Monday, June 12, 2017

Remarks on Democracy

Philipp Folz (ca. 1877), Pericles's Funeral Oration. Via Eidolon Publishing.

Thornton writes:
1. Democracy = people consciously choosing candidates based on policy preferences.
2. I can't go on if we don't live in a democracy.
3. People consciously choose candidates based on policy preferences.
I wholeheartedly agree with point 2. The reasoning behind point 2 is why I believe in free will.
Nonetheless, I disagree with your conclusion. I reject point one.
An ecosystem can (and does) capture carbon without believing in global warming.
The idea that voting behavior leads to human flourishing because voters consciously choose political representatives who promise and deliver pro-human flourishing policies is a hypothesis. It is a hypothesis that deeply and obviously reflects theories of human behavior dreamt up by elites centuries ago. Based on provenance alone we can judge it likely false. Empirical observation confirms this.
When Vox goes into the Achen and Bartels Democracy for Realists theory they come to the despair you reject. But what they actually conclude is not intrinsically bad: the way we frame politics has enormous power over how politics functions. The reason they think this is depressing is because they are media (Vox) and academics (Achen and Bartels) and framing is the result of institutions that they are desperate to have remain unchanged: the media and the academy.
I deny being a victim of your premise 1: that's a straw man. As I said, I'm aware that Bill Clinton and Obama didn't win based on policy ideas but because they were the best-looking and smoothest performers, just as much as Reagan over Carter or Bush over Gore. To me the idea is no more than aspirational; ideally, that's how we'd try to choose, and in the real world, it's how we like to think of ourselves, not too truthfully, but not so bad.

What inclines me to despair in this is the post-Trump reflection that things are as bad as we thought when Reagan was elected and even a lot worse. And I think the same applies to Matty and Achen and Bartels—I'm not saying there's no connection between this situation and the doom of the media and the academy, but I don't think they're entirely conscious of that, except in the general sense that Matty's well aware he's working for clicks.

Specifically, the despair is about the fear that Trump's campaign style is the right way to do it—that it's not only possible for Trump to win but practically inevitable (I can't get over how dismissive of the conventions of the field it all was, especially how little advertising money they needed to spend and how little organizing they bothered to do, staging the whole thing like a kind of concert tour), that the way to win is to emulate him by eliminating all content altogether except for the inflammatory judgment words, by conducting it as a tribal pep rally of love for ourselves and hatred for an enemy with no more basis than a sports rivalry but no healthy outlet for the violence of the mood we chant ourselves into. That the best option for us, as liberals or whatever you want to call it (I'm going back to feeling affectionate about "liberals") is to pick some anti-Trump—neither Mark Cuban, say, or for that matter Bernie Sanders, who really did do the repetition and demonization (but the people he demonized were mostly genuinely reprehensible), is shocking enough—to run the same campaign Trump did on the other side, based on the ability to get free media. Maybe Kim Kardashian (I like her foreign policy views, serious, I mean she really has some, or at least one, and she's right on that).

But I feel the framing at this intensity just eliminates our free will as voters altogether. And also that the Constitution has really failed in this election, because it should have prevented Trump from getting in at all, as something quantumly different from Reagan or Bush (not because he's a bad person or has bad thoughts, which he does, but because of his business and its conflicts—glad to see the Maryland and DC attorneys general working to prove me wrong).

Indeed, that carbon-capture analogy sounds like you're suggesting an elegant and subversive Darwinian idea. You think democracy is more adaptive, like sexual selection in biology, in that the broad-based popular leader-selection process necessarily brings out a lot of mutations? Through which the society is enabled to evolve, but the process is randomized and outside the society's intentional awareness? So that society copes better the way plant species get better without being conscious of it, simply by thoughtlessly surrendering to its unexpressed desires and letting the selection system take its course?

Maybe over the kalpa cycle, you know, but I don't think voting would have anything to do with that, it's too small in scale. Cultural contact, perhaps, as in the rich intercultural confrontations in late-Roman Britain, at the same time (as it happens) as something similar was going on in China between the Han and their neighbors, especially to the northwest—the confrontation of cultures supplying them with fresh mutant memes.

I also deny strongly that voting vs. autocracy has a direct beneficial effect on human flourishing. I think democracy is preferable for moral reasons, not economic ones; I think humble Costa Rica is a better place than rich China. That's what I mean by the liberal idea that everybody should have a voice. It's clearly not the most effective form of government—though it's less likely to lead to total disaster is than an absolute monarchy when the good king has a son who turns out to be a psychopath, as always happens sooner or later—but it's the one that doesn't presuppose some well-born asshole is better than me.

That said, of course I'd like my voice to contribute to society flourishing and I think my ideas are better than yours and all that shit, and that Athenian conversation should play a role in what government does, no doubt. That's a whole different issue: the Burkeans are right, all this work would go better if it were more local, but then we need to do such big things, like building airplanes or maintaining group insurance.

I think those institutions you worry about, media and academy, are complex. It's horrible how they have become dominated by the privileged in recent decades, but that's not the only thing they are. Some of them fall into despair at the bending of the political system into corruption and click wars, others cause it. They are, as you suggest, certainly breaking down in any case, can't survive in their current forms, and you and I are swimming cheerfully in the same wave as the one that's drowning them. More on that to come, I guess.

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