The public assignment of credit and blame has profound implications for democracy. Democracy can live with us-them differences, in part because the public assignment of credit and blame provides a means of temporarily bridging social differences of class, gender, religion or race without abolishing them. But writing us-them divisions into law and politics undermines democracy. That is why we count the abolition of property requirements, of racial exclusion and of male-only electorates as historical triumphs for democracy.

Narratives of credit and blame pose difficult problems for democracy, however. All of us spend much of our lives assigning credit and blame, for justice matters to everyday personal relations as it matters to public life. Those of us who seek the proper assignment of credit and blame often turn to the courts, legislatures and other governmental institutions to back up our judgments of right and wrong. Indeed, Americans and their lawyers regularly call for courts to award not only material compensation but punitive damages.

Within limits, successful pursuit of legal redress reinforces democracy. It establishes that even relatively powerless people can get justice and that government officials care about their welfare. Beyond those limits, however, use of public power to fix credit and blame writes us-them divisions into political life. It also reinforces the operation of the same divisions in private life. The vengeance called for by the Hermann Monument helped bring on World War I and, eventually, the Nazi rise to power. The struggle over Sacré Coeur and the Catholic Church’s place in French public life promoted the virulent anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair twenty years later, fueled a crisis of state-church relations in 1905–06, and left echoes in France’s conservative revival during the 1930s and 1940s.

We should therefore be very careful when asking authorities to officially sanction our assignments of credit and blame. One day, for sure, there will be some kind of memorial for the Iraq war, and perhaps the Afghanistan war as well. We had better be very careful how we design those monuments and the stories of credit and blame they invariably will tell. We can only hope that, when all is said and done, we will build and tell stories about those monuments in a way that creates consensus instead of separation. It is not always easy or obvious how to do that.

Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: