The Greater Good: Open to Interpretation

Well, friends, we made it. We survived January 20th, 2016. That’s not to say that we’re out of the woods; our new president is likely to take actions over the next four years that many will find concerning, especially members of a generally liberal-leaning community like the University of Chicago. But something was especially galling about that particular date, January 20th. Why was it that Trump’s inauguration elicited reactions of repugnance from so many, a reaction of disgust more intense than the typical disagreement with the new president’s political agenda? We’re talking massive protests, senators boycotting the inauguration, and some super emotional Facebook posts:Screen Shot 2017-01-21 at 2.12.20 PM.png

On the other hand, plenty of people opposed to Trump’s political agenda, including Bernie Sander, attended the inauguration.On the surface, the inauguration is a formality, the official swearing-in of the new president, but it does not appear to be anything more than a visual representation of a fact that everyone already knew: Trump is our new president. There must be a significant latent meaning of the inauguration for it to have been protested and boycotted by so many. In the latest installment of the manifest/latent blog, we’re going to follow Durkheim’s methodology in examining the inauguration a manifest object and explore its latent significance in order to explain how a traditional American ceremony became a source of such division among Americans.

The Inauguration as a Ritual

There are many things that signify to the rest of the world what being an American means.  We are a collective united by things as simplistic as fireworks on the Fourth of July to the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.  The inauguration is an American ritual with the oath outlined in the US constitution and a history dating back to George Washington. But what is a ritual? Why does the inauguration qualify as a ritual and not a tradition?  Is there a difference between the two terms?  These questions will all be answered in our discussion of the Inauguration.   

A ritual is something extremely prevalent throughout Durkheim’s analysis of religion.  Religion can be effectively split into two parts: belief and ritual. Beliefs are the “states of opinions and consist of representations” whereas the rituals are “the particular forms of action”(34). Ritual acts as the manifestation of that belief, an action that is necessary to keep the belief alive.

In his discussion on rites, Durkheim says, “Rites are ways of acting that are born only in the midst of assembled groups and whose purpose is to evoke, maintain, or recreate certain mental states of those groups” (9)” meaning rites exist to bring about unity in the collective surrounding a certain point, in most cases the belief system of a clan.

How is a ritual different from your average run of the mill tradition? After all, eating pizza on your birthday is a tradition that you could argue has a belief behind it, in this case being the belief that pizza is delicious.  Still it is easy to dismiss this example; we know intrinsically that this isn’t a rite.  This has a lot to do with the Durkheim’s idea that a ritual entails the inclusion of something sacred.  In Durkheim’s discussion of the difference between a ritual and even a moral rule, he states that it is “the object of the rite that must be characterized in order to characterize the rite itself” (34), meaning the physical objects used in the ritual contribute to its significance. The use of a sacred object is what makes an activity sacred and elevates it to ritual status.  

America’s Presidential Inauguration falls under the classification of rite both for its use of sacred objects and a connection to the rituals Durkheim discussed.  The sacred objects are fairly obvious: The Oath taken from the Constitution, a document revered as the law of the Land, a literal connection to the ancestors of American Democracy and the Holy Book on which the oath is made.

These objects are a routine part of a ceremony that while changing slightly would still be recognizable in comparison to George Washington’s own.  When writing on positive rites, Durkheim included a section, stating there was “a whole collection of ceremonies whose sole purpose is to arouse certain ideas and feelings, to join the present to the past and the individual to the collectivity” (382). The Inauguration is the perfect example of such a ceremony. It connects the new president elect to a long line of predecessors. It changes the president elect from an individual to someone who must work in the country’s best interest, work for the collective.  

Examining the Latent

The ritual of the inauguration does more than its apparent function discussed above. In his discussion of the motive for various rituals identified in totemism, he makes the following generalization about the role of rituals:

“Let the idea of society be extinguished in individual minds, let the beliefs, traditions, and aspirations of the collectivity be felt and shared by individuals no longer, and the society will die.” (351)

In this quotation, Durkheim argues that the participation of individuals in the practices and beliefs of their social group is required for the existence of said group, which points to a latent effect of rituals such as the inauguration. Our presidential inaugurations bring people together and remind us of the foundational principles of American politics, namely the democratic process and the peaceful transition of power. By collectively celebrating the official swearing-in of the new president, we renew our belief in these principles. The “shared faith” in the American political system “is reborn because it finds itself once agains in the same conditions in which in was first born,” in our example, the ceremony surrounding the democratic election and swearing-in of the first president (350). Thus, the tradition of the inauguration has the latent effect of reproducing the collective of the American constituency.

The members of the American democracy form the collective that is reproduced by presidential inaugurations. Some people see Trump as threatening this sacred collective because his political agenda does not seem to be “for” all of the people.

The Collective as a Common Motivator

As recently seen in the news, many state senators and state representatives refused to attend the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. However, it is not the first time lawmakers have boycotted a presidential inauguration. Richard Nixon’s 1973 Inauguration was the first presidential inauguration to be boycotted by lawmakers, as stated in the online Time Magazine article, “What to Know About the First Lawmakers to Boycott a Presidential Inauguration”.  


The boycott on Nixon’s inauguration was caused by Nixon’s poor decisions in the Vietnam War. Donald Trump’s inauguration was boycotted for different reasons. The inauguration boycott for Trump was driven by the belief that Trump will corrupt the sacred office of the president.

        Therefore, it is necessary to understand both sides of the conflict regarding the sacred ritual of attending the presidential inauguration. The majority of the sixty or so Democrats who refused to attend the inauguration believe that they could not attend because Donald Trump does not represent the values and characteristics to hold the highest office. In Durkheim’s terms, they believe that a profane being is going to corrupt a sacred position in society. It is very interesting to clarify that all the boycotters stated their respect for the sacred ritual, but they could not attend the sacred ritual because it is corrupted by a profane being. In Durkheim’s discussion of rituals, clans have sacred beings and rituals only because they believe those rituals and beings to be sacred. Durkheim states that it is important and necessary for the clan members to have faith in the sacred beings and rituals. As he states, “The sacred beings are sacred only because they are imagined as sacred. Let us stop believing in them, and they will be as if they were not “(349). The argument for the lawmakers who refused to show up is that they are protecting the sacred collective from a destructive profane being. According to the boycotters this profane being will not only corrupt the sacred, but also destroy any respect or sacredness people have towards the office of the president. In other words if a profane being takes over a sacred position in society, there will no longer be any reason to believe in the sacredness of that position. The boycotting lawmakers are confident that they are preserving the sacredness of the collective.

        The counter argument against the boycotters’ claim is that the sacredness lies within the peaceful transfer of power and that must be respected first. The Democrats who did show up did not fear that a profane being was corrupting a sacred position because the ritual itself is sacred and should not be corrupted. This argument was led by Illinois State Senator Dick Durbin. In a politico article, He stated about the inauguration, “My feelings about the president elect are pretty clear but I think there’s a matter of respect for the office and respect for the constitutional process”.

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 1.21.10 PM.png
Democrats attending the inauguration, such as Trump’s election opponent Hillary Clinton, chose to honor the sacredness of the ritual.

What is sacred for Sen. Durbin and the other Democrats is the peaceful transfer of power and the respect society has for it. Therefore, the Democrats who refused to show up are refusing to participate in a sacred social practice. It is similar to Durkheim’s discussion about initiation and once again the importance of belief in the sacred. Durkheim writes, “In this respect, even those that have a physical form, and are known to us through sense experience, depend on the thought of the faithful who venerate them” (349). Durkheim is stating that it is important for the collective to have faith and believe in the sacred being or ritual. Sen. Durbin is arguing that when the Democrats ignore the sacred inauguration they are endangering society’s belief in democracy and the peaceful transfer of power. It can also be compared to elders not participating in the initiation of a young person into the clan. They are refusing to participate in the renewal of their beliefs and practices.

One of the sacred principles of democracy is that it’s by and for the people, right? 

        Therefore, it is difficult to determine which argument is right because both argue that they are preserving the sacredness of the collective. However, that is the case in American politics. There is a never ending war between political parties and their beliefs. One thing may remain true and that is the sacredness in the peaceful transfer of power. The sacred process of transferring power is a process in which the United States has succeeded since its creation.  



Trump is a divisive figure in American society in more ways than the obvious disagreements over his agenda. Democrats, united in their opposition to him, took action in different ways to express this discontent on the day of his inauguration. The variety of strong reactions were a result of the sacredness of the Inaugural Process; different people had different ideas about how to best honor this ritual. However, the underlying subconscious motivation for their actions was the same: reproduce the collective, the American democracy. This supports our Durkheimian argument for the latent meaning of the inauguration as a way to reproduce the collective and indicates that this latent effect is the common motivator for the diverse reaction seen on this day.



4 thoughts on “The Greater Good: Open to Interpretation

  1. I think your explanation of politicians refusing to attend the inauguration as a form of preserving the sacredness of rituals is very compelling. The language so many used in speaking about the inauguration was distinctly religious, with numerous references being made to the sacred values of our country—the Hillary Clinton tweet you included was a great example. I also agree with your claim that the inauguration ritual latently reproduces the ideals of the nation and its constitution, in addition to its manifest purpose of marking the start of a new president’s office. But I wonder what the Durkheimian consequences are of so many refusing to attend the inauguration. If someone claims that they respect the institution of the inauguration but does not it attend it, aren’t they implicitly rejecting its value, since its only real power is in reproducing and reaffirming a belief in the country? It seems to me that not attending the ceremony constitutes, in the Durkheimian framework, a loss of faith in the inherent power of the collective that the inauguration is meant to strengthen. The Durkheimian analysis seems to lead to a pessimistic conclusion: that the latent collective force uniting the country is waning.


  2. The connection between the lawmakers’ boycott of the inauguration and their belief of the profanity of Trump is very interesting. A question that I initially had when I heard about their boycott (and still have after reading this blog post) is, what is their boycott doing though? You guys claim that their refusal to attend is because they are protecting the sacred collective from a destructive profane being”. But are they not still contributing to the collective that he is now a part of? Are they not still participating in the lawmaking rituals that express our people’s collective belief in democracy and peace? How are they protecting the sacredness of the collective if they are participating in practices that are now tainted with Trump’s profanity? How far does, or should, their boycott extend?
    -Sydney Mathis


  3. Your section on the inauguration as a ritual makes me wonder whether there’s more to the Trump administration’s bizarre insistence that the inauguration was well-attended than mere egotism. If rites are a way to reaffirm the sacred and we think of the office of president as sacred in some sense, then the fact that people would not want to gather to reaffirm that sacredness is more than just an insult Trump is being petty about. It expresses a social reality that genuinely threatens his grip on power.


  4. I found your discussion on the boycott of the inauguration is very interesting, if only because it shows that even people who are part of the same collective (say, Democrats) can have different ideas about what is sacred to them. For some, the sacredness was found in the position, and boycotted the event because of the profanity that Trump was to them, while others attended because they found the event itself and what it represented as sacred, and that not attending would deny the sacredness of the inauguration as a whole.

    On the other camp (the pro-Trump camp), the sacredness of the whole event was not in question, as both the person and the process are sacred to this group (in Durkheimian terms) – as such they vehemently oppose any attempt to discredit the sacredness of the situation, which can be seen in the Trump administration’s insistence that the inauguration was well-attended and drew larger crowds than it actually did, despite photographic and personal evidence to the contrary.


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