Paper Towns and the Fragility of Democracy
Donald Trump has for several weeks now been calling into question the results of an election he has yet to lose. He has suggested that he will put his opponent in prison if he is elected. Earlier in this campaign he said he would instruct the US military to go after the families of suspected terrorists and he encouraged his own supporters to attack protesters with promises of paying their legal fees. He has publicly shamed members of the media whose coverage of his campaign he does not like, as in this most recent case with Katy Tur. He has generally violated the unwritten norms of American public discourse and political office-seeking. His supporters describe his approach as refreshing. I think what Trump has showcased for better or worse is how fragile the democratic project is.
This year in buying our house I learned a little something about how the rule of law operates on a fiction. The fiction is that there is something that binds us to the rule of law. Generally, we act as if the law binds us, but on occasion, when people decide it does not bind them, the fictive nature of the rule of law becomes clear. That’s when you have to decide if you want to do anything to actually force the law to work, because it won’t on its own. Making the law have teeth then requires an additional expenditure of time, energy and money. Just ask any of Trump’s vendors that he never paid.
It turns out that the laws and mores whereby our institutions and political structures work also operate on a bit of a fiction. They work because we believe they work, which means they also stop working when we stop believing that they work. To the extent that Congress tries to represent the people it is because the people believe that Congress represents them and should be representing them. To the extent that state governments accept judgments handed down by the Supreme Court and other arbitrating bodies they do so because they believe that those judgments require it of them.
Recent discussions have pointed to how this belief has eroded under President Obama where many states and senators refuse to accept his authority in a way that is practically unprecedented, like refusing to have hearings on a SCOTUS nominee. Having once begun to act as if the president’s authority does not need to be recognized it is easy to take it further and act as if no law or mores bind a presidential candidate or a president. Why not use nuclear weapons if we have them? Why not harass the press until they write more sympathetic pieces? The only thing keeping us from authoritarian action and the end of democratic practices is the belief that democratic practices require a limit on the behavior and action of our elected officials or those running for such offices.
We seem to believe that law and the force behind it will keep people doing what is required by the law. But this position supposes that all violations of the law or of the Bill of Rights are prosecuted or litigated. If the belief in the law has broken down, the efforts to enforce it through legal means become more difficult. It’s like in the new show Designated Survivor, where the entire federal government is wiped out except the designated survivor, a low-level cabinet member, who becomes president. There’s a scene where a state governor says to the new president we don’t accept you, and it is clear that constitution or no, the failure to treat the new president as the new president makes it very difficult for him to be the new president.
In the midst of thinking about all these things, I heard this story (read about it at NPR or watch this TedTalk by John Green that discusses it) about paper towns in cartography. See, paper towns are fake towns that mapmakers put on the map to catch plagiarizers. So Otto G. Lindberg of General Drafting makes a map of New York State with the fake town of Agloe on it. Not too many years later, Rand McNally comes out with a map that also has an Agloe, New York on it. So Lindberg is like, yo, we caught you, Rand McNally. Case closed, right? No, it turns out that Agloe, New York was real because people saw it on the General Drafting map and went there and pretty soon enough people were going there that they needed a general store and some shops and people moved there.
I’ve been thinking that democracy and the rule of law is like Agloe, New York. It doesn’t have any deep existence, but you can treat it as if it exists. And it will continue to exist if you keep treating it like it does. It’s a paper town. But you can move there. And when you move there, it will become a real town. But also, you can move away. Agloe, New York no longer exists.