Election 101 — Political Theory

Introduction

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Political theory inhabits the realm of our ideals and not the messy world of everyday politics. Perhaps this is even more true during an election year. Yes, this is the time when lofty expressions of political ideals are invoked, but it is also when our political cynicism is at its highest; when politicians peddle, plead, and pander to win our votes and when we see the contradictions in their promises and their policies or their values and their personal histories. A focus on theory or philosophy seems an unnecessary extravagance, a distraction even. But is it? The best ideas can help us to better understand our practices and perhaps guide and improve them.

Political theorist, David Runciman certainly thinks so. In fact, Runciman thinks that the history of political thought from Thomas Hobbes to George Orwell should disabuse us of some of our loftier notions of politics and give us a healthy dose of realism about what we can and should expect from our politicians. In Political Hypocrisy, Runciman argues that we must give up our search for the truly authentic political candidate and accept the fact of political hypocrisy. Far from being a call for cynical resignation, Runciman thinks we should instead learn to tell the difference between those hypocrisies which are benign and those which truly matter to our collective political futures.

But is acceptance of hypocrisy as a fact of political life enough to inspire an already apathetic electorate to get out and participate in the process that is democracy? With all the demands being made on our time, energy, and our limited attention-spans, what more can we do to encourage engagement in civic life? Our apathy is not unique to our political and historical circumstances argues Ben Berger in Attention Deficit Democracy. Rather, a lack of energy and attention are endemic to democratic societies and Berger has some ideas as to what we can do to alleviate, if not eliminate, these tendencies.

But do we want to foster more engagement from citizens? Do we want to uphold the notion that voting is our “civic duty” and to refrain from doing so a moral failing? Jason Brennan, in his thought-provoking book, The Ethics of Voting argues that we do not. In fact, Brennan argues that there is such a thing as “bad voting” and that some citizens under certain condition have an obligation to abstain from casting a ballot. They may have a right to vote, but not a duty. Brennan does think that we could all do better in thinking about how and who to vote for and he provide us with some tips for making better and more informed choices.

In an election year, partisan differences are starker than ever. There is, of course, talk of “bipartisanship,” “reaching across the aisle,” and “moving to the center,” but in the end candidates do all that they can to make voters see a clear and distinct difference between the parties. And this how it should be argues Nancy Rosenblum in On the Side of the Angels, her rousing defense of parties and partisanship. The term “partisan” is no dirty word here. On the contrary, it is the locus of our political identities and helps to make our politics focused and meaningful. Independent? Pick a side. You’ll be a better citizen for it.

But in the end, we must cross party-lines and get down to the business of governing, right? Not so fast. Campaigning is never over in our all-access, all-the-time political culture where politicians’ every word and every vote is scrutinized for ideological purity and where re-election requires strict allegiance to the party line. Such a state of perpetual campaigning makes compromise extraordinarily difficult, a politically dirty word even. But compromise we must Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson argue in The Spirit of Compromise if we are to govern effectively in a democracy and they have some strategies for reducing the gridlock stopping up the works of government.

–Rob Tempio, Executive Editor of Political Theory, @robtempio

 

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Excerpted from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History.

 

Featured Books

The Ethics of Voting
Jason Brennan

The Spirit of Compromise
Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It
Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Reading List


Attention Deficit Democracy

The Paradox of Civic Engagement
Ben Berger

The Ethics of Voting

Jason Brennan

The Spirit of Compromise

Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It
Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson

On the Side of the Angels

An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship
Nancy L. Rosenblum

Political Hypocrisy

The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond
David Runciman

Is Democracy Possible Here?

Principles for a New Political Debate
Ronald Dworkin

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