I expect to get back to the question of intention vs. impact soon, as I have two posts left before that series is completed. In the meantime, I have several posts that are nearly finished, and which I’ll release first — including this one, which is relevant to those intention-vs-impact entries.
I recently posted a (very) short overview of some of the themes of Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries. I may write a longer reflection at some point, but for now, two long excerpts that highlight the importance of all citizens within a democracy seeing themselves as collectively a single people, whatever other memberships they may hold in various other kinds of groups:
can a decision that goes against me serve my freedom? Here we meet a long-standing skepticism, which is particularly strong among those who hold to an atomist political philosophy and who are suspicious of all appeals to a common good beyond individual choice. They see these appeals as just so much humbug to get contrary voters to accept voluntary servitude.
But we don’t need to decide this ultimate philosophical issue here. We are dealing with a question not of philosophy, but of the social imaginary. We need to ask: What is the feature of our “imagined communities” by which people very often do readily accept that they are free under a democratic regime even where their will is overridden on important issues?
The answer they accept runs something like this: You, like the rest of us, are free just in virtue of the fact that we are ruling ourselves in common and not being ruled by some agency that need take no account of us. Your freedom consists in your having a guaranteed voice in the sovereign, that you can be heard and have some part in making the decision. You enjoy this freedom by virtue of a law that enfranchises all of us, and so we enjoy this together. Your freedom is realized and defended by this law, whether you win or lose in any particular decision. This law defines a community of those whose freedom it realizes/defends together. It defines a collective agency, a people, whose acting together by the law preserves their freedom.
Such is the answer, valid or not, that people have come to accept in democratic societies. We can see right away that it involves their accepting a kind of belonging much stronger  than that of any chance group that might come together. It is an ongoing collective agency, membership in which realizes something very important: a kind of freedom. Insofar as this good is crucial to members’ identity, they thus identify strongly with this agency, and hence also feel a bond with their co-participants in this agency. It is only an appeal to this kind of membership that can answer the challenge of an individual or group who contemplates rebelling against an adverse decision in the name of their freedom.
The crucial point here is that, whoever is ultimately right philosophically, it is only insofar as people accept some such answer that the legitimacy principle of popular sovereignty can work to secure their consent. The principle is effective only via this appeal to a strong collective agency. If the identification with this is rejected, the rule of this government seems illegitimate in the eyes of the rejecters, as we see in countless cases with disaffected national minorities: rule by the people, all right; but we can’t accept rule by this lot, because we aren’t part of their people. This is the inner link between democracy and strong common agency. It follows the logic of the legitimacy principle that underlies democratic regimes. They fail to generate this identity at their peril.
I have never thought to connect the desire of some for Catalan secession with the frustration of some Black (and Latino, &c.) Americans (or White working-class rural Americans) to identity politics: if the deliberative and legislative procedures of the larger collective civic membership group (i.e., the nation, represented typically by urban elites) are consistently not taking into account measures that often or typically harm the community or communities where one lives and works (or where one fails to find work), then it is quite possible that one will not feel invested in this larger civic group, or will feel one’s investment levels diminishing to the point of vague identification; if one feels an identity with an ethnic or religious (or some other) people group that desires some sort of emancipation and a desire for self-governance, but which has no clear territorial claim in the area to which one’s group might secede and over which one’s people group might exercise sovereignty, then identity politics, of some form or other, would seem to be a possible and likely result.
There is another excerpt from later pages [see p. 192], which is connected to the passage above: it talks about how nationalism is a kind of collateral of modern social imaginaries and democratic procedures.
we have a new kind of collective agency, with which its members identify as the realization/bulwark of their freedom and the locus of their national/cultural expression. Of course, in premodern societies, too, people often “identified” with the regime, with sacred kings or hierarchical orders. They often were willing subjects. But in the democratic age, we identify as free agents. That is why the notion of popular will plays a crucial role in the legitimating idea.
This means that the modern democratic state has generally accepted common purposes, or reference points, the features whereby it can lay claim to being the bulwark of freedom and locus of expression of its citizens. Whether or not these claims are actually founded, the state must be so imagined by its citizens if it so be legitimate.
So a question can arise for the modern state for which there is no analogue in most premodern forms: What/whom is this state for? Whose freedom? Whose expression? The question seems to make no sense applied to, say, the Austrian or Turkish Empires, unless one answered the “whom for?” question by referring to the Hapsburg or Ottoman dynasties, which would hardly give you their legitimating ideas.
This is the sense in which a modern state has a political identity, defined as the generally accepted answer to the What/whom for? question. This is distinct from the identities of its members, that is, the reference points, many and varied, which for each defines what is important in their lives. There better be some overlap, of course, if these members are to feel strongly identified with the state, but the identities of individuals and constituent groups will generally be richer and more complex, as well as being often quite different from each other.
If it is not clear to a section of a democratic society that they are not fair participants, if their interests vary so much from the rest of the civic body that they are inevitable losers, then either they must feel that they gain more than they lose by participating in the democratic process, or else they will feel disenfranchised and not like members; they will, eventually, not identify with the nation or with the state.
This is why we have identity politics in the first place. It is also why many liberals emphasize the strong need for an ethic of citizenship (to keep the whole democratic project together), and why our educational institutions are battlegrounds for different iconographies of venerated figures, &c.
Also, there “better be some overlap” with what various citizens “define[…] [as] […] important in their lives”, which means that there must be some center — either democratically negotiated, as Taylor suggests in another essay, or else anchored in some vague tradition that can be shared across constituent groups and traditions within the nation, without erasing their character. To reiterate: this shared center, where groups’ interests overlap, is probably either (1) constantly negotiated or (2) rooted in some relatively vague (but also sufficiently clear) tradition or institutions or principles or practices. Whether it is (1) or (2), whether it ought to be (1) or (2), is the subject of another post, when I have clear and developed thoughts about it.
Header image found here.