Around 5 pm yesterday, after the big historic inauguration around noon, our family watched Vice President Kamala Harris swear in Rev. Raphael Warnock, Jon Osoff and Alex Padilla as new United States Senators. While my wife and I were so inspired by the diversity of backgrounds and the huge number of “firsts” in that moment, my kids were struck by a different aspect. “Wait,” they said. “Just saying those words made them Senators?!”
Well, not exactly, and it was a little hard to explain. We do understand that saying words doesn’t automatically make them true (otherwise I would say that I’m the starting second baseman for the New York Yankees at $30 million per year). But we also understand that at certain times — such as at inaugurations — words do have power. Performative acts do change reality, especially in a ritual setting. Just as the words “I do” are key at a wedding, holding a sacred book and saying, “I solemnly swear…” changes political reality. But it’s slightly more subtle than that, because it’s not the words themselves that have the power; it’s that we all agree that these words, at this time, in this way, will change reality. And as we’ve seen over the last few weeks in particular, we need to understand precisely how that reality can change — and the importance of the different kinds of reality we all live in.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains three different ways in which we experience reality. One level is the subjective — how I’m feeling. No one can argue with me if I’m feeling sad, or happy, or if I’m in pain, or how I feel about someone.
Another level is the objective — what nature dictates about what we understand about the world. No matter how much I want gravity to not apply to me, I don’t have a choice about that; if I jump off a ten-story building, I know what the result will be. In many ways, science’s goal is to help us get closer to the objective truth, even if it never quite gets there. We can make experiments and theories and hypotheses, but nature will always have the final say about whether we were accurate.
Too often, in American discourse, we focus on these first two levels, which often results in people talking past each other. “I’m entitled to my opinion,” one person may say. But when it came to policy issues, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan would often say, “You‘re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.” So if we are just using these two framings, then we’re asking, “Is the legitimacy of this election an opinion or a fact?” And that binary distinction becomes very problematic — if someone is upset that Trump lost, they’re certainly entitled to that subjective feeling. And Biden winning the election is not an objective “fact” in the same way that the Earth goes around the sun. So is American democracy a “fact” or an “opinion”?
The answer is, “neither,” because we also live in a third, and more complicated, intersubjective reality. In this realm something that exists only because we humans agree that they exist. If you are on an airplane, you’d see mountains and rivers, but not state or national boundaries. Harari highlights three realms of intersubjectivity: nations (including politics and law), religion, and money. As he notes:
“the dollar, human rights and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence. If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t matter much. These imagined orders are intersubjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy.”
This is why performative speech — such as an oath of office or a recitation of a prayer — can have power. But it has power only if the stakeholders agree to it.
And this is why so many people are scared for the future of our democracy. It’s not that our country has gotten more partisan (though it has). It’s that we’re losing a shared sense of intersubjective reality. If we can’t all agree that elections are fair (regardless of who wins), that “reality” will crumble. We can and should disagree, and vehemently, about policies, but without a shared agreement about intersubjective reality, a politician’s oath of office will have the same power as my saying that I’m on the Yankees’ roster right now. But while it’s hard to change intersubjective reality, it can and does happen. Countries and empires come and go; religions spring up, adapt and splinter; and economic policies impact exactly what physical objects can be acquired by exchanging a piece of paper or a collection of 0’s and 1’s.
So sometimes, we need poetry in order to remind us of the need to rebuild, and that’s why Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” may be the most remembered moment from yesterday:
[L]et us leave behind a country better than one we were left.
With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West.
We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful.
This isn’t a prediction, and it isn’t simply her feelings and hopes either. It’s a call to all of us to change our reality. America has a deep civil religion, with laws, customs, taboos, and rituals, but at its core, its power is in its shared agreement that our vote matters.
As we strive to build our country back better, we have many challenges. Some deal with objective reality, such as COVID-19 and climate change. Some deal with subjective reality, ranging from hope to pain to fear. But the biggest is in the realm of intersubjective reality and our common agreements. As we move into a new administration, then, we have an opportunity to reshape that intersubjective reality — bringing more people into the democratic process, improving the health, well-being and safety of more Americans, and laying the groundwork for deeper political and social engagementAs we saw in the previous administration, it is easy – far too easy – to destroy trust and faith in our systems. But the magic of democracy is that our country’s civic religion can change and adapt — but only if we accept its civic responsibility.
Because, as President Biden said yesterday:
Through a crucible for the ages America has been tested and America has risen to the challenge.
Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy.
The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded.
We have learned again that democracy is precious.
Democracy is fragile.
And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.
Image (adapted) from U.S. Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps