One of the claims that I have seen made quite often over the last two weeks is that Palestinians in Gaza voted for Hamas and so ought to be “held responsible” for that decision. In other words, the idea is that they brought whatever they are suffering upon themselves. I have already discussed why this is the wrong view to take, but something else occurred to me over the weekend: when the Russians were responding to Georgian escalation in August and they wrongly began hitting targets outside South Ossetia, I don’t recall anyone saying that the Georgian people deserved what they were getting because they had voted so overwhelmingly for Saakashvili. On the contrary, the near-unanimous nature of support for Saakashvili was part of what lent his government legitimacy as the “democratically-elected government of Georgia,” as every Saakashvili defender insisted on calling it, as if the mere fact of being democratically elected invested the Tbilisi government with moral superiority. Putin and Medvedev’s elections did not count, of course, because they were manipulated and so not genuinely democratic, which formed the basis for the simple morality play that Saakashvili partisans wanted to fashion for us.
If we applied the standard being used to judge the Gazan population as complicit in Hamas’ wrongdoing to the situation in the Caucasus, we would have to conclude that the Georgian people were complicit in and should be “held responsible” for the actions and intentions of their government. Of course, we would recoil at doing this, because in that case we can see how absurd it is to blame an entire nation for the excesses of a hot-headed demagogue and his allies. Because we are not inclined to demonize the Georgian people, instead of identifying the people with the state’s wrongdoing we identify the state with the legitimacy that we believe flows from the consent of the people. Even though the very thing that supporters praise in the Georgian government–its democratic character–might lead us to hold the people responsible for its government’s actions, instead many of us are inclined to give the Georgian government a pass on the grounds that it is supported by the Georgian people, whom we have already determined should not be vilified. (Indeed, it is good that we are not vilifying them as we vilified the Serbs, but the point remains that we choose for entirely different reasons how we will treat a certain nation that has nothing to do with what its political leaders do or have done.)
The vital distinction between people and government will usually be blurred or erased for one of two reasons: the state needs to use the people as a shield against criticism, or a foreign state needs to reduce the population to an extension of the state in order to make war on it more completely. Realizing this should make us even more wary of rhetoric that invests democracy and elections with some moral significance. It should also warn us that the natural complement to valorizing popular sovereignty and democratic government is the demonization of entire peoples by identifying them with their political leadership in an indistinguishable mass.