to state - didn't really have enough of a stake in society to warrant giving them a role in decision-making.

So that was government of the People: rooted in popular sovereignty, but in practice governed by a ruling class of propertied gentlemen who had money, manners, education, and family connections.

That lasted until Andrew Jackson. Jackson was the first American populist, and he scared people in some of the same ways that Donald Trump has scared people this year. A country lawyer who became a military leader, Jackson's formal education was spotty. He had no manners or breeding. He was plain-spoken and could be downright rude. He had a temper and had killed several men in duels.

He arrived on the scene at time when our political culture was beginning to change anyway. States had begun allowing voters to choose the Electoral College, and the electors began running openly as representatives of particular candidates. We didn't even tabulate the national popular until 1824, the first time Jackson ran for president.

Jackson had a plurality that year, but the election was decided by the House, which preferred the far more respectable John Quincy Adams. But by the next election, voter turnout had tripled and Jackson won the first of two landslides. For the first time, people realized that they could vote for a president they identified with, rather than for one of their betters.

Ever since, the United States has been expanding the franchise and giving voters more power. Property requirements went away. Slaves were freed and got the vote, at least on paper. Then women. Senators were elected by the people rather than appointed by the legislature. In many states, voters got the right to pass referenda and recall elected officials. Eventually, blacks got the vote for real and the voting age was lowered to 18.

Not all the results of that evolution were good. By the Gilded Age, the aristocrats of the Founding era had been replaced by robber barons, corporate monopolies, and corrupt political machines. The need to reach every citizen, no matter how poorly informed, led to slogans and advertising and the necessity of raising campaign money. Somewhat perversely, wealth concentrated as number and power of the voters increased.

But the early 20th century saw another major shift in our political culture. During the so-called Progressive Era, fields of expertise began to organize themselves as professions that had standards and credentials. Thomas Jefferson had been a scientist because he acted like one: He did experiments and corresponded with similarly learned gentlemen.

By the 20th century no one would take such a claim seriously. Instead, they would ask where you got your doctorate, what institutions had hired you, and what journals had published your papers. Likewise, no matter how many books you read, you couldn't just start calling yourself an economist or an architect and expect anyone to listen to you.

Perhaps the most politically important profession to come out of the Progressive Era was journalism. Newspapers had been around since Ben Franklin was a boy, but writing for them had always been more of a job or a hobby than a profession. Thomas Paine never went to journalism school because there was no such thing. Early reporters often had no education beyond the ability to read and write.

Many newspapers of the early 19th century were just mouthpieces for political parties. So, for example, in 1838 local members of the Whig Party founded the Quincy Whig, one of the ancestors of the Herald Whig. That bias wasn't hidden; it was proudly proclaimed in every edition.

But the journalistic profession of the 20th century increasingly rejected political identification and developed standards of objectivity and accuracy. In the 19th century, if an editor was ordered by his publisher to print something that wasn't true, he could either give in or quit. But in the 20th century he could make a moral argument about the mission of journalism, and his responsibility both to the public and to his profession. Even if it was often violated in practice, editorial independence became revered as an ideal.

Those professional standards meant that even if ownership of news outlets was not nearly so concentrated as it is today, by the mid 20th century journalists shared a cultural unity. There was a broad consensus about what constituted a fact, what sources were reliable, and how much evidence you needed before you could state something as true rather than just quote it as someone's opinion. Journalists had become the visible part of that "independent expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible" that Walter Lippmann had been hoping for.

It worked like this: Nonpartisan government agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the National Center for Health Statistics assembled raw data. Academic researchers at universities and think tanks analyzed it. And as specific events unfolded, journalists interpreted them to the public in terms of that expert opinion.

Politicians ignored that fact-establishing apparatus at their peril. In the 1960s, journalists began to complain about a "credibility gap" between what the Johnson administration was telling them and what they could verify. Ultimately, journalists' loss of faith was a big factor in driving LBJ into retirement.

In essence, that professionalization project put a new buffer between the People and the decision-makers: experts. Rather than propertied gentlemen, Ph.D.s and other trained professionals would look out for the interests of the common herd.

A 20th century factory worker might have no better grasp of disarmament treaties and tax policy than a Jeffersonian farmer did of the Louisiana Purchase. But just as the farmer could judge the trustworthiness of local plantation owners, the worker needed only to recognize and trust the sources of expertise as they were presented by the media. As Lippmann put it: "Except on a few subjects where our knowledge is great, we cannot choose between true and false accounts. So we choose between trustworthy and untrustworthy reporters."

There is an innocent charm to the political science books written in the 1920s, not just by Lippmann, but by many the men who had done public relations for the government during World War I. Edward Bernays, for example, titled his 1928 classic Propaganda, a word which he did not think deserved its evil connotation. Public opinion, he recognized, did not form itself without outside help. Democracy could only survive if the people could be induced to want wise things. So those who "manufacture consent", to use Lippmann's phrase, might be doing the work of the angels.

The country's miraculous productivity during World War II, and the broad prosperity that followed that victory, ratified this new expert class' confidence in its mission and its right to rule.

But before long, the public's faith began to fray. Both fringes of the political spectrum have long suspected an elite conspiracy against ordinary Americans. On the Right, this suspicion combined with a pervasive anti-intellectualism to denounce both "liberal academia" and "the liberal media". On the Left, corporate and military elites were distrusted. Noam Chomsky re-popularized Lippmann's phrase "manufacturing consent", but with a sinister emphasis. When the Vietnam War did not go as planned, David Halberstam drew attention to the fact that it was not stupid people who had blundered into it, but "the best and the brightest". In the 1970s, investigations into Watergate and the CIA showed our leaders to be untrustworthy and duplicitous.

But it's really been in the 21st century that public faith has been strained past the breaking point, a process Chris Hayes outlined in his 2012 book The Twilight of the Elites. In fairly quick succession, we discovered that the elites of the sports world were abusing steroids, while the elites of the religious world were abusing children. Military and foreign-policy elites first tricked the public into supporting the invasion of Iraq, and then did not know how to bring that war to any kind of successful conclusion. Financial elites either did not see the real-estate bubble forming, or decided to profit from it rather than warn the public. When it popped and all that illusory wealth suddenly vanished, they managed to get themselves bailed out by the government, while middle-class Americans lost their homes, their jobs, and their retirement savings.

So today, it is not hard at all to make the case that the system is rigged, and that the people who claim to be looking out for you are in fact just looking for new ways to exploit you.

In many ways, the Right was better prepared for this moment than the Left, largely due to near-limitless resources from billionaire donors. All through the 90s, the Right had been building an alternative expert class and an infrastructure to employ and house it. And so, in addition to what previously had been known as "the media" - CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post - we now have the conservative media: Fox News, The Washington Times, National Review. In addition to the usual policy think-tanks like the Brookings Institute, we have conservative think-tanks: Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation.

Big donors like the Koch Brothers bought academic respectability for their views by funding the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson, and so on. The religious right pitched in with its academic network: Pat Robertson's Regent University, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

So the next time evolution comes under attack in Quincy schools, quite likely you will find yourself facing not grass-roots parents and pastors, but lawyers from the Institute for Religious Liberty interviewing expert witnesses from the Institute for Creation Research.

But this year's developments have pointed out the flaw in the thinking of the Kochs and their rival expert class, a mistake that would-be radical reformers have made again and again throughout history: They imagined that the mob would stop before it reached their door. Because what the Trump movement has represented within the Republican Party is not a popular desire to replace a liberal expert class with a conservative expert class, but a will to disestablish expertise in all its forms.

That's what Charlie Sykes was pointing to in the reading: He had hoped to be part of a rival media establishment that would arrange and comment on facts from a conservative viewpoint. Instead, he finds himself in a world where there are no facts, no authoritative sources, no way to establish that what you are saying is true and what someone else is saying is false.

So, for example, when Donald Trump denied climate change, he did not need to point to data carefully spun by scientists at Exxon-Mobil, or repeat some clever doubt-raising argument constructed by the Koch academic empire. He just announced - based on nothing - that "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."

Because, why not? There is no standard of truth that anyone can be held to.

The original Fox News vision of rival liberal and conservative media establishments is long gone now. Fox is still to the right of CNN, but if you want to go further right, there's Breitbart. Further than that, you'll find conspiracy-theory sites like InfoWars. And if you want to go full white-supremacist neo-Nazi, there's StormFront.

Nowhere in that progression is there a sense that you have crossed a line or gone beyond the pale. Each of those sites promotes its own set of facts, and an argument made on one might seem completely different (or even unintelligible) to the audience of another.

Left-of-center people like me sometimes feel smug about this. But we shouldn't, because we're on the same path, just not as far along.

During the primaries, for example, many Sanders supporters made claims about election fraud similar to the ones Trump would make later, and there was similarly no way to address them. There were no universally credible sources, no trustworthy fact-checkers. Not even Sanders himself could not vouch for the fairness of the process, so claims of primary-election fraud are still being shared and retweeted.

So that's where we are now: The Founders put a class of propertied gentlemen between the People and the government, but we mostly got rid of that. The Progressive Era inserted a new class of experts into that role, but that system is also falling apart. Neither of those notions was ideal in any sense. But each worked in its own way for its own era, to keep government out of the hands of demagogues and charlatans.

It's not clear what's going to work now. I would love to close this talk with a solution, and promise you that it's all going to be OK in the long run. But I don't have a solution yet. I can imagine several ways this situation might resolve, but none seem very credible to me.

For example, there is what I think of as the Occupy Wall Street vision: the People could take on the responsibility of self-government without any buffering class.

In other words, we could all get serious about educating ourselves and educating each other about civics and the law and public policy. If social media is going to make us all citizen journalists, then we could all learn the things that are taught in journalism schools: how to trace claims back to original sources, how to spot distortion and propaganda, how to state things clearly and accurately, so that we pass on what we know without corrupting it.

As I said, that seems unlikely.

Another possibility is that the expert class could have a reformation and regain the People's trust. Our professions could all have simultaneous ethical revolutions. Scientists and economists could stop selling out to whoever signs their paychecks. Journalists could refuse to distort information or to pander to their audiences. Politicians could dedicate themselves to the country rather than to their parties. The political parties themselves could reject demagogues and insist on public-spirited leaders.

Again, that seems unlikely.

Or we could have a more modest reformation: The media and the expert class would continue to be fragmented in general, but we might identify some core beliefs and practices and rules of fair play that we would all remain loyal to, even if our side could gain an advantage by breaking them.

A little more possible, but still unlikely.

But if none of those are credible as complete solutions, they all point to ways we can slow the decay and buy time for some new vision of our polity to emerge. This is not a time to panic, but it is a time to recognize the danger our democracy is in. We all need to be on our best behavior, and whenever we can, to insist on the best behavior of others. To the extent that anyone trusts us, either as experts or opinion leaders or just as a friend who tends to know what's going on - we need to be trustworthy.

And above all, I want to warn against the principle that turnabout is fair play. Doing back to them whatever we see them doing to us - whoever "them" and "us" might be in any particular situation - just keeps things spiraling downward. This is a time when it's important for people of all persuasions to give better than they get; in Michele Obama's words, to go high when they go low. What we're facing today, what became apparent in the campaign we just had, is much deeper than just a bad candidate, or two bad candidates, or political parties that have lost their way. We're facing once again the fundamental problem of democracy. How can the People - who on average are just average - govern themselves?

Past generations of Americans have found ways to bridge the gap between public ignorance and wise governance. We can't just go back to their solutions, but we also are creative people. Given time, we'll find a new solution that will probably also be imperfect, but might work for our era as well.

So in the meantime, let's do what we can to slow the downward spiral, give our country time, and keep our eyes open for that new vision.

Closing words

The closing words are from Winston Churchill: "Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except [for] all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

©2016 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2016. The Wisdom of the People, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20161113.shtml (accessed December 17, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.