A course on democracy and intolerance

I am teaching a brand new honors course at my university called “Democracy and the politics of division and hate”. The course focuses on the question of the relationship between democracy and intolerance. As any reader of the world’s news outlets knows, intolerance and bigotry have become ever-more prominent themes in the politics of Western democracies – France, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, and – yes, the United States. These movements put the values of a liberal democracy to the test.

Here is the course description:

Democracy has been understood as a setting where equal citizens collectively make decisions about law and public policy in an environment of equality, fairness, and mutual respect. Political theorists from Rousseau to JS Mill to Rawls have attempted to define the conditions that make a democratic civil society possible. Today the world’s democracies are challenged by powerful political movements based on intolerance and division. How should democratic theory respond to the challenge of hate-based political movements? The course reexamines classic ideas in democratic theory, current sociological research on hate-based populism, and current strategies open to citizens in the twenty-first century to reclaim the values of tolerance and respect in their democratic institutions. The course is intended to provide students with better intellectual resources for understanding the political developments currently transforming societies as diverse as the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, India, and Nigeria.

The organizing idea is that democratic theorists have generally conceived of a democracy as a polity in which a sense of civic unity is cultivated that ensures a common commitment to the formal and substantive values of a democratic society — the equal worth and rights of all citizens, the rule of law, adherence to the constitution, and respect for the institutions of collective decision-making. (Josh Cohen provided an excellent analysis of Rousseau’s core philosophical ideas about democracy in Rousseau: A Free Community of Equalslink.) John Rawls captures this idea in Political Liberalism, where he introduces the idea of “political liberalism”:

A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines…. Political liberalism assumes that, for political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime. Political liberalism also supposes that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine does not reject the essentials of a democratic regime. (xvi)

This formulation is intended to capture the idea that a democracy always embraces groups of people who disagree about important things. These conflicting value frameworks are what he refers to as “comprehensive doctrines of the good”, and a liberal democracy is neutral among reasonable comprehensive doctrines.

So what is a “reasonable comprehensive doctrine”? Rawls’s conception amounts to precisely this: all such doctrines maintain a commitment to “the essentials of a democratic regime”. He refers to comprehensive doctrines that reject these commitments to political justice as irrational and “mad”:

Of course, a society may also contain unreasonable and irrational, and even mad, comprehensive doctrines. In their case the problem is to contain them so that they do not undermine the unity and justice of society. (xvi)

But here is an important point: Rawls seems to have a robust confidence in the idea that a society that satisfies the conditions of justice and political liberalism will evolve towards a greater degree of civic unity. This seems to imply that he believes that individuals and groups who adhere to their “unreasonable, irrational, and mad” comprehensive doctrines will be led to change their beliefs over time and will gradually come to accept the democratic consensus.

The problem that we consider in the course is that democratic societies seem to have evolved in the opposite direction: doctrines that reject the legitimacy of the fundamentals of liberal democracy (respect for the equality of all citizens and respect for the rule of law) — these doctrines appear to have rapidly gained ground in many democracies in Europe and now the United States. Instead of converging towards a “democratic consensus” where everyone recognizes the legitimacy, equality, and rights of all other citizens, many democracies have developed powerful political movements that reject all these commitments. These are the political movements of division and hate — or the movements of right-wing populism. Democracy depends fundamentally on the principle of tolerance of points of view different from our own. Does that mean that democracy must be “tolerant of the intolerant”, with no effective means of protecting its values and institutions against groups that would subvert its most basic principles?

So how do we take on this set of issues, which involve both political philosophy and the sociology of political mobilization and political psychology?

The course begins by immersing the students in some of the values that define democracy.We begin with John Stuart Mill’s short but influential 1859book, On Liberty. Mill postulates the equal worth and liberties of all citizens, and argues that a good democracy involves rule by the majority while scrupulously protecting the equal rights and freedoms of all citizens. (Notice the close agreement between this theory and the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which we also read.) We then consider the theory of a liberal society put forward by John Rawls in Political Liberalism, where Rawls argues that a democracy depends fundamentally upon a culture of respect for the equal worth and equal rights and liberties of all citizens. This implies that perhaps democracy cannot survive in the absence of such a culture.

This is the positive theory of democracy, as several centuries of philosophers have developed it.

Next we turn to the challenges these theories face in the contemporary world: the rise of hate-based populism in Europe and the United States, and the rising prevalence of racism, bigotry, and violence in many countries. And this is not just a Western problem — think of India, the world’s largest democracy, and the governing party’s inculcation of hate and violence against Muslims. Anti-semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and white supremacy are on the rise. The Front Nationale in France, the Alternative for Germany, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are all examples of political parties that have developed mass followings with appeals based on racism and division, and similar parties exist in most other European countries. And white supremacist organizations in the United States make the same appeals in our country as well.

The hard question for us is this: can our liberal democracies find ways of coping with intolerance and hate? Can we reassert the values of civility and mutual respect in ways that build a greater consensus around the values of democracy? Does a democracy have the ability to defend itself against parties who reject the moral premises of democracy?

The assigned readings in the course include several excellent and thought-provoking books from philosophy, sociology, and political theory. We begin with Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser’s book Populism: A Very Short Introduction, which gives an excellent short overview of the phenomenon of rightwing populism in Europe and the United States, along with a good discussion of the challenge of defining the concept of populism.

We then turn to two weeks on McAdam and Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America, along with a survey report from the Southern Poverty Law Center on the spread of racist and hate-based organizations in the United States. McAdam and Kloos provide an analysis of the evolution of the mainstream “conservative” political party since the Nixon presidency, and document through survey data and other evidence from empirical political science the rapid increase in racial antagonism in the party’s platforms and behavior when in office (linklink). They offer a convincing demonstration of the racism that underlies the activism of the Tea Party.

The next readings are Justin Gest’s The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (link) and Kathleen Blee’s edited volume The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (link). These books provide an ethnographical perspective on the appeal of right-wing extremism in western democracies, deriving from rapid economic change (deindustrialization) and demographic change (immigration and the rising percentage of populations of color in both Britain and the US). Blee’s volume sheds much light on the role of gender in political mobilization by the right across the spectrum, with substantially more women involved in extremists groups in the US than in Europe.

Next we turn to both longstanding and current strategies by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India to manage politics through antagonism against India’s Muslims. Paul Brass’s book The Production Of Hindu-Muslim Violence In Contemporary India is the primary source (link), and several good pieces of journalism about the current violence in India against Muslims help to fill in the details of the current situation (linklinklink).

The course ends with a consideration of Robert Putnam’s volume Better Together: Restoring the American Community, which makes the case for civic engagement and civic unity — but in a voice that appears a decade behind events when it comes to the virulence of hate-based activism.

This is a course that is entirely organized around an intensive and engaged student experience. Each session involves lively discussion and student presentations (which have been excellent), and the course aims at helping the students develop their own ideas and judgments. We all learn through open, honest, and respectful dialogue, and every session is engaging and valuable. Most importantly, we have all come to see that these issues of democracy, equality, and intolerance and bigotry are an enormous challenge for all of us in the twenty-first century that we must solve.

(For the first session students are asked to view several relevant videos on YouTube:

John Rawls Lecture 1, Modern Political Philosophy

Hate Rising: White Supremacy in America

Robert Putnam on Immigration and Diversity

Cas Mudde on Right-wing Populism

These videos set the stage for many of the topics raised throughout the course.)

The assault on democracy by the right

A democracy depends crucially upon a core set of normative commitments that are accepted on all sides — political parties, citizens, government officials, judges, legislators. Central among these is the idea of the political equality of all citizens and the crucial importance of maintaining equality in the availability of access to formal political involvement in democratic processes. In particular, the right to vote must be inviolate for every citizen, without regard to region, religion, gender, race, national origin, or any other criterion. John Rawls encapsulates these commitments within his conception of the political values of a just society in Political Liberalism.

The third feature of a political conception of justice is that its content is expressed in terms of certain fundamental ideas seen as implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society. This public culture comprises the political institutions of a constitutional regime and the public traditions of their interpretation (including those of the judiciary), as well as historic texts and documents that are common knowledge. (13) … A sense of justice is the capacity to understand, to apply, and to act from the public conception of justice which characterizes the fair terms of social cooperation. Given the nature of the political conception as specifying a public basis of justification, a sense of justice also expresses a willingness, if not the desire, to act in relation to others on terms that they also can publicly endorse. (18)

The Voting Rights Act in 1965 was an important step in the development of racial equality in the United States for a number of reasons; but most important was the clear statement it made guaranteeing voting rights to African-American citizens, and the judicial remedies it established for addressing efforts made in various states or localities to limit or block the exercise of those rights. The act prohibited literacy tests for voting rights and other practices that inhibited or prevented voter registration and voter participation in elections.

However, the Supreme Court decision in 2013 (Shelby County v Holder) eliminated the fundamental force of the 1965 act by removing the foundation of the requirement of pre-clearance of changes in voting procedures in certain states and jurisdictions. This action appears to have had the effect of allowing states to take steps that reduce participation in elections by under-served minorities (link).

Also important is the idea that the formal decisions within a democracy should depend upon citizens’ preferences, not the expenditure of money in favor of or against a given candidate or act of legislation. The Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 in the case of Citizens United v Federal Election Commission found the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to be unconstitutional because it restricted the freedom of speech of legal persons (corporations and unions). This ruling gave essentially unlimited rights to corporations to provide financial support to candidate and legislative initiatives; this decision in one stroke diminished the political voice of ordinary voters to a vanishing level. Big money in politics became the decisive factor in determining the outcomes of political disagreements within our democracy. (Here is a summary from the Washington Post on the effects of Citizens United on campaign spending; link.)

The 2014 book by Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America, is profoundly alarming for a number of reasons. They make clear the pivotal role that the politics of race have played in American electoral politics since the Nixon presidency. Most recently, the Tea Party social movement appears to be substantially motivated by racism.

The question is: where did this upsurge in “old-fashioned racism” come from? Based on the best survey data on support for the Tea Party, it seems reasonable to credit the movement for at least some of the infusion of more extreme racial views and actions into American politics. We begin by considering the racial attitudes of Tea Party supporters and what that suggests about the animating racial politics of the movement wing of the Republican Party. In this, we rely on two sources of data: the multi-state surveys of support for the Tea Party conducted by Parker and Barreto in 2010 and 2011 and Abramowitz’s analysis of the October 2010 wave of the American National Election Studies. (KL 5008)

Based on this survey data, they conclude:

Support for the Tea Party is thus decidedly not the same thing as conventional conservatism or traditional partisan identification with the Republican Party. Above all else, it is race and racism that runs through and links all three variables discussed here. Whatever else is motivating supporters, racial resentment must be seen as central to the Tea Party and, by extension, to the GOP as well in view of the movement’s significant influence within the party. (KL 5053)

Most alarming is the evidence McAdam and Kloos offer of a deliberate, widespread effort to suppress the voting rights of specific groups. Voter suppression occurs through restrictions on the voting process itself; and more systemically, it occurs through the ever-more-impactful ability of state legislators to engage in data-supported strategies of gerrymandering. And they connect the dots from these attitudes about race to political strategies by elected officials reflecting this movement:

Nor is the imprint of race and racism on today’s GOP only a matter of attitudes. It was also reflected in the party’s transparent efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters in the run-up to the 2012 election. It may well be that the country has never seen a more coordinated national effort to constrain the voting rights of particular groups than we saw in 2012. Throughout the country, Republican legislators and other officials sought to enact new laws or modify established voting procedures which, in virtually all instances, would have made it harder—in some cases, much harder—for poor and minority voters to exercise the franchise. (KL 5053)

Through gerrymandering the votes of a large percentage of the electorate are functionally meaningless; they live in districts that have been designed as “safe districts” in which the candidates of one party (most commonly the Republican Party, though there are certainly examples of Democratic gerrymandering as well) are all but certain to win election. Consider these completely deranged districts from Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina:

And nation-wide, the power of state legislatures to create gerrymandered districts has led to a lopsided political map, where only a few districts are genuinely competitive:

So the preferences of a given block of voters among candidates in a Republican safe district have zero likelihood of bringing about the election of the competing candidate. McAdam and Kloos are very explicit about the threat to democracy these efforts and the deliberateness with which the Republican Party has carried out these strategies over the past several decades. They are explicit as well in documenting the goal of these efforts: to suppress votes by racial groups who have traditionally supported Democratic candidates for office.

The efforts at voter suppression documented by McAdam and Kloos have continued unabated, even accelerated, since the 2014 publication of their book.

The hard question raised by Deeply Divided is not answered in the book, because it is very hard to answer at all: how will the public manage to claim back its rights of equality and equal participation? How will democracy be restored as the operative principle of our country?

Fascist attacks on democracy

The hate-based murders of at least nine young people in Hanau, Germany this week brought the world’s attention once again to right-wing extremism in Germany and elsewhere. The prevalence of right-wing extremist violence in Germany today is shocking, and it presents a deadly challenge to democratic institutions in modern Germany. Here is the German justice minister, quoted in the New York Times (link):

“Far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now,” Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, told reporters on Friday, a day after joining the country’s president at a vigil for the victims. “This is visible in the number and intensity of attacks.”

Extremist political parties like the Alternative for Germany and the National Democratic Party (linklink) have moved from fringe extremism to powerful political organizations in Germany, and it is not clear that the German government has strategies that will work in reducing their power and influence. Most important, these parties, and many other lesser organizations, spread a message of populist hate, division, and distrust that motivates some Germans to turn to violence against immigrants and other targeted minorities. These political messages can rightly be blamed for cultivating an atmosphere of hate and resentment that provokes violence. Right-wing populist extremism is a fertile ground for political and social violence; hate-based activism leads to violence. (Here is an excellent report from the BBC on the political messages and growing political influence of AfD in Germany (link).)

Especially disturbing for the fate of democracy in Germany is the fact that there is a rising level of violence and threat against local elected officials in Germany over their support for refugee integration. (Here is a story in the New York Times (2/21/20) that documents this aspect of the crisis; link.) The story opens with an account of the near-fatal attack in 2015 on Henriette Reker, candidate for mayor of Cologne. She survived the attack and won the election, but has been subject to horrendous death threats ever since. And she is not alone; local officials in many towns and municipalities have been subjected to similar persistent threats. According to the story, there were 1,240 politically motivated attacks against politicians and elected officials (link). Of these attacks, about 33% are attributed to right-wing extremists, about double the number attributed to left-wing extremists. Here is a summary from the Times story:

The acrimony is felt in town halls and village streets, where mayors now find themselves the targets of threats and intimidation. The effect has been chilling. 

Some have stopped speaking out. Many have quit, tried to arm themselves or taken on police protection. The risks have mounted to such an extent that some German towns are unable to field candidates for leadership at all. 

“Our democracy is under attack at the grass-roots level,” Ms. Reker said in a recent interview in Cologne’s City Hall. “This is the foundation of our democracy, and it is vulnerable.” 

This is particularly toxic for the institutions of democratic governance, because the direct and obvious goal is to intimidate government officials from carrying out their duties. This is fascism.

What strategies exist that will help to reduce the appeal of right-wing extremism and the currents of hatred and resentment that these forms of populism thrive on? In practical terms, how can liberal democracies (e.g. Germany, Britain, or the United States) reduce the appeal of white supremacy, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia while enhancing citizens’ commitment to the civic values of equality and rule of law?

One strategy involves strengthening the institutions of democracy and the trust and confidence that citizens have in those institutions. This is the approach developed in an important 2013 issue of Daedalus (link) devoted to civility and the common good. This approach includes efforts at improving civic education for young people. It also includes reforming political and electoral institutions in such a way as to address the obvious sources of inequality of voice that they currently involve. In the United States, for example, the prevalence of extreme and politicized practices of gerrymandering has the obvious effect of reducing citizens’ confidence in their electoral institutions. Their elected officials have deliberately taken policy steps to reduce citizens’ ability to affect electoral outcomes. Likewise, the erosion of voting rights in the United States through racially aimed changes to voter registration procedures, polling hours and locations, and other aspects of the institutions of voting provokes cynicism and detachment from the institutions of government. (McAdam and Kloos make these arguments in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

Second, much of the appeal of right-wing extremism turns on lies about minorities (including immigrants). Mainstream and progressive parties should do a much better job of communicating the advantages to the whole of society that flow from diversity, talented immigrants, and an inclusive community. Mainstream parties need to expose and de-legitimize the lies that right-wing politicians use to stir up anger, resentment, and hatred against various other groups in society, and they need to convey a powerful and positive narrative of their own.

Another strategy to enhance civility and commitment to core democratic values is to reduce the economic inequalities that all too often provoke resentment and distrust across groups within society. Justin Gest illustrates this dynamic in The New Minority; the dis-employed workers in East London and Youngstown, Ohio have good reason to think their lives and concerns have been discarded by the economies in which they live. As John Rawls believed, a stable democracy depends upon the shared conviction that the basic institutions of society are working to the advantage of all citizens, not just the few (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement).

Finally, there is the police response. Every government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence. When groups actively conspire to commit violence against others — whether it is Baader-Meinhof, radical spinoffs of AfD, or the KKK — the state has a responsibility to uncover, punish, and disband those groups. Germany’s anti-terrorist police forces are now placing higher priority on right-wing terrorism than they apparently have done in the past, and this is a clear responsibility for a government with duty for ensuring the safety of the public (link). (It is worrisome to find that members of the police and military are themselves sometimes implicated in right-wing extremist groups in Germany.) Here are a few paragraphs from a recent Times article on arrests of right-wing terrorists:

BERLIN — Twelve men — one a police employee — were arrested Friday on charges of forming and supporting a far-right terrorism network planning wide-ranging attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims, the authorities said.

The arrests come as Germany confronts both an increase in violence and an infiltration of its security services by far-right extremists. After focusing for years on the risks from Islamic extremists and foreign groups, officials are recalibrating their counterterrorism strategy to address threats from within.

The arrests are the latest in a series of episodes that Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, called a “very worrying right-wing extremist and right-wing terrorist threat in our country.”

“We need to be particularly vigilant and act decisively against this threat,” she said on Twitter. (link)

The German political system is not well prepared for the onslaught of radical right-wing populism and violence. But much the same can be said in the United States, with a president who espouses many of the same hate-based doctrines that fuel the rise of radical populism in other countries, and in a national climate where hate-based crimes have accelerated in the past several years. (Here is a recent review of hate-based groups and crimes in the United States provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center; link.) And, like Germany, the FBI has been slow to place appropriate priority on the threat of right-wing terrorism in the United States.

(This opinion piece in the New York Times by Anna Sauerbrey (link) describes one tool available to the German government that is not available in the United States — strong legal prohibitions of neo-Nazi propaganda and incitement to hatred:

“There is the legal concept of Volksverhetzung,” the incitement to hatred: Anybody who denigrates an individual or a group based on their ethnicity or religion, or anybody who tries to rouse hatred or promotes violence against such a group or an individual, could face a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Because of virtually unlimited protection of freedom of speech and association guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, these prohibitions do not exist in the United States. Here is an earlier discussion of this topic (link).)

The future of our democracy

How can the United States recover its culture of civility and mutual respect among citizens after the bitter, unlimited toxicity of the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency? Trump’s political movement, and the President himself, have gone in for an unbridled rhetoric of hatred, suspicion, racism, and white supremacist ideology that seems to have created a durable constituency for these hateful ideas. Even more troublingly, the President has cast doubt on the democratic process itself and the legitimacy of our electoral and judicial institutions.

Deeply troubling is the fact that the President consistently attempts to mobilize support purely on the basis of division, hatred, and contempt for his opponents. He has provided virtually no sustained exposition or defense of the policy positions he advocates — anti-immigrant, anti-trade, anti-NATO, anti-Federal Reserve, anti-government. Instead, his appeals amount ultimately to no more than a call to hatred and rejection of his opponents. His current shameful threats against those who supported his impeachment (including Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, pictured above) are simply the latest version of his politics of threat, hatred, and intimidation. This president has never understood his responsibility to serve all the people of our country — not merely his supporters — and to support its constitution and governing institutions faithfully and in support of the public good.

And almost all Republican leaders (with the admirable exception of Mitt Romney) have swallowed their own principles and have accepted these political appeals — even as some observers have noted how much the current rhetoric resembles that of Benito Mussolini (link). If even a fraction of the voters who currently support the Trump movement do so with a positive endorsement of the racism and white-supremacy that the President and his supporters project, then there are tens of millions of hate-based partisans in our polity.

It is an urgent and pressing problem to find strategies for beginning to bring these citizens back from the brink of right wing extremism and hate.

One possible view is that the goal is unattainable. We might judge that it is very uncommon for hate-based partisans to change their attitudes and actions. So the best we can do is to minimize the likelihood that these individuals will do harm to others, and to maximize the impact and public visibility of more liberal people and movements. (The term “liberal” here isn’t grounded in left-right orientation but rather the values of open-mindedness, tolerance, mutual respect, belief in democracy, and civility. Conservatives can be liberal in this sense.)

Another possibility is that the extremism currently visible among Trump supporters is just a short term eruption, which will subside following the 2020 election. This doesn’t seem very likely, given the virulence of animosity, suspicion, and hatred currently on display among many of Trump’s supporters. It seems to be easier to incite hatred than to quench it, and it seems unlikely that these activists will quietly morph into tolerant and civil citizens.

A third possibility is that we will have to acknowledge the presence of hate-based extremists and organizations among us and work aggressively to build up a younger constituency for progressive and tolerant values to present a stronger voice in support of inclusion and democracy. This is not so different from the current situation in some Western European democracies today, where virulent extremist political organizations compete with more inclusive and democratic organizations.

The difference of our current circumstances in the winter of 2020 and those of November 2016 is the steady degradation of our institutions that the Trump administration has successfully undertaken. Packing the Federal courts with right-wing ideologues (often rated unqualified by the American Bar Association), treating the Congress and its elected members with contempt, derision, and threat, flouting the laws and ethics surrounding the status of whistle-blowers, appointing unqualified ideologues to direct Federal agencies like the EPA, Homeland Security, and Commerce, and subverting the ethics and political neutrality of the Department of Justice — these are harms that may never be fully repaired. The moral corruption of the leaders of the GOP — their fundamental and all but universal unwillingness to publicly reject the outrageous and anti-democratic behavior of this President — will never be forgotten.

What is the future of our democracy? Can we regain the fundaments of a tolerant, institutionally stable polity in which government is regulated by institutions and politicians are motivated to work to enhancing the preconditions of civility and democratic equality? Or are we headed to an even more personalized form of presidential rule — a twenty-first century version of nationalist authoritarianism, or fascism?

Madeline Albright expressed just such worries almost two years ago about the future of our democracy in Fascism: A Warning, and her words are deeply worrisome, perhaps prophetic.

Fascist attitudes take hold when there are no social anchors and when the perception grows that everybody lies, steals, and cares only about him-or herself. That is when the yearning is felt for a strong hand to protect against the evil “other”—whether Jew, Muslim, black, so-called redneck, or so-called elite. Flawed though our institutions may be, they are the best that four thousand years of civilization have produced and cannot be cast aside without opening the door to something far worse. The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness; it is a coming together across the ideological spectrum of people who want to make democracies more effective. We should remember that the heroes we cherish—Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Mandela—spoke to the best within us. The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow. (kl 94)

Fascism, most of the students agreed, is an extreme form of authoritarian rule. Citizens are required to do exactly what leaders say they must do, nothing more, nothing less. The doctrine is linked to rabid nationalism. It also turns the traditional social contract upside down. Instead of citizens giving power to the state in exchange for the protection of their rights, power begins with the leader, and the people have no rights. Under Fascism, the mission of citizens is to serve; the government’s job is to rule. (kl 261)

Or consider how Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt pose their fears in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

Albright, Levitsky, and Ziblatt are not alarmists; they are experienced, knowledgeable, and wise observers of and participants in democratic politics. Their concerns should worry us all.

Hegel on labor and freedom

Hegel provided a powerful conception of human beings in the world and a rich conception of freedom. Key to that conception is the idea of self-creation through labor. Hegel had an “aesthetic” conception of labor: human beings confront the raw given of nature and transform it through intelligent effort into things they imagine that will satisfy their needs and desires.

Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel is especially clear on Hegel’s conception of labor and freedom. This is provided in Kojève’s analysis of the Master-Slave section of Hegel’s Phenomenology in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. The key idea is expressed in these terms:

The product of work is the worker’s production. It is the realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it…. Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. (Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel)

It seems to me that this framework of thought provides an interesting basis for a philosophy of technology as well. We might think of technology as collective and distributed labor, the processes through which human beings collectively transform the world around themselves to better satisfy human needs. Through intelligence and initiative human beings and organizations transform the world around them to create new possibilities for human need satisfaction. Labor and technology are emancipating and self-creating. Labor and technology help to embody the conditions of freedom.

However, this assessment is only one side of the issue. Technologies are created for a range of reasons by a heterogeneous collection of actors: generating profits, buttressing power relations, serving corporate and political interests. It is true that new technologies often serve to extend the powers of the human beings who use them, or to satisfy their needs and wants more fully and efficiently. Profit motives and the market help to ensure that this is true to some extent; technologies and products need to be “desired” if they are to be sold and to generate profits for the businesses that produce them. But given the conflicts of interest that exist in human society, technologies also serve to extend the capacity of some individuals and groups to wield power over others.

This means that there is a dark side to labor and technology as well. There is the labor of un-freedom. Not all labor allows the worker to fulfill him- or herself through free exercise of talents. Instead the wage laborer is regulated by the time clock and the logic of cost reduction. This constitutes Marx’s most fundamental critique of capitalism, as a system of alienation and exploitation of the worker as a human being. Here are a few paragraphs on alienated labor from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the sway of his product, capital.

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

So does labor fulfill freedom or create alienation? Likewise, does technology emancipate and fulfill us, or does it enthrall and disempower us? Marx’s answer to the first question is that it does both, depending on the social relations within which it is defined, managed, and controlled.

It would seem that we can answer the second question for ourselves, in much the same terms. Technology both extends freedom and constricts it. It is indeed true that technology can extend human freedom and realize human capacities. The use of technology and science in agriculture means that only a small percentage of people in advanced countries are farmers, and those who are enjoy a high standard of living compared to peasants of the past. Communication and transportation technologies create new possibilities for education, personal development, and self-expression. The enhancements to economic productivity created by technological advances have permitted a huge increase in the wellbeing of ordinary people in the past century — a fact that permits us to pursue the things we care about more freely. But new technologies also can be used to control people, to monitor their thoughts and actions, and to wage war against them. More insidiously, new technologies may “alienate” us in new ways — make us less social, less creative, and less independent of mind and thought.

So it seems clear on its face that technology is both favorable to the expansion of freedom and the exercise of human capacities, and unfavorable. It is the social relations through which technology is exercised and controlled that make the primary difference in which effect is more prominent.

Shakespeare on tyranny

Stephen Greenblatt is a literary critic and historian whose insights into philosophy and the contemporary world are genuinely and consistently profound. His most recent book returns to his primary expertise, the corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. But it is — by intention or otherwise — an  important reflection on the presidency of Donald Trump as well. The book is Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, and it traces in fascinating detail the evolution and fates of tyrants through Shakespeare’s plays. Richard III gets a great deal of attention, as do Lear and Macbeth. Greenblatt makes it clear that Shakespeare was interested both in the institutions of governance within which tyrants seized power, and the psychology of the tyrant. The parallels with the behavior and psychology of the current US President are striking.

Here is how Greenblatt frames his book.

“A king rules over willing subjects,” wrote the influential sixteenth-century Scottish scholar George Buchanan, “a tyrant over unwilling.” The institutions of a free society are designed to ward off those who would govern, as Buchanan put it, “not for their country but for themselves, who take account not of the public interest but of their own pleasure.” Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne? (1)

So who is the tyrant? What is his typical psychology?

Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the lawbreaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency. He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning. (53)

One of Richard’s uncanny skills—and, in Shakespeare’s view, one of the tyrant’s most characteristic qualities—is the ability to force his way into the minds of those around him, whether they wish him there or not. (64)

Greenblatt has a lot to say about the enablers of the tyrant — those who facilitate and those who silently consent.

Another group is composed of those who do not quite forget that Richard is a miserable piece of work but who nonetheless trust that everything will continue in a normal way. They persuade themselves that there will always be enough adults in the room, as it were, to ensure that promises will be kept, alliances honored, and core institutions respected. Richard is so obviously and grotesquely unqualified for the supreme position of power that they dismiss him from their minds. Their focus is always on someone else, until it is too late. They fail to realize quickly enough that what seemed impossible is actually happening. They have relied on a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile. (67)

One of the topics that appears in Shakespeare’s corpus is a class-based populism from the under-classes. Consider Jack Cade, the lying and violent foil to The Duke of York.

Cade himself, for all we know, may think that what he is so obviously making up as he goes along will actually come to pass. Drawing on an indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence, the loudmouthed demagogue is entering a fantasyland—“ When I am king, as king I will be”—and he invites his listeners to enter the same magical space with him. In that space, two and two do not have to equal four, and the most recent assertion need not remember the contradictory assertion that was made a few seconds earlier. (37)

And what about the fascination tyrants have with secret alliances with hostile foreign powers?

Third, the political party determined to seize power at any cost makes secret contact with the country’s traditional enemy. England’s enmity with the nation across the Channel—constantly fanned by all the overheated patriotic talk of recovering its territories there, and fueled by all the treasure and blood spilled in the attempt to do so—suddenly vanishes. The Yorkists—who, in the person of Cade, had pretended to consider it an act of treason even to speak French—enter into a set of secret negotiations with France. Nominally, the negotiations aim to end hostilities between the two countries by arranging a dynastic marriage, but they actually spring, as Queen Margaret cynically observes, “from deceit, bred by necessity” (3 Henry VI 3.3.68).

How does the tyrant rule? In a word, badly.

The tyrant’s triumph is based on lies and fraudulent promises braided around the violent elimination of rivals. The cunning strategy that brings him to the throne hardly constitutes a vision for the realm; nor has he assembled counselors who can help him formulate one. He can count—for the moment, at least—on the acquiescence of such suggestible officials as the London mayor and frightened clerks like the scribe. But the new ruler possesses neither administrative ability nor diplomatic skill, and no one in his entourage can supply what he manifestly lacks. His own mother despises him. His wife, Anne, fears and hates him. (84)

Several things seem apparent, both from Greenblatt’s reading of Shakespeare and from the recent American experience. One is that freedom and the rule of law are inextricably entangled. It is not an exaggeration to say that freedom simply is the situation of living in a society in which the rule of law is respected (and laws establish individual rights and impersonal procedures). When strongmen are able to use the organs of the state or their private henchmen to enact their personal will, the freedom and liberties of the whole of society are compromised.

Second, the rule of law is a normative commitment; but it is also an institutional reality. Institutions like the Constitution, the division of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and the codification of government ethics are preventive checks against arbitrary power by individuals with power. But as Greenblatt’s examples show, the critical positions within the institutions of law and government are occupied by ordinary men and women. And when they are venal, timid, and bent to the will of the sovereign, they present no barrier against tyranny. This is why fidelity to the rule of law and the independence of the justice system is the most fundamental and irreplaceable ethical commitment we must demand of officials. Conversely, when an elected official demonstrates lack of commitment to the principles, we must be very anxious for the fate of our democracy.

Greenblatt’s book is fascinating for the historical context it provides for Shakespeare’s plays. But it is even more interesting for the critical light it sheds on our current politics. And it makes clear that the moral choices posed by politicians determined to undermine the institutions of democracy are perennial, whether in Shakespeare’s time or our own.

Consensus and mutual understanding

Groups make decisions through processes of discussion aimed at framing a given problem, outlining the group’s objectives, and arriving at a plan for how to achieve the objectives in an intelligent way. This is true at multiple levels, from neighborhood block associations to corporate executive teams to the President’s cabinet meetings. However, collective decision-making through extended discussion faces more challenges than is generally recognized. Processes of collective deliberation are often haphazard, incomplete, and indeterminate.

What is collective deliberation about? It is often the case that a collaborative group or team has a generally agreed-upon set of goals — let’s say reducing the high school dropout rate in a city or improving morale on the plant floor or deterring North Korean nuclear expansion. The group comes together to develop a strategy and a plan for achieving the goal. Comments are offered about how to think about the problem, what factors may be relevant to bringing the problem about, what interventions might have a positive effect on the problem. After a reasonable range of conversation the group arrives at a strategy for how to proceed.

An idealized version of group problem-solving makes this process both simple and logical. The group canvases the primary facts available about the problem and its causes. The group recognized that there may be multiple goods involved in the situation, so the primary objective needs to be considered in the context of the other valuable goods that are part of the same bundle of activity. The group canvases these various goods as well. The group then canvases the range of interventions that are feasible in the existing situation, along with the costs and benefits of each strategy. Finally, the group arrives at a consensus about which strategy is best, given everything we know about the dynamics of the situation.

But anyone who has been part of a strategy-oriented discussion asking diverse parties to think carefully about a problem that all participants care about will realize that the process is rarely so amenable to simple logical development. Instead, almost every statement offered in the discussion is both ambiguous to some extent and factually contestable. Outcomes are sensitive to differences in the levels of assertiveness of various participants. Opinions are advanced as facts, and there is insufficient effort expended to validate the assumptions that are being made. Outcomes are also sensitive to the order and structure of the agenda for discussion. And finally, discussions need to be summarized; but there are always interpretive choices that need to be made in summarizing a complex discussion. Points need to be assigned priority and cogency; and different scribes will have different judgments about these matters.

Here is a problem of group decision-making that is rarely recognized but seems pervasive in the real world. This is the problem of recurring misunderstandings and ambiguities within the group of the various statements and observations that are made. The parties proceed on the basis of frameworks of assumptions that differ substantially from one person to the next but are never fully exposed. One person asserts that the school day should be lengthened, imagining a Japanese model of high school. Another thinks back to her own high school experience and agrees, thinking that five hours of instruction may well be more effective for learning than four hours. They agree about the statement but they are thinking of very different changes.

The bandwidth of a collective conversation about a complicated problem is simply too narrow to permit ambiguities and factually errors to be tracked down and sorted out. The conversation is invariably incomplete, and often takes shape because of entirely irrelevant factors like who speaks first or most forcefully. It is as if the space of the discussion is in two dimensions, whereas the complexity of the problem under review is in three dimensions.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that participants sometimes have their own agendas and hobby horses that they continually re-inject into the discussion under varying pretexts. As the group fumbles towards possible consensus these fixed points coming from a few participants either need to be ruled out or incorporated — and neither is a fully satisfactory result. If the point is ruled out some participants will believe their inputs are not respected, but if it is incorporated then the consensus has been deformed from a more balanced view of the issue.

A common solution to the problems of group deliberation mentioned here is to assign an expert facilitator or “muse” for the group who is tasked to build up a synthesis of the discussion as it proceeds. But it is evident that the synthesis is underdetermined by the discussion. Some points will be given emphasis over others, and a very different story line could have been reached that leads to different outcomes. This is the Rashomon effect applied to group discussions.

A different solution is to think of group discussion as simply an aid to a single decision maker — a chief executive who listens to the various points of view and then arrives at her own formulation of the problem and a solution strategy. But of course this approach abandons the idea of reaching a group consensus in favor of the simpler problem of an individual reaching his or her own interpretation of the problem and possible solutions based on input from others.

This is a problem for organizations, both formal and informal, because every organization attempts to decide what to do through some kind of exploratory discussion. It is also a problem for the theory of deliberative democracy (link, link).

This suggests that there is an important problem of collective rationality that has not been addressed either by philosophy or management studies: the problem of aggregating beliefs, perceptions, and values held by diverse members of a group onto a coherent statement of the problem, causes, and solutions for the issue under deliberation. We would like to be able to establish processes that lead to rational and effective solutions to problems that incorporate available facts and judgments. Further we would like the outcomes to be non-arbitrary — that is, given an antecedent set of factual and normative beliefs by the participants, we would like to imagine that there is a relatively narrow band of policy solutions that will emerge as the consensus or decision. We have theories of social choice — aggregation of fixed preferences. And we have theories of rational decision-making and planning. But a deliberative group discussion of an important problem is substantially more complex. We need a philosophy of the meeting!

Collapse of Eastern European communisms

An earlier post commented on Tony Judt’s magnificent book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. There I focused on the story he tells of the brutality of the creation of Communist Party dictatorships across Eastern Europe (link). Equally fascinating is his narrative of the abrupt collapse of those states in 1989. In short order the world witnessed the collapse of communism in Poland (June 1989), East Germany (November 1989), Czechoslovakia (November 1989), Bulgaria (November 1989), Romania (December 1989), Hungary (March 1990), and the USSR (December 1991). Most of this narrative occurs in chapter 19.

The sudden collapse of multiple Communist states in a period of roughly a year requires explanation. These were not sham states; they had formidable forced of repression and control; and there were few avenues of public protest available to opponents of the regimes. So their collapse is worth of careful assessment.

There seem to be several crucial ingredients in the sudden collapse of these dictatorships. One is the persistence of an intellectual and practical opposition to Communism and single-party rule in almost all these countries. The brutality of violent repression in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other countries did not succeed in permanently suppressing opposition based on demands for greater freedom and greater self-determination through political participation. And this was true in the fields of the arts and literature as much as it was in the disciplines of law and politics. Individuals and organizations reemerged at various important junctures to advocate again for political and legal reforms, in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and even the USSR.

Second was the chronic inability of these states to achieve economic success and rising standards of living for their populations. Price riots in Poland in the 1970s and elsewhere signaled a fundamental discontent by consumers and workers who were aware of the living conditions of people living in other parts of non-Communist Europe. Material discontent was a powerful factor in the repeated periods of organized protest that occurred in several of these states prior to 1989. (Remember the joke from Poland in the 1970s — “If they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.”)

And third was the position taken by Mikhail Gorbachev on the use of force to maintain Communist regimes in satellite countries. The use of violence and armed force had sufficed to quell popular movements in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in years past. But when Gorbachev made it credible and irreversible that the USSR would no longer use tanks to reinforce the satellite regimes — for example, in his speech to the United Nations in December 1988 — local parties were suddenly exposed to new realities. Domestic repression was still possible, but it was no longer obvious that it would succeed.

And the results were dramatic. In a period of months the world witnessed the sudden collapse of Communist rule in country after country; and in most instances the transitions were relatively free of large-scale violence. (The public executions of Romania’s Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu on Christmas Day, 1889 were a highly visible exception.)

There seem to be many historical lessons to learn from this short period of history. Particularly sharp are the implications for other single-party dictatorships. So let’s reflect on the behavior of the single-party state in China since the mid-1980s. The Chinese party-state has had several consistent action plans since the 1980s. First, it has focused great effort on economic reform, rising incomes, and improving standards of living for the bulk of its population. In these efforts it has been largely successful — in strong contrast to the USSR and its satellite states. Second, the Chinese government has intensified its ability to control ideology and debate, culminating in the current consolidation of power under President Xi. And third, it used brutal force against the one movement that emerged in 1989 with substantial and broad public involvement, the Democracy Movement. The use of force against demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and other cities in China demonstrated the party’s determination to prevent largescale public mobilization with force if needed.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that China’s leaders have reflected very carefully on the collapse of single-party states in 1989, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. They appear to have settled on a longterm coordinated strategy aimed at preventing the emergence of the particular factors that led to those political catastrophes. They are committed to fulfilling the expectations of the public that the economy will continue to grow and support rising standards of living for the mass of the population. So economic growth has remained a very high priority. Second, they are vigilant in monitoring ideological correctness, suppressing individuals and groups who continue to advocate for universal human rights, democracy, and individual freedoms. And they are unstinting in providing the resources needed by the state organizations through which censorship, political repression, and ideological correctness are maintained. And finally, they appear to be willing to use overwhelming force if necessary to prevent largescale public protests. The regime seems very confident that a pathway of future development that continues to support material improvement for the population while tightly controlling ideas and public discussions of political issues will be successful. And it is hard to see that this calculation is fundamentally incorrect.

Democracy and the politics of intolerance

A democracy allows government to reflect the will of the people. Or does it? Here I would like to understand a bit better the dynamics through which radical right populism has come to have influence, even dominance, in a number of western democracies — even when the percentage of citizens with radical right populist attitudes generally falls below the range of 35% of the electorate.

There are well known bugs in the ways that real democracies work, leading to discrepancies between policy outcomes and public preferences. In the United States, for example, we find:

  • Gerrymandered Congressional districts that favor Republican incumbents
  • Over-representation of rural voters in the composition of the Senate (Utah has as many senators as California)
  • Organized efforts to suppress voting by poor and minority voters
  • The vast influence of corporate and private money in shaping elections and public attitudes
  • An electoral-college system that easily permits the candidate winning fewer votes to nonetheless win the Presidency

So it is evident that the system of electoral democracy institutionalized in the United States is far from a neutral, formal system conveying citizen preferences onto outcomes in a fair and equal way. The rules as well as the choices are objects of contention.

But to understand the ascendancy of the far right in US politics we need to go beyond these defects. We need to understand the processes through which citizens acquire their political attitudes — thereby explaining their likelihood of mobilization for one party or candidate or another. And we need to understand the mechanisms through which elected representatives are pushed to the extreme positions that are favored by only a minority of their own supporters.

First, what are the mechanisms that lead to the formation of political attitudes and beliefs in individual citizens? That is, of course, a huge question. People have religious values, civic values, family values, personal aspirations, bits of historical knowledge, and so on, all of which come into play in a wide range of settings through personal development. And all of these value tags may serve as a basis for mobilization by candidates and parties. That is the rationale for “dog-whistle” politics — to craft messages that resonate with small groups of voters without being noticed by larger groups with different values. So let’s narrow it a bit: what mechanisms exist through which activist organizations and leaders can promote specific hateful beliefs and attitudes within a population with a range of existing attitudes, beliefs, and values? In particular, how can radical-right populist organizations and parties increase the appeal of their programs of intolerance to voters who are not otherwise pre-disposed to the extremes of populism?

Here the potency of appeals to division, intolerance, and hate is of particular relevance. Populism has almost always depended on a simplistic division between “us” and “them”. The rhetoric and themes of nationalism and racism represent powerful tools in the arsenal of populist mobilization, preying upon suspicion, resentment, and mistrust of “others” in order to gain adherents to a party that promises to take advantages away from those others. The right-wing media play an enormous role in promulgating these messages of division and intolerance in many countries. The conspiracy theories and false narratives conveyed by right-wing media and commentators are powerfully persuasive in setting the terms of political consciousness for millions of people. Fox News set the agenda for a large piece of the American electorate. And the experience of having been left out of a fair share of economic advantages leaves some segments of the population particularly vulnerable to these kinds of appeals. Finally, the under-currents of racism and prejudice are of continuing importance in the political and social identities of many citizens — again leaving them vulnerable to appeals that cater to these prejudices. This is how Breitbart News works. (An earlier post treated this factor; link.)

Let’s next consider the institutional mechanisms through which activist advocacy can be turned into disproportionate effects in legislation. Suppose Representative Smith has been elected on the Republican ticket in a close contest over his Democrat opponent with 51% of the vote. And suppose his constituency includes 15% extreme right voters, 20% moderate right voters, and 16% conservative-leaning independents. Why does Smith go on to support the agenda of the far right, who are after all only less than a third of his own supporters in his district? This results from a mechanism that political scientists seem to understand; it involves the dynamics of the primary system. The extreme right is highly activated, while the center is significantly less so. A candidate who moves to the center is in danger of losing his seat in the next primary to a far-right candidate who can depend upon the support of his or her activist base to defeat Smith. So the 15% of extreme-right voters determine the behavior of the representative. (McAdam and Kloos consider these dynamics in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America; link.)

Gerrymandering plays an important role in these dynamics as well. Smith doesn’t have to moderate his policy choices out of concern that he will lose the general election to a more moderate Democrat, because the Republican legislature in his state has ensured that this is a safe seat for the candidate chosen by the party.

So here we are — in a nation governed by an extreme-right party in control of both House and Senate, with a President espousing xenophobic and anti-immigrant intentions and a budget that severely cuts back on the social safety net, and dozens of state governments dominated by the same forces. And yet the President is profoundly unpopular, confidence in Congress is at an abysmal low point, and the majority of Americans favor a more progressive set of policies on women’s health, health policy, immigration, and international security than the governing party is proposing. How did democratic processes bring us to this paradoxical point?

In 1991 political scientist Sam Popkin published a short book called The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. The title captures Popkin’s central hypothesis: that voters make choices on the basis of rational assessment of available evidence. What he adds to this old theory of democratic behavior is the proviso that often the principle of reasoning in question is what he calls “low-information rationality”. Unlike traditional rational-choice theories of political behavior, Popkin proposes to make use of empirical results from cognitive psychology — insights into how real people make practical decisions of importance. It is striking how much the environment of political behavior has changed since Popkin’s reflections in the 1980s and 1990s. “Most Americans watch some network television news and scan newspapers several times every week” (25). In a 2015 New Yorker piece on the populism of Donald Trump Evan Osnos quotes Popkin again — but this time in a way that emphasizes emotions rather than evidence-based rationality (link). The passage is worth quoting:

“The more complicated the problem, the simpler the demands become,” Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego, told me. “When people get frustrated and irritated, they want to cut the Gordian knot.”

Trump has succeeded in unleashing an old gene in American politics—the crude tribalism that Richard Hofstadter named “the paranoid style”—and, over the summer, it replicated like a runaway mutation. Whenever Americans have confronted the reshuffling of status and influence—the Great Migration, the end of Jim Crow, the end of a white majority—we succumb to the anti-democratic politics of absolutism, of a “conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” in which, Hofstadter wrote, “the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.” Trump was born to the part. “I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win,” he wrote, in “The Art of the Deal.” “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.” Trump, who long ago mastered the behavioral nudges that could herd the public into his casinos and onto his golf courses, looked so playful when he gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell-phone number that it was easy to miss just how malicious a gesture it truly was. It expressed the knowledge that, with a single utterance, he could subject an enemy to that most savage weapon of all: us. (link)

The gist is pretty clear: populism is not primarily about rational consideration of costs and benefits, but rather the political emotions of mistrust, intolerance, and fear.

Deliberative democracy and the age of social media

Several earlier posts have focused on the theory of deliberative democracy (link, link, link). The notion is that political decision-making can be improved by finding mechanisms for permitting citizens to have extended opportunities for discussion and debate over policies and goals. The idea appeals to liberal democratic theorists in the tradition of Rousseau — the idea that people’s political preferences and values can become richer and more adequate through reasoned discussion in a conversation of equals, and political decisions will be improved through such a process. This idea doesn’t quite equate to the wisdom of the crowd; rather, individuals become wiser through their interactions with other thoughtful and deliberative people, and the crowd’s opinions improve as a result.

Here is the definition of deliberative democracy offered by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson in Why Deliberative Democracy? (2004):

Most fundamentally, deliberative democracy affirms the need to justify decisions made by citizens and their representatives. Both are expected to justify the laws they would impose on one another. In a democracy, leaders should therefore give reasons for their decisions, and respond to the reasons that citizens give in return… The reasons that deliberative democracy asks citizens and their representatives to give should appeal to principles that individuals who are trying to find fair terms of cooperation cannot reasonably reject. (3)

All political reasoning inherently involves an intermingling of goals, principles, and facts. What do we want to achieve? What moral principles do we respect as constraints on political choices? How do we think about the causal properties of the natural and social world in which we live? Political disagreement can derive from disagreements in each of these dimensions; deliberation in principle is expected to help citizens to narrow the range of disagreements they have about goals, principles, and facts. And traditional theorists of deliberative democracy, from the pre-Socratics to Gutmann, Thompson, or Fishkin, believe that it is possible for people of good will to come to realize that the beliefs and assumptions they bring to the debate may need adjustment.

But something important has changed since the 1990s when a lot of discussions of deliberative democracy took place. This is the workings of social media — blogs, comments, Twitter discussions, Facebook communities. Here we have millions of people interacting with each other and debating issues — but we don’t seem to have a surge of better or more informed thinking about the hard issues. On the one hand, we might hope that the vast bandwidth of debate and discussion of issues, involving enormous numbers of the world’s citizens, would have the effect of deepening the public’s understanding of complex issues and policies. And on the other hand, we seem to have the evidence of continuing superficial thinking about issues, hardening of ideological positions, and reflexive habits of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. The Internet seems to lead as often to a hardening and narrowing of attitudes as it does to a broadening and deepening of people’s thinking about the serious issues we face.

So it is worth reflecting on what implications are presented to our ideas about democracy by the availability of the infrastructure of social media. It was observed during the months of the Arab Spring that Twitter and other social media platforms played a role in mobilization of groups of people sharing an interest in reform. And Guobin Yang describes the role that the Internet has played in some areas of popular activism in China (link). This is a little different from the theory of deliberative democracy, however, since mobilization is different from deliberative value-formation. The key question remains unanswered: can the quality of thinking and deliberation of the public be improved through the use of social media? Can the public come to a better understanding of issues like climate change, health care reform, and rising economic inequalities through the debates and discussions that occur on social media? Can our democracy be improved through the tools of Twitter, Facebook, or Google? So far the evidence is not encouraging; it is hard to find evidence suggesting a convergence of political or social attitudes deriving from massive use of social media. And the most dramatic recent example of change in public attitudes, the sudden rise in public acceptance of single-sex marriage, does not seem to have much of a connection from social media.

Here is a very interesting report by the Pew Foundation on the political segmentation of the world of Twitter (link). The heart of their findings is that Twitter discussions of politics commonly segment into largely distinct groups of individuals and websites (link).

Conversations on Twitter create networks with identifiable contours as people reply to and mention one another in their tweets. These conversational structures differ, depending on the subject and the people driving the conversation. Six structures are regularly observed: divided, unified, fragmented, clustered, and inward and outward hub and spoke structures. These are created as individuals choose whom to reply to or mention in their Twitter messages and the structures tell a story about the nature of the conversation.

If a topic is political, it is common to see two separate, polarized crowds take shape. They form two distinct discussion groups that mostly do not interact with each other. Frequently these are recognizably liberal or conservative groups. The participants within each separate group commonly mention very different collections of website URLs and use distinct hashtags and words. The split is clearly evident in many highly controversial discussions: people in clusters that we identified as liberal used URLs for mainstream news websites, while groups we identified as conservative used links to conservative news websites and commentary sources. At the center of each group are discussion leaders, the prominent people who are widely replied to or mentioned in the discussion. In polarized discussions, each group links to a different set of influential people or organizations that can be found at the center of each conversation cluster.

And here is the authors’ reason for thinking that the clustering of Twitter conversations is important:

Social media is increasingly home to civil society, the place where knowledge sharing, public discussions, debates, and disputes are carried out. As the new public square, social media conversations are as important to document as any other large public gathering. Network maps of public social media discussions in services like Twitter can provide insights into the role social media plays in our society. These maps are like aerial photographs of a crowd, showing the rough size and composition of a population. These maps can be augmented with on the ground interviews with crowd participants, collecting their words and interests. Insights from network analysis and visualization can complement survey or focus group research methods and can enhance sentiment analysis of the text of messages like tweets.

Here are examples of “polarized crowds” and “tight crowds”:

There is a great deal of research underway on the network graphs that can be identified within social media populations. But an early takeaway seems to be that segmentation rather than convergence appears to be the most common pattern. This seems to run contrary to the goals of deliberative democracy. Rather than exposing themselves to challenging ideas from people and sources in the other community, people tend to stay in their own circle.

So this is how social media seem to work if left to their own devices. Are there promising examples of more intentional uses of social media to engage the public in deeper conversations about the issues of the day? Certainly there are political organizations across the spectrum that are making large efforts to use social media as a platform for their messages and values. But this is not exactly “deliberative”. What is more intriguing is whether there are foundations and non-profit organizations that have specifically focused on creating a more deliberative social media community that can help build a broader consensus about difficult policy choices. And so far I haven’t been able to find good examples of this kind of effort.

(Josh Cohen’s discussion of Rousseau’s political philosophy is interesting in the context of fresh thinking about deliberation and democracy; link. And Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright’s collection of articles on democratic innovation, Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (The Real Utopias Project) (v. 4), is a very good contribution as well.)

%d bloggers like this: