Nonconsensual Democracy

Portrait caricatureWe don’t have democracy in the U.S. People often respond to this observation with the somewhat patronizing explanation that no, of course we do not. What we have in the U.S., they explain, is a “republic,” or a “democratic republic.” That isn’t what I mean, however, when I say we don’t have democracy in the U.S. Qualifying the U.S. as a democratic republic does not avoid the issue of the necessity of the representation of the popular will in political decision making because, a “republic,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a state, or form of government “in which power rests with the people or their representatives.” That is, our “representatives” are supposed to “represent” our combined political will. And yet, they rarely do that.

Poll after poll had shown that the majority of Americans want universal healthcare. Bill Clinton promised to provide such healthcare, but failed to deliver it. Obama promised this as well, but Obamacare, while an improvement on the system that preceded it, still falls short of what Americans really want.

Universal healthcare isn’t the only thing Americans want that they do not currently have. There are lots of other things they want, things such as a better system of public education, free higher education, a better infrastructure, a living minimum wage, a crackdown on the abuses of the financial industry, etc., etc. People aren’t going to get any of these things, though, because they have no influence over the political process.

The problem is twofold. First, it is the sheer stupidity of a large portion of the American electorate that allows itself to be brainwashed by political propaganda the relentless message of which is that the things they want (and which are available in other countries) are not possible. Second, it is the willingness of an equally large, if not even larger portion, of the electorate to be bullied into voting for the “lesser evil” of two candidates, neither of whom represents what they want.

The simple truth is that democracy cannot work if people allow their votes to be determined by ignorance and or fear. The foundation of democracy is the Enlightenment ideal of rational self determination. Human beings, argued Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, are inherently rational. This means not only that they are capable of making intelligent decisions concerning how they want to live their lives, but also that they cannot achieve full humanity if they are not allowed the freedom to make these decisions. That human beings are rational requires that we respect them as such and endeavor to organize society in a way that will allow them to fulfill their distinctively human potential for self governance. Political democracy is an outgrowth of this insight. A person’s vote is the means by which he expresses his political will, his consent to certain ideals of social governance.

There has been a lot written lately about consent because of what appears to be an epidemic of sexual assault on college and university campuses. Can a young woman “consent” to sexual intercourse if the person “requesting” it has drugged her, or has threatened violence against her? Is she “consenting” if she “puts out” because she is too weak and addled to resist, or if she is simply afraid of having her head bashed in? Most people easily see that when “consent” is coerced in such ways, it is not really consent.

Few people seem to understand these otherwise straightforward aspects of consent when consent is placed in a political context. Voters are bombarded with propaganda to the effect that what they want is not possible. Many are so swayed by this propaganda that they can no longer think clearly about the issues to which it relates. The purpose of propaganda is precisely to circumvent rational thought. It works like a drug, depriving those it influences of autonomous judgment. Of course, people conclude, if these things were possible, then we would all do our best to see that they became actual, but, alas, they are not possible, so to work for them is a waste of time.

Is that sort of resignation the expression of an autonomous will? The answer is obviously no. Such people are acting from ignorance, not knowledge. If they knew that what they wanted was possible, they would take steps to achieve it. But they have been misinformed. They have been told it would be counterproductive to pursue such things and since no one wants to waste his energies, they refashion their political hopes to what they are told is more reasonable. A person whose judgment is clouded by a fog of propaganda cannot give informed consent to a political platform any more than a person who has been drugged can give such consent to sex.

But wait, there’s more. Not everyone is taken in by political propaganda. Some people know that not only are the political changes they want possible, they are genuine realities in other parts of the world. A special indignity is reserved for people who dare to keep their political wits about them despite the fact that they are bombarded with propaganda designed to undermine them. These people get to be fully conscious participants in their own degradation. Okay, respond the powers that be, you go ahead and vote your conscience, vote for someone who promises to bring about the kinds of changes you want. You know what will happen? You will get someone far, FAR worse than the “moderate” candidate you deem not good enough for you. The rest of the electorate, the sonorous voice continues, is not so forward thinking as you are. You will be “wasting your vote” on a candidate who doesn’t have a chance, and in that way, you will ensure that your worst political nightmares will come true.

It’s as if your date, upon realizing that the drug he’d given you hadn’t worked, threatens to beat the hell out of you if you refuse to have sex with him and then have sex with you against your will anyway. You can “consent” to something horrific, or you can refuse to consent and endure something even worse.

If you give in to such threats, have you consented to having sex with the person who made them? The answer is pretty clearly no. You’ve been violated every bit as much as if you had simply been taken against your will. In fact, one could argue that there is more dignity in resistance than in giving in because if you give in, not only have you been violated by someone else, you have, in a sense, betrayed yourself as well.

People who vote for the lesser of two evils aren’t expressing their political will in any kind of meaningful sense. They are acting out of fear. They’re not approving of the platform of the candidate they “choose.” They are merely expressing disapproval of the platform of the bogey man with which they have been threatened. They have surrendered their autonomy to fear. The weak minded have their autonomy stolen from them by the insidious drug of propaganda. Those who are more temperate and level headed have it wrested from them at knife point, so to speak.

Why do I insist on voting my conscience in the face of imminent political disaster, I’ve been asked again and again. My answer is always the same: Because it is the only way democracy can actually work. If people allow their political vision to be clouded by propaganda, or surrender their autonomy to their fear of an unthinkable future, then it doesn’t matter how many people turn out to vote because the votes themselves are not an expression of the popular will, but merely of ignorance and fear. And the result of those votes is a foregone conclusion they have had no positive part in determining.

(This piece originally appeared in the 7 March 2016 issue of Counterpunch under the title “Nonconsensual Democracy and the Degradation of the American Electorate.)

 

 

 

 

On Political “Realism”

Portrait caricatureI have a lot of liberal friends who like the ideas of universal healthcare, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, but who support Clinton, rather than Sanders because they think she is more “realistic.” I’m talking about educated people, people who have spent time in countries that have these things and so have first-hand knowledge of their feasibility. Someday, these people tell me, someday we will have these things, but the country is not ready for them yet. They argue that they are being “realistic.” I would argue, however, that they’re not being realistic; they’re being idiotic. That is, their position isn’t even coherent.

Now the cynic, the cynic has a coherent position. It’s not one I like, but it’s coherent anyway. The cynic thinks everyone is stupid. The cynic says Americans will never be ready for such things because they’re mean spirited as well as stupid. They don’t want other people to have decent lives, they want people to suffer, they want it so much that they will allow that desire to override their own individual self-interest, if they only realized that the programs they opposed were in their interest.

Most people don’t realize the social programs they oppose are in their own interest and not simply the interest of masses of spectral “freeloaders,” but even if they did, the cynic explains, they wouldn’t support them because they get so much pleasure from seeing other people suffer that in their own perverse utilitarian calculations, that pleasure outweighs the pain caused to themselves by the absence of such programs.

I told you it was an unattractive position. It is at least coherent, though, in contrast to the position of many Clinton supporters. As a philosopher, I feel compelled to point out that if a person wants to achieve some goal, then he or she must take action to bring about that goal. Assuming one will achieve it without having to work for it, amounts to the view that it will happen all by itself, and that violates the principle of sufficient reason, which is the assertion that nothing happens for no reason. When the goals in question are things such as universal healthcare, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, then the action required of the person who desires to bring these things about, is that he or she vote for politicians who promise to work for them.

Believing that one day we will get a single-payer healthcare system, a living minimum wage, and free higher education even though people who like the idea of such programs are unwilling to vote for candidates who support them is not simply unrealistic – its fantastical! It’s a kind of supernaturalism, like the belief in Santa Claus. Clinton won’t support such things, no mainstream Democratic political candidate will support them, but we’ll get them one day anyway? How? Via the agency of the Good Healthcare Fairy? Santa Living Minimum Wage? The Free Higher Education Bunny?

Is Sanders’ problem that he doesn’t have a flowing white beard and flaming hair? Would Clinton supporters who profess to be liberals then recognize in Sanders the messiah for whom they appear to be waiting, the politician who will not have to fight an intractable Congress, but will be able to command it to do his bidding, like Charleton Heston commanding the waters of the Red Sea to part?

Wow, talk about “unrealistic”; that’s outright delusional. Why isn’t Richard Dawkins going after these people? They’re every bit as irrational as religious fundamentalists, if not more so. There’s a kind of bizarre logic to fundamentalism, but I don’t see any logic at all to the position of most Clinton supporters, except, that is, for the ones who are Republicans and who view Clinton as the best of a sorry field of political conservatives.

It’s hard to tell exactly what has gone wrong with the higher cognitive functions of Clinton supporters (the ones who purport to be liberal, I mean). Does the irrationality stem from an inherent inability to see the incoherencies in their own position? Or does it stem from a fear that if they actually support Sanders and he doesn’t win (either the nomination or the presidency, it doesn’t matter), that people will laugh at them? There is hardly anything more shameful in the U.S., after all, than losing. Even cheating is smiled at indulgently if the cheater can manage to win.

Winning is everything. It doesn’t matter that an enormously persuasive case has already been made that Sanders would have a much greater chance than Clinton of actually winning the presidential election, there is still a chance he might not. On the other hand, you can’t really lose if you support Clinton (except in the eyes of people who actually know how to think), because even if she loses you can always claim it was because of sexism!

That’s what happens when politics becomes so partisan that it’s indistinguishable from a sporting event. But then I’m not being fair to sports. I know die-hard fans of particular sports teams who are capable of acknowledging when their teams are performing badly, as well as of analyzing why and what they need to do to improve.

So there we are, either Clinton supporters are cowards, people whose self esteem is so low that they will allow their fear of being laughed at to override their higher cognitive functions, or they’re irredeemably stupid and are incapable of seeing the incoherence in voting for someone who opposes things they profess to want, while persisting in believing that we will one day get these things anyway, without having to vote for a candidate who promises them.

It’s rare that the realism of purported “idealism” stands out so clearly as it does in this election. If people want things such as a single-payer healthcare system, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, then they’re going to have to vote for candidates who support them, rather than for candidates who oppose them. It’s as simple as that.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in Counterpunch, on 22 February 2016.)