Division, Disagreement and Democracy (Another post on Ferguson)

I too have read the Pew Center report on the sad state of affairs in Ferguson. And like E.J. Dionne, I think that acknowledging division – certain sorts of division that cut across different cleavages and not simply the single cleavage of race – is a positive thing, something that opens and encourages debate and provides the potential for coalition-building. A positive thing too is the growing sense that the militarization of American police may finally be on the table, politically speaking, as a topic of discussion. This militarization has a history that begins in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 WTO protests, and loses all sense of proportion after the attacks of 9/11. Local law enforcement and mayors across the US were suddently flush with cash from a federal government eager to fight terrorists, and in the absence of immediate external threats, the enemy was reconceptualized as any group that wanted to demonstrate in the streets. City authorities became obsessed with preventing another “battle in Seattle,” even at the expense of squelching the freedom of speech and severely limiting the freedom of assembly.

Under these conditions, any claim to democratic consensus becomes meaningless. One has to be free to disagree – and to express that disagreement publicly with others – if the principle of majority rule is to mean anything. Perhaps Ferguson teaches us this lesson: the real danger is not in too much disagreement but in the false presumption that all problems have been solved, that there really is no problem, that dissenters are agitated by private grievances or even worse are simply criminals stirred up by “outside agitators.” It’s not that the claim to totality isn’t democratic, but that any time a political figure or a televisual talking head claims “we all agree” on a powerfully divisive issue like class or race, we must be especially attentive to the police power that enforces that so-called agreement. For over a decade, for most of us, that power has worked behind the scenes; the events in Ferguson have brought it center stage and exposed it for what it is, a broken machine for the construction of a false consensus. The truth is: we don’t agree. We are divided. This reality is not unhealthy for democracy.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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