But do we really want to live in a world where politics is so important to our lives that we cannot help but be politically involved? Many, both on the left and the right, answer yes. A politically engaged citizenry will not only make more decisions democratically but also be better people for it. From communitarians to neoconservatives, there’s a sense that civic virtue is virtue—or at least that individually we cannot be fully virtuous without exercising a robust political participation. Politics, when sufficiently unconstrained by crude individualism and sufficiently embraced by an actively democratic polity, makes us better people.
If I grew up and lived a life facing no prospects of punishment and other forms of resistance constraining my behaviour, it would be rational and natural for me to steal, kill, and lie, just when it suits me, and do a lot of other things that under the real circumstances of my life I find abhorrent and would never engage in. Politics is about organising, defending, enforcing, and changing the constraints that we must observe while living with other human beings. Sure, tradition and other evolutionary processes play an important role, but man is always faced with the challenge to establish by conscious effort which values and taboos are to count as socially preeminent. People cannot take a permanent holiday from working on the normative frame by which to live.
There are no super-markets with products on their shelves like a can of "being nice to everyone" or a bottle of "total mutual agreement in America."
The forms of political participation are multifarious (especially in a civil society), they can be expected to be shaped by tendentially efficient structures such as a division of labour among more or less politically active members of the community, and, most importantly, political participation ought to be free for every citizen inclined to join the competition for political influence. It is not unreasonable to assume that an open access political order is an important prerequisite for conditions that induce and constrain people to treat each other as if by this they have become better people than in a society less concerned with the individual's desire to be represented or otherwise effective in the political world of her community.
It is mankind's lot to live in a world where politics is so important to our lives that we cannot help but be politically involved. We cannot change that condition, but we can hope that he who has a need for it will be free to get involved in politics. No less than the free market, politics is all about competition; you must get engaged and fight hard to get your objectives recognised and acted upon as intended. If you want something of a political nature to happen, there is got to be someone who cannot help but be politically involved.
Too many terms are used as if they had only one meaning, when, in fact, they can be used to point at very different situations. Political apathy is one such term. Some of the political apathy that people remark upon may indeed be regrettable, but a lot of it is to be welcomed, as it is an indication that the political system works reasonably well and that there are hard workers at it, so called politicians, that practice political participation in a way that leaves us more content than we are willing to concede. The political division of labour works - tolerably well.
It is intrinsically difficult to seek for a political system where (a) high levels of active mass political participation are not required, leaving people free to pursue other goals, AND (b) expect that politics must be free from decisions that any given non-participant among that huge majority may feel not to be representing her. In a word: you cannot have suitably low levels of mass political participation without systematic and chronic attacks on the fairness and effectiveness of the political system - which is one of the lasting imperfections in politics. More direct democracy has limits of feasibility that make themselves felt quickly as a study of the counterproductive outcomes of direct democracy in the Greek polis reveals.
- In a bad political system, you must put up with politicians who do not always do what you want.
- In a good political system, you must put up with politicians who do not always do what you want.
Yet, there is a huge difference between both systems.
Yet the increasing scope of politics and political decisionmaking in America and other Western nations has precisely the opposite effect. It’s bad for our policies and, just as important, it’s bad for our souls. The solution is simple: when questions arise about whether the scope of politics should be broadened, we must realistically look at the effects that politics itself has on the quality of those decisions and on our own virtue.
We might need a new epithet to describe the partisan propensity to regard an instance of what appears to them an important political defect as being part of a chain reaction that inexorably leads to a dystopian state which is bad for our souls.
How about the domino illusion?
True, there are dominoes that fall, but they do not fall in a perfect and fatal cascade, some remain errect, some are being picked up again, and new ones are set up as well. In paragraph 3 above, I have already tried to convince my readers that the increasing scope of politics and political descisionmaking in America has aspects to it that no one of us would wish to miss. So this is a real option, too: politics may increase in scope and the world is getting better for it. It is not helpful to ignore this important fact. Indeed, there can be no good political theory that does not take cognizance of the full range of significant effects achieved by politics.
the effects that politics itself has on the quality of those decisions and on our own virtue
I have noted in paragraph 4:
an open access political order is an important prerequisite for conditions that induce and constrain people to treat each other as if by this they have become better people than in a society less concerned with the individual's desire to be represented or otherwise effective in the political world of her community.
Politics takes a continuum of possibilities and turns it into a small group of discrete outcomes, often just two. Either this guy gets elected, or that guy does. Either a given policy becomes law or it doesn’t. As a result, political choices matter greatly to those most affected. An electoral loss is the loss of a possibility. These black and white choices mean politics will often manufacture problems that previously didn’t exist, such as the “problem” of whether we—as a community, as a nation—will teach children creation or evolution.
I am tempted to coin another term - the ice-berg fallacy, i.e. for the full picture one must dive deeper, the top of the ice-berg is not the whole story. Politics is concerned with political scarcity, meaning: it is about coping with the socially destructive potential of mutually exclusive partisan positions. In other words, the discrete outcomes that the authors claim to be the unwarranted product of politics are often residuals of social tensions that cannot be resolved by other means, such as market transactions. I am in favour of nuclear energy. And you are not. What next?
Admittedly, politics can be used to create discrete outcomes of a deplorably reductionist kind, reducing for instance the competitive processes in the world of management to an artificial either-them-or-us-issue as in decreeing a female quota for executive boards. But then, I challenge any comer to show me, how free markets can get rid of such inordinate politicisation. Again, we need to enage in politics to keep politics within reasonable bounds. There is no escaping politics.
Also, what appear to be binary choices (either him or her, either this or that policy) are often better understood in view of the large hidden ramifications that qualify and counterbalance such either-or: Each candidate must take into consideration the multifarious views and interests of the electorate; her programme and actual politics will reflect a wider spectrum of constraints, ambitions and demands than fit into a neat dichotomy. The politician appears dishonest precisely because she must try to do justice to differing and competing positions within the electorate. Before and after being elected, the politician will have to take into account other institutions of the democratic culture (apart from the elective mandate): authorities, courts, all kinds of associations, all sorts of committees etc whose purposeit is to expose her to wider efforts at exercising influence and exerting control over the politically powerful incumbent. In a society with democratic mass participation in politics, people are influencing each other all the time through exposure to debate, changing and competing views, and practical encounters in the processes of political competition and cooperation. The truly dichotomous choices are embedded in an environment of permanent mutual control, adjustment, and compromise - everyone is free to enter the competition and seek out her opportunities to contribute to supervising, shaping the visions of and cooperatively participating in the political processes. The system creates winners and losers, but they are not always the same people; sometime this party wins, sometimes it loses; such competition certainly does not leave a gilded trail of neat solutions happily endorsed by everyone, but it does produce a trust ultimately recognisable by the public's general peaceful tolerance of the political system.
Oddly, many believe that political decisionmaking is an egalitarian way of allowing all voices to be heard. Nearly everyone can vote, after all, and because no one has more than one vote, the outcome seems fair.
But outcomes in politics are hardly ever fair. Once decisions are given over to the political process, the only citizens who can affect the outcome are those with sufficient political power. The most disenfranchised minorities become those whose opinions are too rare to register on the political radar. In an election with thousands of voters, a politician is wise to ignore the grievances of 100 people whose rights are trampled given how unlikely those 100 are to determine the outcome.
We have just seen that far more opinions and interests have been taken into consideration in a complex process that leads among other things in the end also to a number of dichotomous choices (say, abortion or pro-life).
While the very rationale for engaging in politics is to handle intransigent antagonisms, of which no society can be free, in order to do so politicians - in a resilient democracy - must of necessity be open to compromise and middle-of-the-road-positions, and much of their work before and after getting elected will be heavily constrained by the rule of law and other institutions of a democratic open access society. In fact, it will be in the interest of the politician to comply with and support such institutions, rather than undermining them all of the time. So the authors' general assertion is not true: Once decisions are given over to the political process, the only citizens who can affect the outcome are those with sufficient political power. Democracy as an entire culture of practices and institutions has evolved to protect people with highly differential degrees of political power. To make this point, I like to remind people that Mr. Obama is far from being the richest man in America, and Bundeskanzlerin Merkel is so weak - thanks to our democratic culture - she cannot even dispossess a small baker by political fiat to have her bakery-chain (if she had one) take advantage of his shop's good location and attractive clientele.
But outcomes in politics are hardly ever fair. Can there ever be a world where it is not possible or not endeavoured by any one to reproach others for being unfair?What world do the authors propose to establish, where outcomes are hardly ever unfair? Are they not really coquetting with the nirvana fallacy? "Fairness" - that is one of those infinitely stretchable words. Again, politics is called upon to manage human affairs precisely when people find it hard to achieve congruency of opinion, as when there are diverging ideas of what may count as "fair."
As for minorities, one can certainly observe very small groups achieving disproportionate political influence, while other minorities may be lacking any clout. There are countless reasons for that. By the end of the day, in an open political order, however, impact is ultimately a matter of resolve, perseverance, skill - and luck - but not primarily a function of the number of activists hoping to attain political weight.
As Chris Berg writes poignantly:
Democratic institutions ensure that if you want to alter policy, you have to convince your fellow citizens that change is desirable.
And, because any single vote will not change an election outcome, you have to convince a very large number that your cause is so important they should make an expressive, personal, "irrational" stand at the ballot box.
The futility of voting means that democracy resists sudden radical change. This is a good thing.
So many people who complain that the "system" is rigged are in truth complaining that most other citizens don't agree with them.
The reason why many minorities, and indeed, majorities, may not feel to be represented as they would wish, is not that people are being oppressed, i.e. denied the exertion of political influence, but the fact that they judge the opportunity costs of political engagement far too high to give up alternative preferences. Which, in turn, I would tend to interpret as indicative of a broad popular concurrence with the present political division of labour among population and political activists.
To be continued.