This Cruel Parody of Representation

Illustration by Tim Robinson.

Whenever some new massacre is perpetrated in this country, the usual voices say that the tragedy should not be politicized. This response is so inevitable that it can be assumed to produce the desired effect: the tamping down of outrage in deference to the horror of the crime. Their right to sanctimoniousness having been tacitly conceded, these concerned voices add that in such moments of national crisis, we must all come together. There should be no divisiveness, they say, which in practical terms means no assigning of responsibility. Yet the moment of unity and calm deliberation never comes, because there is always a new massacre, or because the horror of these crimes is not of a kind to be diminished by time, or because the implied promise that the problem will be looked at and acted on has never been made in good faith. In any case, the public is hushed like children, closed out of the deliberations of an inner circle who knowingly weigh their own interests against the certainty that Americans will again die en masse in their schools or theaters or churches. Thoughts and prayers cost nothing, and they offend no donors.

The matter of gun control is paradigmatic in being “depoliticized.” Since politics is the only purchase that ordinary citizens in a democracy have on their government, every significant public issue should of course be processed politically. The graver the question the country faces, the more thoroughly it should be debated, so that the decision of the majority can be reflected in legislation and in the outcomes of elections. This sounds a little Periclean, but in fact it is simply politics minus the sleights and obstructions that have compromised our democracy.

Terrible history has its uses. During all the long years that slavery persisted in the United States, the proslavery side in Congress was large and powerful in part because of the three-fifths clause in the Constitution. Enslaved people were “represented” by swollen delegations from the South who were absolutely and systematically hostile to their interests. The Congress was bitter and deadlocked, disgraced as an institution by this cruel parody of representation. The distortion of the electorate was a corruption of politics that obstructed movement on this essential issue. We have for some time seen a version of this phenomenon, a paralysis in Washington that effectively denies the public transparent and considered policy. Congress has been marched any number of times down the cul-de-sac of health-care repeal, creating a certain appearance of activity while preserving the effects of inertia. (Conversely, the speed with which the Republicans’ recent tax overhaul was proposed and passed despite its complexity, together with the absence of normal discussion and debate, suggests a bill handed to the White House and Congress by a think tank or PAC. So, too, does its notably detailed and consistent attention to the interests of Republican constituencies, all of which merely underscores the undemocratic nature of the whole undertaking.)

Those who want to shut down discussion when the shock of the latest enormity is most strongly felt are warning away those who might attempt to find partisan advantage in the event, without reference to the merits of the case they might make—or else fearfully aware of its merits. Anxiety is acute because on this issue, as on so many others, the parties are starkly at odds. Sick of seeing our people dead in our streets, the voters might favor the party that wants to do something over the party that wants to do nothing. As in the matter of slavery, doing nothing is in effect a potent agenda, because, in the absence of the kind of intervention that the public might make if it had a functioning politics, the problem grows and spreads and becomes more deeply entrenched, more intractable.