What would it look like to have a modern culture of democracy so richly festal? From time to time, we get glimpses. Think of the heady days of the 2008 Obama campaign, when Shepard Fairey and will.i.am and others made pop art out of the images and words of their candidate.
Many early Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street rallies also had a raw, homespun theatricality, from tricorner hats and Don’t Tread On Me flags to Guy Fawkes masks and “99%” iconography. And much of the post-Ferguson protest movement, as well as content created under #BlackLivesMatter, is infused with creativity.
But these are exceptions, mainly outside the electoral arena. Thanks to a half-century of TV, the couch has replaced the commons. The public sphere has become desiccated, quasi-private, and passive. The Internet makes that sphere more seemingly social. But sharing memes on Facebook and Twitter is still a quiet kind of citizenship. It’s being “alone together,” in Sherry Turkle’s phrase.
Imagine, instead, an electoral culture that’s about being together together. In person. In loud and passionate and even partisan ways. That means instead of “eat your vegetables” or “do your duty,” voting should feel more like “join the club.” Or, better yet, join the fight. The single act of casting a ballot might be surrounded with many public, participatory, and creative acts of arguing the ballot.
It would take a concerted effort—local but nationwide—to revive an array of creative, populist face-to-face electioneering rituals. Outdoor allegorical plays, in which candidates and their causes are mocked and praised in broad satirical style. Streetcorner orations by citizens making the case for their standard-bearer. Fast-paced public debates held in pubs. Battle-of-the-band concerts in which candidates are repped by competing performers. Streets with heavy foot traffic festooned with dueling handmade posters and other art.
This may sound very 18th- or 19th-century. But it only has to be as 18th-century as “Hamilton,” the new hip-hop multicultural musical about Alexander Hamilton and other Founders that’s a huge critical hit and now Broadway-bound.
Who has the time for this? Well, the average American watches five hours of TV each day. Who has the motivation? If you’re a candidate or organizer, it’ll make voters pay more attention. If you’re a voter, you get a chance to represent those who seek to represent you: to make the case for them, to argue it out with others. Everyone can be a candidate’s surrogate, not just professionals or celebrities.
What would it take to do this? Simply doing it. Yes, the screen-facing habits of contemporary democracy are deeply ingrained. But they aren’t inborn. We just need to be prompted imaginatively, conditioned by new rituals, and reinforced by the company of others. It’s the cognitive-behavioral theory of civic renewal: New habits become habit-forming.