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Under Discussion: Democracy Demands More than Your Vote

photograph of protesters occupying Brookyln Bridge

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Democracy’s Demands.

It took roughly thirty minutes for people to start arguing about what to do once reports of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death became public on the evening of September 18th. With fewer than two months left before Election Day, it was not immediately clear that Ginsburg’s replacement could — or should — be rushed through the confirmation process before November 3rd. And many were quick to say, in no uncertain terms, that they thought it inappropriate for the president to nominate another justice, given the political circumstances. Consider this tweet from author and producer Reza Aslan:

Nevertheless, it quickly became clear that partisan interests would indeed take center stage in the final weeks of the election cycle with (eventual nominee) Amy Coney Barrett’s name circulating as a likely contender for the seat even before Ginsburg’s body had been laid to rest. Despite public opinion polls indicating that a consistent majority of voters want the winner of the 2020 presidential election to nominate RBG’s replacement, President Trump and Senate Republicans have worked hard to pack up the Supreme Court before November, nonetheless.

And, despite Mr. Aslan’s September suggestion, nothing has been burned down.

While some protests, both in Washington and at the homes of several Senate leaders, have materialized, the dominant prescription to voice public opinion on the matter has pointed towards one place: the ballot box. In a manner reminiscent of former President Obama’s famous “Don’t boo; vote” call, politicians, pundits, and other media personalities have, with increasing fervor, exhorted the American people to get to the polls. And though it is hard to measure the impact of a “Souls to the Polls” event or a special reunion of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, early calculations suggest that Americans are indeed voting in record-shattering numbers, with voter turnout in 2020 already matching 12% of total voter turnout in 2016.

Of course, for someone specifically interested in voicing their displeasure at the partisan abuse of the currently-vacant SCOTUS seat, pleas to vote in an election that won’t be decided (and whose winners won’t be installed) until well after Judge Barrett becomes Justice Barrett might seem beside the point. Furthermore, even if the timeline were different, the SCOTUS-motivated voter would be casting her ballot in support of a candidate who would also receive support from thousands of other voters and it’s far from clear that the entire group would be voting for exactly the same reasons. Politicians frequently aim to build coalitions of differently-motivated voters for precisely this reason: opinions vary, not only about answers to political questions, but about which questions are most important to ask in the first place. For all its virtues, the “one vote, one voice” mantra fails to account for the unavoidable homogenization of voter’s voices in support for a single candidate.

This is roughly why the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called voting a “trap for fools” that prevents people from exercising their true power as citizens. Championing instead the formation of interest groups that can wield political power about the specific values around which they unify, Sartre saw voting as an institutional mechanism for “serializing” the citizenry into complacent powerlessness. According to Sartre:

“When I vote, I abdicate my power — that is, the possibility everyone has of joining others to form a sovereign group, which would have no need of representatives. By voting I confirm the fact that we, the voters, are always other than ourselves and that none of us can ever desert the seriality in favor of the group, except through intermediaries. For the serialized citizen, to vote is undoubtedly to give his support to a party. But it is even more to vote for voting…that is, to vote for the political institution that keeps us in a state of powerless serialization.”

By assimilating variable support for a panoply of initiatives and desires into the discrete affirmation of only a handful of individual politicians, Sartre saw representative-based voting as a flattening of a person’s public agency.

And, indeed, the drafters of the U.S. Constitution would seem to agree. Writing in the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned about the dangers of public sentiment forming “factions” that could ultimately overthrow the system he and his friends were constructing. To Madison, this was a problem for two reasons: firstly, populist forces could easily be swayed by the manipulative power of demagogues (a point Alexander Hamilton discusses at length in Federalist No. 68), and, secondly, voters could form factions — what Sartre would call “groups” — that would threaten the “various and unequal distribution of property” within the United States. In Federalist No. 10, Madison outlines a defense of what would become the Electoral College as a cooling mechanism that could prevent popular ideas from being quickly turned into federal policy, saying “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.” Indeed, Madison’s “republican remedy” looks strangely similar to Sartre’s “powerless serialization,” but whereas the former views it as a solution to a problem, Sartre sees it as a problem of its own.

But, for all their disagreements, I think that Madison and Sartre would nevertheless agree on at least one thing: the practice of voting is not the chief duty of a democratic citizen. When not plagued by manipulative efforts to suppress voter turnout, the standard electoral process is a relatively easy responsibility that takes — again, in ideal circumstances — only a short amount of time every few years. But Sartre ridiculed those who “have been persuaded that the only political act in my life consists of depositing my ballot in the box once every four years,” arguing instead that the life of the political agent is suffused with a constant responsibility to attend to, speak up about, and organize both supports and protests in service of public issues.

In a similar way, later in his life, Madison defended not only public education, but specifically for “the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property” so that, among other things, the electorate would be both more informed and more equipped to engage in political life; indeed, to Madison, the operation of such “learned institutions” to enlighten the public is “the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.” So, for both Madison and Sartre, politics was not simply a matter of semi-annually marking a ballot, but required diligent, regular attention to important matters of public concern, educating oneself and others so as to bring about the overall best state of affairs.

To be clear: my point is not to cast doubt on the value of suffrage, but to recognize that whatever virtues (pragmatic or otherwise) it may hold, the general election does not exhaust the duties of a responsible citizen in a modern democracy. Protestors, educators, and other servants of civic welfare who care for justice to be understood and upheld are just as crucial for the vibrant operation of our republic as are poll workers and voters.

As Hamilton himself wrote in The Farmer Refuted, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature.” Democratic citizens who take that identity seriously should exercise these human rights and responsibilities in ways that far exceed the always-soon-to-be-musty ballot box.

AMC, Face Masks, and Avoiding Political Controversy

photograph of empty movie theater with lights up

American cinema giant AMC made waves on social media recently when announcing its policies regarding the wearing of face masks in its theaters. Like a lot of businesses that are planning to reopen during the easing of restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, AMC initially stated that they would take preventative measures in spacing out patrons in movie theaters and requiring employees to wear masks. Controversy arose, however, after the CEO Adam Aron reported what the chain’s stance would be with regards to requirements on the moviegoers themselves, one he stated in an interview with Variety:

“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” said Aron. “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example.”

Soon afterwards, however, the company reversed course. In a press release, they stated that in response to “an intense and immediate outcry” from their customers, and “with the full support of our scientific advisors” that they would instead be requiring all guests to wear masks in their theatres. Indeed, as wearing masks is considered by experts to be a good way to help prevent the spread of the virus, especially in enclosed spaces like movie theatres, AMC’s update policies appear to be a step in a better direction.

While AMC’s updated policy is one that better reflects current scientific advice, it is somewhat disheartening that the outcry had to occur for them to change their policies. However, Aron stated that what motivated AMC’s initial policy decisions was not necessarily a distrust of the recommendations of scientists, but rather an attempt to avoid a “political controversy” (of course, one might also read this as “an attempt to avoid losing customers who don’t want to wear masks”).

Say that an issue is politicized if one’s stance on it is a marker of a certain social or political identity. Politicized issues are not hard to find. Consider recent discussions in the US and the UK with regards to the removal of statues of figures who engaged in the slave trade: one’s stance on whether statues should be taken down or preserved can be taken as markers of one’s position on the left- or right-wing of the political spectrum, respectively. Many scientific issues in particular have also become politicized: one’s stance on global warming, for instance, will typically cause others to categorize one as being more left-wing if they accept the scientific consensus, or right-wing if they reject it.

It is perhaps not surprising that in America the wearing of masks has become a subject of political controversy, with those who refuse to wear masks tending to be more on the conservative end of the spectrum. Motivations for refusing to wear a mask include a belief that the dangers of the virus have been overstated, and that a mandate to wear a mask is perceived to be a violation of personal rights (at least in the minimal sense that one believes one should not be required by the government to do things one does not want to do). It seems clear that when it comes to scientific matters, what one ought to do is to follow the best available advice from the scientific experts. And, of course, there are important moral concerns surrounding how a refusal to wear a mask can put others at risk of serious harm. These are all important issues that have been and will continue to be discussed for a long time. And because the issue of wearing face masks has become politicized, these discussions will inevitably be political in nature: in taking a stance on the issue one risks being affiliated with progressive or conservative views, and thus risks offending those who do not accept such views.

But let’s say that you don’t really want to take a political stance. Maybe you’re exhausted by the endless debates, and fighting, or maybe you just really don’t want to risk making anyone mad at you by taking a side. You might be sick of all the politics, and just want to sit this one out. Can’t you do that?

This is perhaps what the CEO of AMC was trying to accomplish, and as the backlash to their attempts to avoid taking a political stance indicates, the answer appears to be that remaining neutral was not an option. While it may be one’s intention to avoid taking a stance on an issue that has become politicized, in some cases refusing to take a stance will itself place one on the political spectrum. In AMC’s case, while the choice to leave it up to moviegoers to decide whether to wear masks may have been intended to be politically neutral, that one should not be mandated to wear a mask is precisely the stance associated with the political right. Additionally, while it may have again been intended to not take sides on the scientific issue of whether masks are good preventative measures, given that the current recommendations by scientific experts is that people ought to wear masks in public, letting one’s customers decide again constitutes a rejection of the scientific consensus.

You might think that it is unfair to drag someone into a politicized dispute that they did not want to be part of. To which one might respond: too bad. Consider the following analogy: say that you and I are sitting in a dark room, arguing over whether we should turn the lights on. We both get tired of arguing, and decide that, to avoid further conflict, we will both refuse to take sides. In doing so, however, we have committed to a side, whether we wanted to or not: as a result of our refusing to decide, the lights remain off.

This is obviously a simple analogy for more complex situations. But what it shows is that controversies over politicized issues are not always the kinds of the things that one can avoid. Sometimes neutral ground just doesn’t exist.

Expert Suspicion: Arendt and the “Public Space”

photograph of Open Ohio protesters

In the opening days of May, health care workers reported nearly 100,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the United States; in that same time, several thousand patients died of the disease. Nevertheless, as of May 4th, at least nine states have begun to loosen restrictions on movement in public spaces placed in response to the coronavirus outbreak, reopening beaches, restaurants, gyms, and other “nonessential” businesses.

As shouted by protestors from Arizona to Wisconsin to the White House, one explanation for rolling back the pandemic response, despite the spread of the pandemic itself showing no signs of slowing, is that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease.” Since March, more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment and these numbers indicate only a fraction of the economic fallout from the enforced quarantines. Thus far, almost no industry—from entertainment, to higher education, to oil production, and more—has escaped unaffected and, particularly with the globe teetering on the edge of a recession, it is far from clear what sort of long-term consequences of the shutdown lie ahead.

Certainly, with their tendency towards ultra-militarized displays of aggression and their often-explicitly racist messaging,  there is much that is inexcusable about many lockdown protests, but when CNN’s Don Lemon says that people unhappy with the lockdowns just “want a haircut” or “want to go play golf,” he seems to be unfairly painting all complaints about the shutdowns as if they are as ignorant as those clearly silly concerns. A “nonessential” locally-owned art gallery or specialty construction company forced to close to prevent the spread of the disease might, nevertheless, feel terribly “essential” to the people whose livelihoods depend on those businesses being open.

Of course, medical experts agree that easing “social distancing” restrictions at this point is premature and could very well lead to an even more serious spread of the virus. The moral calculation of “millions going bankrupt” against “tens of thousands dying” is not a problem I – or, indeed, anyone – could hope to easily solve. Both of these outcomes are clearly unacceptable and most policymakers around the world seem to be trying to chart a course between Scylla and Charybdis that keeps both threats as low as possible, simultaneously. But conversations about the pandemic seem to typically prioritize only one of these two political concerns (“saving citizens’ livelihoods” vs. “saving citizens’ lives”) at a time.

Much has been said recently (including by me) about “expertise in the time of COVID-19.” Certainly, spreading pseudo- and anti-scientific information is dangerous (particularly during a pandemic) and we should think carefully about how we think about the coronavirus. Trusting experts in matters of public health and safety is a crucial part of living in a large, well-functioning society like ours—pretending otherwise, even for looming existential concerns, is simply irresponsible. But, particularly for people whose exposure to the pandemic has been primarily economic—such as those citizens in less-populated states where the spread of the virus has thankfully been less severe—it can be understandably off-putting to have your most salient personal political concerns belittled (or even morally condemned) for the sake of other political concerns, no matter how objectively important both sets of concerns may be. To denigrate your perspective for the sake of “listening to the experts” (when the perspective of those experts is simply orthogonal to your concerns) might well only serve to provoke a backfire effect that leads primarily to greater levels of frustration at the experts being touted and suspicion of the information they share.

This, I take it, was one thing that the philosopher Hannah Arendt was concerned to avoid by her treatment of politics not simply as a process of governmental operations, but as “the place and activity of shared communication based on the distinct perspectives of equal human beings.” Rather than treat politics or political decision-making as an activity properly performed by specially-trained experts, Arendt argued that wherever people gather together “in the manner of speech and action,” they create a community with power to accomplish their political purposes. In her book, The Human Condition, Arendt explains how the development and preservation of public spaces wherein we can politically engage with each other is both a fundamental element of the human experience and a necessary precondition for civic freedom. Importantly, by “public space” Arendt does not just mean physical locations, but rather the realm of discourse wherein perspectives and concerns can be expressed, challenged, debated, and legitimated. When governments seek to restrict and restrain these sociological structures, they begin to take what she calls a “totalitarian” form, thereby precipitating all manner of further oppressions and human rights abuses (on this, see her The Origins of Totalitarianism).

Just to be clear: I do not mean to suggest that Arendt would necessarily be opposed to a mandated lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (and I certainly do not mean that Dr. Fauci or other healthcare workers are totalitarian oppressors!). Of course, Arendt held no principled animus against experts as such; she simply recognized that their expertise would have to be shared within the public space wherein others would be able to respond. Artificially constraining the operation of that public space—even for demonstrably moral purposes—is a necessarily troublesome notion. And from the perspective of people concerned about the dire economic consequences of the lockdown, forcing a conversational shift to a discussion of mortality rates and other healthcare issues might come off as just such a constraining move.

So, I think that Arendt’s realistic analysis of how our perspectives shape our participation in political structures can help to explain some of the curious disagreements about the response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the all-too-common tension in conversations about what we should do next. The clash of perspectives over what is “clearly the right thing to do” cannot simply be resolved with reference to a particular statistic (economic or scientific), but requires the sort of free speech and effortful conversation that Arendt considered fundamental to the human condition.

(I also want to note: I sorely wish that Arendt could respond to President Trump’s widely rejected assertion that “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total,” but that’s a different conversation!)

Meaning in Political Discourse

image of "Marxist" black-and-white label

Political polarization has become an important issue in recent years. On matters of public policy it seems like there is little room for rational conversation when people of different political stripes cannot agree on the same basic facts. Solutions to the problem of polarization are likely to be as complex and as plural as the causes of the problem, but there is one issue that may be an important starting point: meaning. A lack of clarity in the meaning of certain terms in political discussion only weakens our ability to engage in fruitful dialog. It fragments our political culture and encourages us to continue to talk past one another. If refining the meanings of our words helps to improve our political discussions, then the issue takes on a moral importance as well as a logical one.

For the first example, let’s consider what the term “socialist” means. The issue has become important as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has at times used terms like “socialist” or “democratic socialist” to describe his positions. Yet according to some he is not a socialist at all, he is a democratic socialist and not a regular socialist, or perhaps he is not a democratic socialist but a social democrat, or still others insist that he is not a socialist but an all-out Marxist. Why is it so difficult for us to decide what Sanders is? Debates about the finer points separating these different views are not new; political ideologues have argued about these distinctions for years. However, much of these debates has always centered on articulating a position relative to an entire political and metaphysical philosophy.

For example, the historical materialism of Marx and Engels was the philosophical driving force behind Marxism. It held that history and society is largely structured by matter, by the control of material forces, rather than ideas or ideals. Borrowing from Hegelian thought, this historical materialism will result in the end of history; historical change is driven by class conflict and will end with the elimination of class: communism. Such philosophical views not only affected Soviet economic thinking, but their thinking about everything else. For example, Soviet science initially rejected genetics since the notion that an inherited trait made an organism better than others ran counter to the Marxist understanding of history and nature.

But terms like socialist, communist, democratic socialist, social democrat are, in many ways, now divorced from these larger philosophical systems. Instead they have been giving new meanings and associations in contemporary contexts. This is important. For example, some try to distinguish between socialism and communism purely in terms of what governments should enact as policy. Communism means the elimination of all property, socialism allows for the retention of varying forms of private markets we are told. While this may be partially true, it wouldn’t be how a Soviet communist in 1920 would have understood the term. But here in 2006 Sanders defines democratic socialism in terms of making sure that income isn’t a barrier to healthcare, education, and a clean environment. Sanders tends to refer to policies not philosophies when situating himself on the political spectrum.

If these terms no longer refer to specific systems, then the meaning of such terms becomes fuzzy. Sanders doesn’t seem to mind using any of these terms so long as he can redefine them in terms consistent with policies that he supports; the label is of secondary importance. This may be why he continues to use terms like “socialist” and “democratic socialist” interchangeably. Little distinguishes him policy-wise from self-proclaimed capitalist Elizabeth Warren or from FDR, except additional rhetoric. But the looseness of such terms can only serve to create confusion and room for empty political name-calling. It is problematic to take concepts which had their original meaning embedded in a 19th century philosophy and place them in a 21st century context. If something sounds vaguely like what the Soviets would do, then you are labeled a “communist.” Given this tendency toward oversimplification, we must be vigilant about how we use such terms moving forward. The real question we should ask ourselves is whether favoring policies of universal healthcare or education constitute necessary or sufficient conditions for using terms like “communist” or “socialist.”

Another example of unclear meaning creating problems can be found in a term like “social construct.” Originally coming out of sociology, social constructivism examines the ways in which society and social interaction structures our understanding of reality. Like “socialism” it emerged from academia operating under certain methodological and philosophical principles, and like “socialism” the term can be understood in several different, complicated ways. At one end of the spectrum social constructivism might hold that how we understand and use concepts is socially influenced while at another end it may hold that our entire understanding of reality is socially determined; the world is the way society says the world is.

It is often noted that gender and race are social constructs, but how is the term “social construct” being used and why is it controversial? Those who insist that there are only two genders, for instance, will tend to argue that biology tells us that we are born with XX or XY chromosomes and that this is all that matters. Part of this political conflict is a matter of epistemic and metaphysical disagreement. A hard realist about epistemology may hold that there is only one way that the world is, and that science is the path to find objective truths about it; social factors only get in the way. To their way of understanding it, only the two-gender theory “carves nature at its joints” so to speak. Social influences, including all of the values, perspectives, and experiences that come with them, only serve to lead to biased or subjective science. Thus, any discussion of more than two genders can be accused of engaging in mere “political correctness” (another poorly defined term) or ideology.

But one does not need to understand “social construct” in this way. Social influences and interactions, practical concerns, and even values, can affect the way we understand and study a topic without falling into complete epistemic relativism. For example, in her book Studying Human Behavior Helen Longino argues that different scientific approaches to studying human behavior do not all agree about what constitutes an environmental causal factor and what constitutes a biological causal factor. To some extent how we divide the world up into what constitutes a behavior, what is environmental, and what is biological is a social construct, but that does not imply that the end conclusion is simply made up or that accepting the findings of any given approach constitutes only subjective or ideological agreement.

Yet, unfortunately the notion persists that social construction implies subjectivity. For instance, Joshua Keating of Smithsonian Magazine notes that time is a social construct. Social interaction influences our understanding of concepts like minutes and seconds, “being early”, “late”, “fashionably late”, or “workday.” Yet he notes, “Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance if not outright resistance.” But there is no good reason to accept the conclusion that simply because a concept is (at least partially) a social construct, it is therefore subjective.

As philosopher Ray Lepley notes, our interests and desires do not confer value, they create value in interaction with reality. The way we understand and use the concept of time has (generally) proved itself objectively well at allowing us to navigate our environment in ways that are relevant to our society. For other societies a different understanding of time may prove itself objectively good at allowing them to navigate their environment. When different societies interact, it creates new problems for our established ways of tracking time that need to be worked out.

On the other hand, socially constructed terms can be merely subjective in the sense that they do not allow us to successfully interact with the world. For example, Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist tells us that race is a social construct in the sense that it is a socially-created concept that does not allow us to predict factors like intelligence or explain innate differences between peoples and populations. Empirically, it is an empty concept. So long as we avoid understanding the terms “social construct” and “reality” in mutually exclusive ways, questions like: How many genders there should be? work themselves out empirically over time as various societies, (and sub-societies,) and their environments all continue to interact with each other. Thus, as long as we clarify the meaning of these terms, we can have conversations about these topics and discuss the merits of using concepts without talking past one another or worry that one side is merely trying to instill their ideology over others.

There are countless other extremely loaded terms which can be used to create arguments to attack others while avoiding serious debate and discussion. What do terms like “political correctness”, “liberal,” “democratic,” “conservative”, or “fascist” mean in their 21st century contexts? These questions are not new. Early analytic philosophers concerned about the rise of nationalist and racist beliefs in Europe argued that clarifying meaning could help resolve political questions. It is still worth taking up the task today.

Political Incivility, Justified?

Photograph of many people holding signs at a political rally

“Civility” has been in the news recently. Stories of allegedly uncivil behavior in politics have received much coverage. The most recent event to kick off so much consternation was the decision of the owner of the Red Hen Restaurant in Virginia to refuse to service to Press Secretary Sarah Sanders because of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy and the President’s desire to ban transgender people from serving in the military. Even more recently, Maxine Waters, a Democratic congressperson, told rally attendees that protestors should take even more confrontational steps against Administration officials—confronting them as they go about their daily lives pumping gas, shopping, or eating in restaurants. The President himself has been accused many times of acting uncivilly towards others. One need only browse his past tweets to see comments using demeaning and insulting language to describe individuals he views as enemies of himself or his administration. Continue reading “Political Incivility, Justified?”