People have a great many misconceptions about dictionaries. For a start, we assume that dictionaries are authorities—that the usages of a word listed in the dictionary are allowed, and that other usages are not. We assume that words not in the dictionary are not words, and words in the dictionary but labeled “obsolete” are no longer allowed. And we assume these things because we fundamentally misunderstand what a dictionary is.
We think dictionaries are arbiters of language, determining what is and isn’t allowed. But, in reality, dictionaries are just records of language. They preserve old ideas, record new ideas, and describe how language is being used. They are slow to catch up, but not that slow, and they occasionally retain things we would rather forget.
We have many of the same misconceptions about government.
Which is not to say that government does not determine some things and have real impacts on the world, but it is to say that there is a part of representative democracy that we too often forget: it represents us.
It’s easy to forget that when our representatives and senators make choices that hurt us. It’s easy to forget that when our own mediocre politicians are in power. It’s easy to forget that when we see our government actively harming people we care about and rejecting the ideals we hold dear.
When that is true, we tend to rail against power and use divisive rhetoric about “taking back our country” to make it what it used to be (when we were in charge, facing many of the same problems, and still handling them badly). Democrats feel that way now. Republicans felt that way recently. We pretend that the government that shares (some) of our views is the real one, and the other one is illegitimate.
So of course, with that presumption, Republicans invented the lie that Obama was not American. It was nonsense that felt right. And of course Democrats picked up the mantle “not my president.” Not that government works that way, but it felt right.
Take on step out, and we find a much more disturbing truth: the government we see is, truly, a government of the people. We draw lines to say why Trump’s bigotry is not okay, as we should, but we also miss the broad strokes: this administration is not about Trump. It is about us.
Slightly less then half of us want this. Slightly less than half of us look at people in need and say “no, they don’t deserve our compassion.” Slightly less than half of us look at Muslims and say “they’re probably terrorists.” Slightly less than half of us see our communities failing economically and say “it’s the immigrants’ fault.”
It’s petty. It’s fearful. It’s not truth, but it feels like truth, and so we don’t care.
And all we are hearing is “slight less than half,” and so we talk about taking back our government and evening the representation. We claim our existing government is illegitimate on the basis of that “slightly less.”
But the main problem in our government is not that slightly more than half of our representatives are from slightly less than half of our people.
The main problem is the nearly half of us believe those things. Nearly half of us are so afraid that we want to attack people who look different. Nearly half of us want to believe unlikely promises and can ignore uncouth bigotry if it might help us.
How different the problem looks when its about us, and not about our government.
Our government is, deeply, of the people. The things we are looking at Washington and wanting to fix are things with roots in our friends and family.
Yet we are in the years of deep polarization. We can seldom conceive of why someone else might think differently on the smallest issues—and so we have no credibility to change their minds on the biggest issues. We cannot understand one another’s positions. So how can we hope to break down one another’s prejudices?
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