Dr. Laurie M. Johnson

Political Thought

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Home: Political Thought Links: Parallels: Rousseau


Parallels: Community, Society and Education

While we may not want to accomplish his social contract with its general will, we can use various aspects of Rousseau's philosophy to explore the flaws in our society and possible ways toward reform. Contemporary social philosophers loosely identified as "communitarians" have increasingly voiced concerns like Rousseau's in their criticism of American democracy and their calls for reinventing that democracy to a form of politics in which participation is not seen only as a means to an end (in which case it would almost necessarily simply be a battle among competing interest groups for the prize) but an end in itself (in which deliberation and concern for one's fellow citizens becomes a pleasurable way of life). This certainly would involve a re-thinking by many Americans who view politics as dirty or inherently corrupt. Likewise, communitarians have critiqued America's popular culture for encouraging crass individualism and selfishness.

Consensual Politics

Remember that Rousseau shuns representative democracy such as ours for two main reasons. First, the sovereign will of the people is the seat of the legislative power, and it literally cannot be represented without being usurped. Thus, Rousseau claims that once a people elects representatives it has already become enslaved. Second, any representative legislative body must operate through majority rule. But in a legislative session this always amounts to what we call partisanship. One party wins and the other loses. The losing party on any issue is not represented by the final decision, and thus by consequence the losing party's constituents are also not represented. Thus on any vote, there are people who are not at all free because they disagree with the decision reached. Rousseau's answer to these problems is a system in which the people come together in assemblies periodically in order to decide directly on the issues. This solution supposedly eliminates the problem of representation. Next, Rousseau advocates a different form of majority rule. He acknowledges that instantaneous consensus on any given issue is next to impossible. However, the citizens' attitudes should not be shaped by partisanship to see votes in terms of "winners" and "losers." Instead, the people who were not in the majority should reassess their decision and, thinking always through the eyes of the general will, adopt the thinking of the majority. In this way, true consensus can be reached and every member of the sovereign can remain free because everyone eventually agrees with the decision.

Before we reject Rousseau's proposed solutions to the problem of representative democracy as "totalitarian," let us think about how consensus is usually formed in smaller groups. Rousseau admits, remember, that this system will not work in anything much larger than a single city. If you have been in any group that regularly achieved consensus and felt good about it, you already have some inkling of the process Rousseau is advocating. It is easy to reach consensus about certain issues if you are all there for the same purpose and share the same general "values," or likes and dislikes. Under such conditions, it is not difficult to achieve consensus and for every member of the group to feel satisfied. If you are a member of model train club, for instance, it is not difficult to decide to rotate meetings among all members' houses so that each member can show off his or her train. It is not hard to decide to take a bus trip to the nearest model train or rail road event when it comes along. If someone proposes creating an event for children, the only problem is figuring out when most of the members can be there to participate. In other words, if you all share the same passion, making decisions unanimously is easy. This is what Rousseau had in mind for civil societies.

Most advocates of participatory democracy today understand its limitations and mainly call for bringing some of its methods to smaller venues like city councils and town hall meetings. They argue that if all the citizens come together to discuss improvements, new laws, etc., that the same type of consensus can emerge as it does among model train fans. Indeed, some liken the relationships that would develop with regular contact of citizens with friendship. If all voices can be heard in a town hall meeting, for instance, and if leaders are tuned to the "general will" that begins to emerge from the discussion, then the laws passed will truly reflect the people's will and be what is best for the people. This would truly be a positive development for many citizens today who feel marginalized and have even ignored politics because they do not feel represented.

Critics of the idea of participatory democracy are many and varied. Some argue that even in small towns there is not the uniformity of lifestyles, morals and opinions necessary to make consensus easy. They see a dark side to the call for consensus; what Rousseau called civil religion they call a propagandistic attempt to impose the majority's values on minorities of all kinds. In fact, they see more freedom in the rough and tumble of our representative majoritarian politics, because at least people are free to vocally disagree and state their case. No one will be "forced to be free," to use Rousseau's rather infamous phrase.

Another problem many critics see with consensus politics has to do with group dynamics. While a model train club might have no problem achieving true consensus, what passes for consensus in many clubs and committees is more like the old maxim "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." That is, there are some people who are more inclined to speak up, more eager to lead, more opinionated. Then there are the rest, more interested in their private lives, or just not courageous enough to take the social heat that comes with opposing the self-selected leader. The "consensus" that emerges in such groups is not real consensus, but a sort of grudging acquiescence. It is not true friendship but a sort of conformity which develops. Though perhaps human beings should not be so, many of them re reluctant when it comes to standing up for what they think is right in a public or group forum. If this is true, then the representative mode of government would actually be more democratic, because all citizens could elect leaders in the privacy of the voting booth. These representatives would then be much more able and willing to speak up for their constituents than their constituents themselves.

Advocates of participatory democracy might answer these criticisms by saying that we must simply do a better job training our citizenry so that they are capable of all truly participating equally in public meetings. What kind of education would be involved? Would any amount of education break through most people's reluctance to participate?

Today's Middle Class

The middle class in America is by far the largest class. Studies also show that when asked, most people identify themselves as "middle class" even if, by actual income measurements, they would fall into the lower or upper class. In other words, most people want to identify with the middle class-its style, its values, its culture. Our middle class is indeed culturally dominant. Yet, if we examined our middle class through the eyes of Rousseau, how would it fare? By one of Rousseau's standards, it would fare well. Rousseau said that a country is successful if its population is prosperous and growing. However, by many other of Rousseau's standards, our middle class and its ubiquitous popular culture would fail miserably.

Let's just think about the primary transmitter of middle class popular culture-television. What would Rousseau have to say about the messages it conveys? Rousseau would no doubt see the crassness of it, the vulgarity of the constant sexual innuendos, the dramatization of aspects of the human personality he thought most regrettable-hatred, jealousy, greed. Every ten minutes or so, there would be a string of commercials selling everything from cereal to cars to theme parks.

Think of what Rousseau would have to say about our consumerism. Commercials tell us that we must have the latest and greatest model of car, the newest food product, the best hair color. All of the entertainment media sends the message that we must be beautiful, according to its standards-- thin, healthy and wealthy-- in order to think of ourselves as a success. Aren't these the very values Rousseau was already disgusted with in the 18th century? How much more disgusted would he be today with the sheer amount of materialism in our popular culture? What would he think of the many people swept up in fashion fads? What would he think of the tendency of many Americans to prefer sitting on the couch watching a sitcom to taking a stroll in a wooded park? Rousseau would no doubt look at the lives of millions of Americans as a living hell, devoid of true human sentiments and experience.

In some ways it is difficult to argue with Rousseau, at least when our eyes are clearly open and we try to view our lives objectively. It is hard not to see our culture as part of the reason for the general decline in manners and sense of responsibility toward our families and fellow human beings that is characteristic of this age. Yet if one looks at the situation from an historical perspective, it becomes more difficult to judge the American middle class too harshly. After all, in Rousseau's day, there was little or no middle class. Rousseau was criticizing the rich. Now we have a large segment of our population that, because it is relatively well-off, shares the vices of the rich that Rousseau found so disgusting. Would it have been better for these people to have remained in poverty? Perhaps Rousseau would answer "yes," but few of us would follow him into poverty for the sake of virtue with much enthusiasm. If the vast majority of people in the United States live far better than the majority of people in his time, if they have enough income, their tastes will prevail in the popular culture. Though the specific forms of popular culture may be different from his own times and arguably more vulgar, the vices spawned by that culture are the same as they were for the rich of a few centuries ago-materialism, greed, status-consciousness, faddishness, overblown sexuality, and so on. One could say that this is the inevitable price of raising the standard of living for so many human beings who have at least escaped the degradation of poverty.

If Rousseau has some valid criticisms of the culture created by excessive wealth, is there anything we can do to correct the culture without throwing people back into poverty? Some might say that the way to go is some form of socialism, a large scale abandonment of capitalism and its values in favor of an even distribution of property. This distribution would be based upon what people need, not necessarily what they want. Some people would call for greater restrictions and regulations on popular entertainment. Should we expand the restrictions in place against nudity on network television, against vulgar language? But even if we could do things like this, how would we stop the values of materialism which seem to be at the very heart of the problem for Rousseau? Perhaps Rousseau would argue for public television, and nothing else, as a form of "censorship" to provide people with only what was edifying and moral.




Dep't of Political Science
Kansas State University
Primary Texts Certificate