The human mind seems to be very comfortable with dichotomies, and we are very good at telling ourselves stories to make dichotomies work. We really prefer ‘either-or’ situations and ‘this-or-that’ decisions over settings that are more ambiguous and require decisions between multiple options and interpretations. The way we understand and view history, and how our history has shaped our present moment, is one area where our dichotomous though preferences can arise.
In his book, The Quartet, Joseph Ellis looks at the founding of the nation and offers some insight regarding the creation of the Constitution which runs against the vision of our founding that we as a democracy like to believe. In our country, we like to believe that American democracy was inevitable, a clear preference advocated by our citizenry, and pushed for by all. We look back at the revolutionary war and our founding and picture masses of people choosing freedom and making the right choices to lead our country to prosperity.
The reality however, is that our nation was much more fractious at its founding than the stories we live with, and our history is as full of top down decisions as much as it is full of bottom up preferences. From the very beginning, with the idea of a national government, our actual history has run against what we like to believe as a democracy has been the defining principle of America. Ellis writes, “There was no popular insurgency for a national government because such a thing was not popular.” And he explains that our national government was built because, “a small group of prominent leaders, in disregard of popular opinion, carried the American story in a new direction.” It is interesting to look back at our nation and see the role that popular support played relative to the decisions of an elite. When we think about what our nation stands for and how our government should operate and direct our path, we should remember that in the past we have made more decisions based on more options than the often dichotomous choices we try to chose from today.
Continuing on the focus of top down versus bottom up support for a national government, Ellis writes, “The obvious alternative explanation is top-down. All democratic cultures find such explanations offensive because they violate the hallowed conviction that, at least in the long run, popular majorities can best decide the direction that history should take.”
To me this is a reminder that if I am not personally involved in studying an issue, and only understand it ephemerally from news and short stories, I probably should not consider my ideas or the popular ideas of citizens to be more valid than the views of experts. It is likely that we are not considering the full range of possibilities, and it is possible that what is popular and desired is not truly the best course of action. I don’t think this means I should remove myself from debate, but that I should spend more energy thinking deeply about the perspectives of competing interests. I may never fully understand the choice in the end, but I should not decide, based on popular opinion, that a decision was either right or wrong.