Friday, September 17, 2010

259 / Who Governs?

I remember reading Who Governs? in my undergraduate college years. I still have my copy, which I see from the inside cover was from the fourth printing, released in April 1963. If I read the book in 1963, and I think I probably did, I was a college sophomore, and was still majoring in Political Science (before switching to History, and the Honors Program In Social Thought And Institutions).

The edition pictured here is the second edition, which the publisher describes as a "now classic work," from "one of the most celebrated political scientists of the twentieth century." I know we are in a new century, now, but having come from the former century, I find that I am still attached to some of its artifacts. This is, indeed, a book that is still worth reading.

More than anything else, I liked the title, "Who Governs?" because it stimulated thought. I was, as a college student, and still am, preconditioned to expect that "we" govern in our "democratic" society. We "the people," that is. But as Dahl says in his very first chapter, "The Nature of the Problem," the theoretical presumption that "the people" are in charge may well be theoretical only:

In a political system where nearly every adult may vote but where knowledge,wealth,social position, access to officials, and other resources are unequally distributed, who actually governs?

I have come to the conclusion that our political system provides "the people" with an opportunity to exercise the prerogatives of self-government, but that this opportunity is a well-hidden secret. To govern themselves, ordinary men and women need to make what can look like a heroic commitment to leave behind their individual interests, in order to take charge of their own lives on a "collective" basis.

It is only "collectively" that "the people" can "govern," and this fact is what makes our obvious opportunity to govern ourselves a kind of secret. "Individuals" (and that is who we all are, in the first instance) tend to see their "freedom" as the liberty they have to act individually, and not as the right they have to join with others jointly to decide what we all, collectively, will do.

Government, however, is about the collectivity. Politics is a "team sport." As we focus on our individual lives, and on the individual choices and activities that are the main component of our individual lives, we can easily lose sight of the opportunity actually to "govern," something that we must do, if we do it at all, together.

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