Americans should argue with Madison, but we should also take his words seriously when we do so.
Over at The Week, Ryan Cooper has written two articles disparaging the Georgia legislature for its “voter suppression” laws. We are to take his description and assessment on faith, just as he takes it on faith that the New York Times fairly represented the legislation. Meanwhile, Delta Airlines, Major League Baseball, Will Smith and his movie company, Coca-Cola, and many others have responded to the “voter suppression” by threatening the state with boycotts or other forms of economic punishment. Celebrities and politicians alike have denounced the law as “Jim Crow 2.0” or, in one memorable instance, as “Jim Eagle.”
One can say with almost complete confidence that one thing most of the critics have in common is that they didn’t actually read the law. Georgia law SB202 has become a game of telephone. Reviewing articles at the Times about the law reveals that the Times links to other articles they’ve written about the law, but not to the law itself. SB202 is a piece of writing, like the Constitution or the Bible, about which everyone has an opinion but few have actually read.
For the record, I have read the Georgia law because I try to commit myself to two fundamental principles of interpretation: not to have interpretive judgments concerning things I haven’t read, and not to assume the trustworthiness of others’ interpretations. How could we possibly know if someone’s interpretation is valid unless we can hold it up against our own reading of the document itself? Others may help illuminate the text, open up its meaning, and draw attention to things we’ve overlooked or our own errors, but only in a dialectic with our own reading. They may also willfully misread the text, bring in a set of ideological or partisan preferences that distort its meaning, exaggerate its errors while overlooking its virtues, or otherwise lead us astray. Indeed, they may willfully misread for purposes of defeating enemies and advancing their own power.
Some years ago in my Modern Political Thought class, as we were discussing The Prince, I had a student pontificating on Machiavelli’s immoralism. After he went on for a few minutes I looked at him and said “You didn’t actually read the book, did you?” Sheepishly, he admitted he hadn’t. “Well then,” I replied, “I really don’t care what you think.” I had long told my students that their first obligation as readers was to understand the text and only afterward to render judgments on it. But I saw then that I had misspoken; our first obligation as readers was to—you know—actually read.
It would be unthinkable to try to teach a book one hasn’t read. Professors can spot quickly the students who have read the assigned reading and those who haven’t. Most people have enough self-awareness not to have opinions about movies or books they haven’t read; or, if they do, to qualify such opinions by saying “I’ve heard it’s great” or “I’ve heard it sucks.”
Only in politics, it seems, are we not only allowed but encouraged to have opinions concerning things of which we have no direct knowledge. Indeed, the more mediated our knowledge is, the stronger are our opinions. Often we compensate for ignorance with passion. This state of affairs is contrary to a democratic ethos and can only result in a furthering and deepening of our divisions.
Aquinas noted that the law is the rule of reason promulgated by a legitimate authority, so that when law is not properly disseminated and explained, it loses its legitimacy. There are different ways of obscuring such promulgation. The laws can be written so technically and abstrusely that no normal citizen could be expected to comprehend them. The number of laws can be proliferated so that it’s simply impossible to keep up with them all. The makers of the law can become so distant from those under the law’s sway that the latter lose all track of what’s happening to them. Walter Lippmann described democratic citizens as deaf spectators in the back of a theater who had a vague sense of what’s going on, but could never really make sense of it all. They felt their lives to be at the mercy of forces they could neither sense nor control.
The failure to promulgate the laws properly is a serious problem in a democratic culture, particularly a democracy on our scale. Justice Thomas once said a sharecropper had a right to know what his Constitution meant, and that Justices were obligated to explicate in a way that such a person could understand. Where citizens can’t be reasonably expected to know or understand the law, they can’t be reasonably expected to obey it; and where legislators or bureaucrats write laws no one reads, the rulemakers cease to be accountable. The gap between lawmakers and citizens gets filled by a medium, by the media, with the result that democracy becomes dependent on a trustworthy media as it performs this crucial function.
No serious person in our current world could claim that the media are worthy of our trust. We expect politicians both to pass and interpret laws in a way that benefits their political and partisan interests. Does the Georgia law serve the electoral interests of the Republicans in the Georgia legislature that passed it? You’d have to be naive not to think so. Does the hyperbolic hysteria among the Democrats result from their electoral interests? Again, you’d have to be naive not to think so. This is basic politics and is neither unexceptional nor particularly alarming, despite some people being shocked—shocked!—to find politics going on here.
But one would hope that somewhere in the mix someone might actually read the law and do so in a fair-minded and honest way. Such hopes go unfulfilled. Most commentators, Ryan Cooper being an example, are thrice removed from this task. He’s interpreting the New York Times’ interpretation of the New York Times’ reporting of the law. And that reporting, everyone knows, not only consistently advances the interests of a particular party, but also places everything in the context of race.
One fundamental principle of representative government is that most people are too busy living their lives to bother themselves with the daily operations of government. Moreover, in our federalist system, we are to concern ourselves primarily with the laws of our own state. The controversy over the Georgia law is not simply a matter of legal hermeneutics, but reveals a central crisis of both the republican and the federalist principles. To what degree should Georgia’s voter laws be of concern to anyone not living in Georgia? To whom are the Georgia legislators accountable? What’s the relationship between legislative acts and the public who votes in those legislators? Does Major League Baseball have a legitimate interest at stake? How does the relationship between voters and rulers get distorted when the interpretive medium is occupied by bad-faith corporate actors motivated by ideology or profit? Indeed, the corporations demonstrated a callous disregard for how their actions would affect the average voter. Instead, they either served an ideological interest or attempted to indulge the caterwauling of a distinct group of elites trying to maximize their power. Have we reached the point Lippmann identified, predicted, and bemoaned some 90 years ago of not having a functioning public at all?
I write neither to defend nor disparage the Georgia law. I’ll do that in a different essay. I write because the Georgia law is not the crisis; rather, the controversy over it points to the deeper, underlying crisis of republicanism and federalism. This crisis does not admit of easy fixes. How we respond to the Georgia statute might point the way to a restoration not only of republican and federalist principles, but the rule of law itself. Public and private actors might want to begin with a simple hermeneutical rule: never have a political opinion about a law you haven’t read. And then they might want to supplement that with a political rule: don’t get riled up by something that doesn’t concern you. Plato identified polypragmosyne (busy about many things, or a species of not minding your own business) as a form of injustice. We’d all be better off if federal officials, celebrities, pundits, and corporations stopped meddling in Georgia’s affairs. Indeed, we’d be much better off still if they stopped using race so cynically and stopped putting forth specious interpretations to advance their own ends. We might even deaden their echo chambers. “You didn’t actually read the law, did you Mr. Cooper? Well then, I really don’t care what you think.”