Democracy According to The Office
It’s been said by democracy’s critics that the system is essentially two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner. But to its defenders, democracy has been described as an ethical ideal and a way of life—these conceptions nearly implying a metaphysical manifestation. While we have no way of knowing whether or not we’re living up to democracy as an ethical ideal, we do have evidence of its effectiveness as an electoral system, or lack thereof. If the goal is to secure good governance, then democracy generally fails. But democracy not only pertains to presidents and congressmen, but also down to the local town hall, school board, and mayor. Each of these political actors possesses power purportedly on behalf of “the people.” But I wouldn’t be the first to point out that when someone whom I didn’t vote for wields political power over me, they are not doing so with my consent; in this case, their exercise of power is not literally on my behalf. Libertarians are trapped in a by now obvious dilemma: vote as often as we can for the most “proliberty candidate,” or generally abstain from voting on the grounds that there’s no good candidates or that we refuse to give any kind of consent to broad political power. There is an illustrative example of this dilemma in an episode of The Office.
Later in the series (S8, EP19), a woman named Nellie declares she is the new manager after the real manager—Andy—leaves for several weeks. Everyone in the office is confused by her claim to authority, especially since she didn’t earn the position and no one consented to her newfound power. The main character, Jim, tries to convince everyone to just act as though she has no authority. Nellie, however, starts doing performance reviews and giving out raises based on who will accept her as the new boss. Once a few workers in the office begin accepting the idea that she has authority to issue raises, everyone else has a choice: continue to reject her authority, or accept it for the potential benefits it brings them. In addition to giving raises, she actually cuts the pay of a few skeptical workers who won’t consent to her new authority as boss. There are some interesting assumptions at play in this episode: the workers are so conditioned to having a boss that if their options are between an absentee manager and Nellie—the latter of whom is offering raises—there seems to be an obvious incentive to prefer Nellie, even though having no boss extends their personal freedom at work. But other than Jim and a few others, most of the workers in the office never consider rejecting the idea of a boss altogether.
This is how democracy works. Firstly, most assume there has to be a government, which represents the will of the people and enforces the law: this could be a local sheriff, state governor, or even the US president. The cost of trying to convince everyone else that this position or source of power shouldn’t exist is prohibitively high, so the next best option is to choose someone who we think will do the least amount of damage. But—and this is the rub of democracy—in so voting, just as some office workers began accepting Nellie’s raises, we imply a tacit endorsement or acceptance of political power. We have no way of indicating that we’re voting out of self-defense or that, all things considered, we wish something like school board seat 7 or county tax assessor didn’t exist in the first place; power is placed over us with no real alternative.
In this episode of The Office, the aspirational Dwight is likewise in a bind: either he accepts what he otherwise deems to be illegitimate authority, or he remains in the minority. In a democracy, we are all like Dwight: we can either “get a raise” (that is, vote for the candidate whose policies promise to benefit us), or be relegated to powerlessness through our inaction, accepting the dictates of the Nellies of the world. For instance, about a third of eligible voters didn’t vote in 2020, and yet Joe Biden is now their president, just as Trump was everyone’s president before him, including his most impassioned political enemies. Plenty of Americans engaged in hashtag activism to say that Trump was #NotMyPresident, but … he was. In a democracy, we all have little recourse against authority after the election is over. And if we don’t participate at all, we really have no say, since we are not factored into the “will of the people.”
But unlike an office manager, a politician could have control over our very life or death, or at the very least, our livelihoods. The state can send us to fight in wars, raise our taxes, and as covid policies have shown, they can force us to shut down our businesses and our very means of existence. Democracy means that if we never vote, or even if we do vote but our candidate never wins, all of these measures over our lives can be controlled by people to whom we never conceded authority. We are all Dwight in The Office, on the precipice of accepting Nellie’s authority or having it imposed on us regardless. She can give us a raise, but she can also reduce our pay. The American state can reduce our taxes or send out “stimulus checks,” but they can also send us to die in the sands of Afghanistan. The stakes are enormous in our modern democracy.
Like many workers in The Office, most people are too conditioned to think we need a boss, and that Nellie, or Joe Biden, is as good as any other. But if the fictitious world of Dunder Mifflin tells us anything, the workers’ most productive period was later in the series when their manager (played by Will Ferrell) was hospitalized after trying to dunk a basketball. After weeks without a boss, Jim says, “So as it turns out, unless you're a young child or a prison inmate, you don't need anyone supervising you. People just come in and do their work on their schedule. Imagine that. People like us allowed to sell paper. Unsupervised. And yet, somehow it works.”
We too might consider a world without arbitrary political power. Imagine that.