Consensus Trumps Substance

Above: Dietrich Arnsborg on an elevated pedestal makes the citizens swear by the doctrine of the Reformation in 1533. Photo by Bernd Schwabe in Hannover.

By Chris Salazar

Modern democracy gave rise to the individual. Donald Trump’s presidency, if nothing else, is an exercise in the perils of unfettered individualism, its consequents and potential deliverance.
Political apathy, individualism and the unraveling of the neo-liberal order are symptoms of the same underlying cause: the "equality of conditions."

“In order for a nation to wage war on a grand scale,” wrote the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, “its citizens must be prepared to make numerous and painful sacrifices.”

But democracies are motivated by self-interest, so sacrifice hardly seems virtuous. It’s an egotistical dynamic borne of the need to create and sustain a livelihood in a porous class system, largely devoid of direction. In a word, democracies are: agitated, as every individual must manufacture their sustenance.

Tocqueville, the ever quotable and prescient lawyer turned sociologist, was comparable to a political physician. He recognized the trajectory of governance as growing increasingly democratic, so he toured the United States to study, diagnose and remedy its detriments. And to the French visitor, the "equality of conditions" was a potent explanatory and self-evident phenomenon.

Consider that for most of human history, most people lived in squalor. They were peasants. They were pawns used and sacrificed, unless emancipated by the lottery of birth. And that’s exactly what it was—a lottery — because the history of society is a vertical power narrative, typified by domination and subordination.

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. By Jean Froissart.

Democracy is different. It's horizontal. Everyone is equal. So, in principle, the lottery of birth is no longer an insurmountable burden.

But therein lies the problem: because democracies are founded on the "equality of conditions," no single individual or idea may withstand the rising tide of majority consensus, the arbiter of truth in a sea of equals. As a consequence, a plurality of individuals rules over their dynasties of one, receding into the abyss of self-centered bliss as the public sphere fades into irrelevancy.

This fascinating, and at times disheartening, phenomenon is prophetic. The degree to which people are conditionally equal is the degree to which they tend toward selfishness, neglecting the devil in the legislative details.

While the "equality of conditions" doesn't necessarily lead to selfishness, it often does. If the ramifications concluded as mere self-indulgence, the dynamic would harbor less danger. But the relationship between equality and self-worship tends toward social, civic and public erosion.

In a nation of apathetic equals, political discourse suffers a gradual disconnect as the map supersedes the territory. The latter is real, while the former is merely representation masquerading as reality.

Superficiality is easy. Nuance is hard. And, because of the "equality of conditions," Americans tend to distrust intellectual elites. Again, in a sea of equals, consensus trumps substance.

"A presidential election in the United States may be looked upon as a time of national crises," Tocqueville wrote."As the election draws near, intrigues intensify, and agitation increases and spreads."

The previous election cycle was the epitome of peril. Decades of public seclusion at the behest of liberal government catalyzed statecraft's decay. The countermeasure against such national liability, ironically, is the individual.

But the difference is namely one of political association. Unfettered individualism is lonely. Almost by default, the individual succumbs to majority consensus as a mechanism to circumvent social ostracism.

Political association is at the heart of a robust democracy, characterized not by the apathetic recluse but by the concerned, interested and responsive citizen. While egalitarianism is a feature of democracy, it tends toward implosion, unless stabilized by the exchange of private and public polities.