Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel on Decolonization

DecolonizationThe end of colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean was one of the most important and dramatic developments of the twentieth century. In the decades after World War II, dozens of new states emerged as actors in global politics. Long-established imperial regimes collapsed, some more or less peacefully, others amid mass violence. Decolonization by Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel takes an incisive look at decolonization and its long-term consequences, revealing it to be a coherent yet multidimensional process at the heart of modern history. Recently, the authors answered some questions about their new book:

You describe the dissolution of colonial empires as a major process of the twentieth century. What makes decolonization important?

In a way, decolonization is both among the most overrated and underrated historical processes of the twentieth century. On the one hand, many contemporaries pinned high expectations to the end of colonial rule: a new age of social and international equality, post-racism, peace, empowerment of the South, economic redistribution, cultural self-determination, democracy, technological progress, etc. Many of these expectations did not, or only partially, materialize. Hierarchies and inequality continue to shape the relations between formally independent states. It is thus only natural that many see decolonization through the prism of historical disappointment and disillusion. They regard decolonization as a failure. Yet we also have to see what decolonization did change: It dramatically altered the norms that govern the word-wide relations between nations and peoples. While in the late 1930s large parts of the world population still lived in territories that were under alien rule, this has become an anomaly in the present time. Racial hierarchy is no longer an accepted structuring principle of world order. This fundamental normative change is a major dimension—and yes, also an achievement—of the decolonization era. In general, it is important to go beyond these narratives of failure and success and to understand decolonization as a fundamental restructuring—and geopolitical fragmentation—of the international system. This is a perspective we put forward in the book.

How do you explain this international sea change?

This is a question that many contemporaries and witnesses of decolonization were already debating, and today’s historians and political scientists have inherited several ways of explaining the end of colonial rule: that the colonial powers simply could not stem against the rising tide of national liberation movements, that the new postwar international scene of the Cold War and international organizations forced Europe’s colonial powers to give up colonial rule, or that the colonial powers, in association with influential big business interests, realized that they could pursue their interests in more cost-effective ways than colonial rule, the classical “neo-colonialism” theory. In our book, in line with today’s excellent scholarship, we try to avoid overtly simplified models. Decolonization was a multifaceted and complex historical process, and its sheer geographical breadth should caution us against one-factor-theories. The book seeks to provide an analytical grid that takes into account various levels of historical action (local, imperial, international) and time frames. This grid may be used by our readers to analyze and describe specific cases, and may also help to explain decolonization in comparative perspective.

How irreversible is this process, in light of the current international scene? Are there no clear signs that the international order marked by decolonization is coming to an end?

Decolonization never did away with power structures between nations and peoples. Rather, it changed the ways in which these hierarchies are arranged and exercised. The formally sovereign nation-state—and no longer the empire—has become the basis of the international system. Despite the current renaissance of “spheres of interest” and “interventions,” as worrisome as these tendencies are, we do not see the reemergence of internationally codified hierarchies between “metropoles” and “colonies.” To be sure, the post-1989 international order has been under great pressure. Yet, there are no historical precedents for the reappearance of once collapsed empires. If current talk of a “Greater Russia” really leads to Russian “re-imperialization” remains to be seen. In that case, Russian ambitions will eventually clash with a self-confident China, ironically its old Asian rival, which, by the way, has never really ceased to be an empire. Elsewhere, the rise of xenophobic and racist movements throughout the Western world hardly seems to be inspired by the desire to be again at the pinnacle of a diverse and multi-ethnic empire. These movements want to minimize interaction with what they conceive as the inferior and dangerous other (be they Syrians, Eastern Europeans, or Mexicans); their new symbol is “the Wall.” Colonial re-expansion would necessarily go in a different direction.

You also argue that decolonization marked “a crucial phase in West European nation-building.” What do you mean by this?

Of course, decolonization did not bring about new European nation-states. This happened in the global South. Yet, it did have a considerable impact on the European metropoles, and also on Japan, which had built up its own colonial empire in Asia from the late nineteenth century on. These metropoles were closely tied to their overseas possessions, and it is one of the paradoxes of the decolonization era that such ties intensified at the very moment of imperial demise. After the Second World War, Great Britain and France, the two leading colonial powers, sought to facilitate mobility within their imperial spheres and set up, by today’s standards, relatively liberal citizenship laws for people from their respective empires. Decolonization, in this context, came as no less than a rupture in longstanding geopolitical orientations. It set off a new phase in European nation-building, a sort of nation-building by way of contraction. The metropoles had to dissolve or redefine the many—economic, political, social, also mental—ties to their respective empires. In light of increased immigration from their former colonial territories, they also had to redefine what it meant to be British, French, or Dutch. Though not produced by the end of empire, European supranational integration became enmeshed in European decolonization: the postcolonial European nation-states started to focus on Europe and the European market, which more than made up for their losses in former imperial trade. Great Britain, marked by a long-standing ambivalence toward continental Europe, made its first attempt to join the European Common Market in 1961, after the disaster of the Suez crisis and at the apogee of African decolonization. In a way, the 2016 “Brexit” vote to drop out of the European Union concluded this period of postimperial British supra-nationalism.

How present is the history of decolonization today?

Remnants of the colonial past and the decolonization era are pervasive. They remind us that our current world was built out of the ruins of empire. For example, a large portion of international borders between states, including the conflicts they sometimes nourish, have been the result of colonial rule. Decolonization basically enshrined most of them as the borders between sovereign nation-states. Some of the most troubling conflicts in the world—such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the conflict between Pakistan and India—can be traced back to the decolonization era. Yet, notwithstanding the many apparent links, assessing the long-term impact of decolonization and the colonial past remains a tricky operation. Postcolonial countries have taken very different trajectories, sometimes starting from the same colonial system. Consider the two Koreas which had been under Japanese rule and which took diverging paths. The Syrian civil war, to cite another case, can hardly be seen as the ineluctable result of Franco-British quasi-colonial rule in the Middle East during the interwar years.

While the impact of the colonial past and the decolonization process may be fading with time, memories relating to this period have experienced a boom over the past two decades. Certainly, many episodes of the decolonization period remain largely forgotten. Who remembers the bloody repression of a major insurrection in Madagascar in 1947–49? Yet, debates about the colonial past and its end have attracted a great deal of attention not only in formerly colonized countries, but also in Japan and in many European countries. These memories have even become a concern in the diplomatic world. Internationally concerted efforts at remembering the effects—and the many victims—of colonial rule, similar to what we have seen with regard to the Holocaust or the world wars, however, are still no more than a wild dream by some historians.

Why did you write this book?

Decolonization has become an important topic in international historical scholarship, a development not completely detached from the memory boom we just talked about. Over the past two decades, historians and social scientists around the world have worked at piecing together a complex picture of this process and its reverberations. In many cases they have unearthed new archival evidence, a lot of which has only recently become accessible. Decolonization is in the process of turning into a highly productive—and specialized—research field. The wealth of new empirical studies, however, has been rarely accompanied by attempts at synthesis or general interpretation. The book offers such a broader survey. We sought to write it in a clear, accessible prose which addresses students and scholars, but also readers from outside the historical profession who are interested in this process.

Jan C. Jansen is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Jürgen Osterhammel is professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Konstanz. He is a recipient of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Germany’s most prestigious academic award. His books include The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton).

 

 

 

Cass Sunstein on the echo chamber and his new book, #Republic

SunsteinSocial media gives us ways to nurture ever more elaborate online communities, but is it friendly to the kind of democracy diverse societies need? In #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein, the New York Times bestselling author of Nudge and The World According to Star Wars, shows exactly how today’s Internet is driving political fragmentation, polarization, and even extremism—and what can be done about it. Recently, Sunstein answered a few questions about his timely new book.

Why did you write this book, and how does it relate to your previous work?

Well, we are obviously in a time of national division. The splits between Americans across political lines are striking and disturbing, and there’s a lot of division and mutual misunderstanding out there. There is distrust and anger as well. Social media contributes to those splits. So I wanted to get hold of what is a really serious problem in a nation that aspires to E Pluribus Unum. The book grows out of my previous books on the general subject—but the media environment has changed so rapidly that some of the central arguments, e.g. about Twitter and Facebook, are entirely new.

What new threats to democracy does the internet pose now that it didn’t pose, say, five years ago? Haven’t people always sorted themselves into like-minded groups?

We used to have a much larger role for general interest intermediaries, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. That’s diminished, and with it, trust in them has diminished too. The use of niches—especially for people who are politically engaged—is pretty dramatic. Hashtag Nation (#Nation) isn’t really something we’ve seen before. I wouldn’t want to say that things are getting worse, but they’re getting differently bad.

We’ve all heard the term “echo chamber,” perhaps particularly in the recent election cycle. Can you talk a bit about this idea and the implicit dangers?

Echo chambers breed extremism. If you hang out with like-minded people, you’ll get more confident and more extreme—and the group will get more unified. Pretty soon, people in different echo chambers live in different political universes. That makes problem-solving really hard, and it makes enmity really easy. My own work in the White House showed me the importance of focusing on objective truths and of not insulating oneself—echo chambers are destructive to those endeavors.

How can the internet be made friendlier to democratic deliberation?

A big question. Let’s start with Facebook: It should redo its News Feed so as to ensure that there’s less in the way of informational cocoons. Let’s end with each of us: We should make choices so that we hear lots of points of view, including from people we think we disagree with. If you can’t learn something from someone with a very different political orientation, you’re missing a lot. You’re not an ideal citizen, or close to it.

What kind of democracy is needed in diverse societies, and how can your book help us to get there?

We need deliberative democracy—one in which people deliberate with people who are unlike themselves, and learn from them. We need to put a premium on science and facts. We need serendipitous encounters with people and ideas that we would not choose to engage. We need a lot more technocracy, not less. The book might have a few ideas on those subjects.

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler), The World According to Star Wars, and #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

William G. Howell: Unilateral Politics Revisited (and Revised) under Trump

The election of Donald Trump clearly marks a break with, if not a repudiation, of the past. But even in these white-knuckle days of his early presidency, we also can discern familiar features of executive power and the politics of unilateral action. Not everything about Trump is new. And if we want to get serious about fashioning a response, whether in support or opposition, we must resist the temptation to treat Trump as purely an aberration.

Let’s begin with the recurrent, if not the customary. Trump is hardly the first president to traffic in nativist appeals, to call for a reordering of national priorities, or to renounce, if only rhetorically, the powers and privileges of a self-interested class of political experts in favor of a supposedly forgotten people. Trump is following a populist path previously trodden by the likes of Andrew Jackson, Williams Jennings Bryan, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan.

Nor is Trump the first president to launch his presidency with a flurry of policy initiatives. Nearly all modern presidents go out of their way to project an image of energy and command the moment they move into the White House. And rather than work directly with Congress, many of them, like Trump, choose to hit the ground running through administrative fiat rather than legislative engagement.

To be sure, Trump failed to deliver on his campaign promise to overturn Obamacare on Day One. But he did direct the federal bureaucracy to ease up on its implementation until Congress gets around to dismantling it. He then put a freeze on regulations currently under consideration and established new protocols that require federal agencies drop two old regulations for every new one they adopt. Trump accelerated the permit process for private companies building the Keystone Pipeline. He reinstated a ban on funding for international family planning agencies that provide information about abortion services. He formally withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He reconstituted the organization and membership of the National Security Council. He instituted a ban on refugees and immigrants coming into the country. In just the first two weeks of his presidency, he did all this and more.

To advance this expansive agenda, Trump drew upon the full arsenal of unilateral directives available to presidents. He issued executive orders, proclamations, national security directives, and memoranda. And like his predecessors, he fabricated altogether new power tools—in this instance, National Security Presidential Memoranda, for which the Pentagon appears to be the primary audience.

Trump also isn’t the first president to invite controversy through unilateral action. Harry Truman desegregated the military, Bill Clinton extended federal protections to hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, George W. Bush directed substantial federal funds to religious organizations, and Barack Obama imposed all sorts of new environmental regulations at times when legislative action on these matters was altogether unthinkable.

We also have witnessed before the kinds of institutional checks that now frustrate Trump. Indeed, they are the essential elements of any theory of unilateral action. Presidents push outward just as far as they can, the adjoining branches of government offer variable amounts of resistance, and in the exchange, the reach and meaning of presidential powers are defined.

But not all is familiar. This go-around, the fallout of unilateral action is a good deal louder and more disruptive than at any other time in modern American history. Never before have so many protests been voiced, so much opposition rallied, so much confusion sowed in the aftermath of orders issued this early in a presidential term.

Just hours after Trump issued his immigration ban, U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly, a Barak Obama appointee, intervened and issued a temporary stay. A week later, U.S. District Judge James Robart, who George W. Bush appointed to the bench, expanded the stay nationwide. In the intervening days, impromptu protests and legal clinics sprouted up in airports across the nation. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to defend the order in court, an act of defiance for which she was promptly fired. Members of Trump’s own administration professed to have learned about the order through the media. Within the State Department, over 1,000 people signed a petition against Trump’s agenda. This past Saturday, then, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was suspending all efforts to enforce the immigration ban.

This is not normal. Far from it. In the wake of most executive orders, broad acquiescence, if not perfect silence, typically sets in. Past presidents, after all, have made a point of vetting their orders with policy experts, ensuring their legality with the Office of Legal Counsel, conferring with key partners and adversaries, and then adjusting accordingly. This advance work has not been in the service of governing cooperatively or ceding ground to political opponents. Rather, it has enabled these presidents to discern exactly how far they can push policy without being subsequently overturned, and then prepare those individuals charged with defending and implementing these orders.

What, then, are we to make of the chaos and fury born of Trump’s early actions? One line of thinking points toward an administration wholly unaware of the president’s position in our system of separated powers and entirely insensitive to the costs of bureaucratic resistance, judicial intervention, and mass protest. The tumult of these past two weeks, by this accounting, reflects poorly on an inexperienced and impetuous man with little regard for the rules of procedure and governing norms of American political institutions.

We have before us plenty of evidence to support this line of reasoning. But there are other possibilities to consider. Maybe Trump (and those who advise him) are quite deliberately trying to escalate the fight with his adversaries. Having inherited a bureaucracy not of his making, Trump may be searching for ways to identify those who will stand with him and those who will merely stand in the way. Nothing draws out a lurking enemy quite like an open battle.

Alternatively, Trump may be trying to lure his opponents into a pitched fight that will do lasting damage to their reputations. A press that misreports—as it did in claiming that Trump removed a bust of Martin Luther King from the Oval office—and a protest that turns violent—as occurred in Berkeley, CA—provide all sorts of fodder for a president bent on discrediting the mainstream media and restoring law and order to the country.

Instead, Trump may be playing to a base that cares less about policy than about waging an existential war on Washington. The dustups caused by these unilateral directives may not productively change policy, but in the eyes of Trump’s supporters, they may serve as proof positive that their man is righteously renouncing the discredited rules of a broken political system.  

We don’t know what exactly Trump is up to. It’s possible that we’re witnessing gross incompetence. Alternatively, we may also be seeing the initial gambit in a new and larger political struggle.

In either case, the spectacle is new, and its stakes are enormous.     

Thinking about the PresidencyWilliam Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at the University of Chicago. He is the author or co-author of three Princeton University Press books that focus on different facets of presidential power: Power without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action (2003); While Dangers Gather: Congressional Checks on Presidential War Powers (2007); and Thinking about the Presidency: The Primacy of Power.

 

David Runciman on the new year’s challenges to democracy

In a video interview now featured on the London Review of Books homepage, David Runciman, author of The Confidence Trap, talks about Trump, Brexit and threats to democracy. Threats to democracy are nothing new; the US has survived threats ranging from the Great Depression to the Cuban missile crisis. Runciman shows that in fact, democracies are very good at recovering from emergencies, leading to the false belief that they are indestructible. In The Confidence Trap, Runciman argues that such complacency may lead to a crisis that is just too big to escape.

Read Runciman’s articles for the LRB from the past year:

Is this how democracy ends? · 1 December 2016

Untouchable? The Tory State · 8 September 2016

Where are we now? Responses to the Referendum · 14 July 2016

Short Cuts: the Coalition · 5 May 2016

Deliverology: Blair Hawks His Wares · 31 March 2016

 

 

Jason Stanley: On the Question of the Stability of Democracy

After a divisive election, the question of democracy’s stability has again commanded public attention. What has philosophy said to this, one of our discipline’s foundational questions?

Plato and Aristotle both regarded stability as a vital metric by which to evaluate political systems, though they differed in their judgments about democracy. Plato’s Republic is about proper governance, of the City and the Soul. In Book VIII, Socrates introduces the democratic city to his interlocutor Adeimantus, as follows:

First of all, then, aren’t they free? And isn’t the city full of freedom and freedom of speech? And doesn’t everyone in it have the license to do what he wants?
That’s what they say at any rate.
And where people have this license, it’s clear that each of them will arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him.
It is.
Then I suppose that it’s most of all under this constitution that one finds people of all varieties.
Of course. [557b]

What follows this passage is a description of “the characteristics of democracy,” such as “the city’s tolerance.” [558b] In summary, “…it would seem to be a pleasant constitution, which lacks rulers and not variety and which distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.” [558c]

A culture whose central value is liberty will lead to sweeping social equality. In a democratic city, students in the academies challenge their teachers (there are campus protests) [563a]. A democratic culture equalizes those who are natural-born and immigrant; in such a system “[a] resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen.” [562e] Democracy is inconsistent with enslaving others [563b], and in a democracy there is equality between men and women [563b].

Lacking access to a quality education is a severe restriction on freedom, as it limits one’s career possibilities. Lacking a safe source of fresh water is a limit on freedom, as the search for it can absorb time better spent on pursuing liberty, rather than attending to necessity. A society’s commitment to liberty is precarious if the sphere of free action accorded to some, merely by virtue of birth position, is vastly greater than the sphere of free action accorded to others. This is why we provide public goods, in the form of for example public education, and drinking water. But even if unjust inequality is eliminated, liberty will lead to inequalities of wealth due to life choices. In a society devoted to liberty, people will rise to positions of wealth and influence by such choices, and obstacles to the rise of members of traditionally oppressed groups will be dismantled.

Socrates recognizes that the flourishing of liberties, the diversity of practices and customs, and social equality may seem attractive. However, he urges us to attend to its risks. People are not naturally inclined to self-governance, “always in the habit of setting up one man as their special champion, nurturing him and making him great.” [565d] Democracy also creates a vast amount of resentment, due to the social upheaval required by prizing freedom, and the attendant costs to traditions, customs, and hierarchies. A tyrant takes advantage of the resentments created by democracy, and the hunger for authority. The tyrant “dominates a docile mob” by bringing “someone to trial on false charges.” [565a] The tyrant’s “impious tongue and lips taste kindred citizen blood,” and the tyrant “drops hints to the people about the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land.” [566a]

About the first days of the future tyrant’s reign, Plato writes:

During the first days of his reign, and for some time after, won’t he smile in welcome at anyone he meets, saying that he’s no tyrant, making all sorts of promises both in public and in private, freeing the people from debt, redistributing the land to them and to his followers, and pretending to be gracious and gentle to all? [566d,e]

What follows [566e -569c] is a description of the descent from the first days. The tyrant will need to “stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need for a leader” [566e], those who dare “to speak freely to each other and to him, criticizing what’s happening” [567b] will be purged. Finally, the tyrant will appoint a bodyguard from among his most “loyal followers.” [567e]

Plato sees in democracy’s ideal of the freedom of speech the cause of its inevitable downfall. Ever increasing pressure for freedom and equality will lead to resentments of fellow citizens, as will the inevitable hypocritical use of these ideals (e.g. when the ideal of liberty is used to justify corruption). A tyrant will exploit these resentments to stoke fear of fellow citizens. Taking advantage of the human attraction to authority, they will present themselves as the only savior from the enemies who are the focus of their demagoguery. Once the tyrant takes over they will end democracy, replacing it with tyranny.

Aristotle was more sanguine. In Aristotle’s democratic city, all citizens participate in the formation of the laws by which they are governed, an activity that for Aristotle was the purest expression of freedom. The equal participation of all citizens in the formation of the policies that will be adopted and fairly applied lends the system its stability. Aristotle also emphasizes Democracy’s epistemic virtues, arguing that open and honest cooperative deliberation about policy between all citizens yields better results, in the form of wiser policy, further strengthening the stability of the system. Democracy requires a clean public square.

Plato’s democratic city is based upon a notion of liberty as unconstrained freedom to satisfy one’s desires, freedom from the limitations of customs and traditions. Aristotle’s conception of democracy, by contrast, allows democratic societies to have homogeneous value systems. However, this is possible only if all citizens freely and equally participate in the decision to adopt them, decisions that must be continually revisited. Participating equally in such decisions is, for Aristotle, genuine freedom.

Contemporary liberal democracies differ from these conceptions of democracy in at least two ways. First, they incorporate essential insights of Christianity, such as the concept of human rights. Secondly, they involve elected representatives to act on behalf of our best interests, tasked to deliberate with one another reflectively, openly, and truthfully, with willingness to changing their minds and compromise.

American democracy differs in a significant way from most other Western democracies, which make Plato’s concerns particularly relevant. Democracies throughout the world, in the words of Jeremy Waldron, have the “conviction that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect for its citizens.” But our Constitution provides the broadest protections for speech in the political arena. India’s first amendment bans hate speech; our first amendment protects it. In many other democracies, a public official who described Islam as “like a cancer,” a “political ideology that hides behind this notion of being a religion,” as the incoming National Security Advisor has said, would be prosecuted. In the United States, we have chosen a different path. If Plato is right, our democracy is especially in danger.

The historical record, however, speaks differently. The United States is the world’s oldest continuous government. Our institutions and practices seem especially safe.

Yet optimism is warranted only insofar as it reflects our country’s historical commitment to its values. Sadly our democracy has always been partial, its ideals hypocritically employed. In 1852, in a Fourth of July speech, Frederick Douglass asked:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

Perhaps the fact that American politicians have traditionally felt the need to express their loyalty most centrally to the democratic ideal of freedom speaks to the strength of our country’s democratic character, even in the face of its history?

Aimé Césaire writes, “a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another call for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” This was not lost on Thomas Jefferson, whose rejection of what we now call “nation building” was due to his understanding of the difficulty of insulating an imperial power’s domestic politics from the clearly anti-democratic practices required in invading and occupying other nations by force. When we waged war against the Japanese, we interned our fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry. Our recent colonial adventures in the Middle East threaten to reverberate in similar ways back to our shores.

This election campaign raises clear concerns about our democratic character. A press free to criticize those in political power is the emblem of a healthy democracy. But during his campaign rallies, the president-elect would place the media into a “pen,” and whip his audience into a frenzy of hatred against them. Campaigning by demonizing a critical media is campaigning against democracy. The explicit illiberalism of the president-elect, his hatred of the press and his open intolerance, is what attracted voters to him.

Clinton’s campaign made a devastating error by failing to recognize the appeal of illiberalism. The strategy of their ad campaign, which featured lengthy snippets of the president-elect at his most illiberal, presupposed a general commitment to liberal democratic values. It is in any case a familiar point from George Lakoff’s 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, that one should not repeat the opposition’s rhetorical frames even if it is to condemn them. Instead, one should provide an alternative positive vision, in this case of liberal democratic values. Anything else is campaign money spent on advertising for the opposition.

For Aristotle, it is the law that gives democracy its stability. If all citizens participate equally in its formation, and the law is applied fairly, the system will be stable. Taking these two criteria as metrics of stability, how should we think of our current situation?

In many states, the laws that ensured that minority groups could equally participate have been abandoned and replaced by laws that impede their ability. The president-elect has nominated Jeff Sessions to administer the laws; he is famous for harshly pursuing the prosecution of civil rights activists registering black fellow citizens for voter fraud. The president-elect has claimed that there was an immense voter fraud problem in the recent election. Bernie Sanders has pointed out that there is a “hidden message” here; it is green lighting Republican governors to pursue restrictive voter registration laws that disenfranchise minorities in large numbers.

It is also important to note how the president-elect communicates the message that even more restrictive voter registration laws are required. He does so by appealing to his power as leader to define an alternative reality. Given his alternative reality, one needs such laws. Therefore, one needs such laws. This is not normal democratic politics. It is authoritarian politics. The leader can dictate the reality that justifies the application of the laws.

There are other signs of an embrace of an authoritarian conception of the law. Recently, Sessions praised the president-elect’s 1989 comments about the Central Park Five, teenagers accused and convicted on the basis of coerced testimony of a terrible crime and later completely exonerated, as showing his commitment to “law and order.” At the time, the president-elect described them as “crazed misfits,” and called for their execution. Sessions’ use of “law and order” refers to a system of laws that has at its center an authority figure whose judgments, whether fair or not, constitute the law. This is a conception of law and order the rejection of which is the very basis upon which our country is founded. To be subject to the arbitrary whim of a ruler is not freedom.

From a perspective that regards tradition, identity, or religion as the chief sources of value, liberal democracy is an existential threat to what gives meaning to human life. If liberal democracy’s disturbances of the social order bring no obvious benefit, materially or spiritually, to those to whom the losses have been most deeply felt, we can hardly expect universal support for its values.

Carl Schmitt denounced freedom as a merely hypocritical ideal, on the grounds that liberal states regularly defend their freedoms by suspending them. A healthy liberal democratic culture resists these temptations to “protect” its democratic freedoms in such manifestly hypocritical ways. And yet our nation has a long history of this kind of hypocrisy. Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman recently described the motivation for Nixon’s “war on drugs” as follows:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

In Michigan, democratically elected mayors and city councils are disbanded in cases of supposed “financial emergency.” Even liberal democracy’s greatest critics did not think its citizens would allow the language of emergency to be so misused in peacetime.

And what if the United States fails? What if we replace our allegiance to freedom with an allegiance to some version of national identity, of a fictionalized shared heritage, or an official national religion? What if we become a one party state, with a muted and cowed press, left with the formal procedures of democracy but little else? What obstacles will face those of us who seek to make America great again?

We have grown accustomed to hyper-incarceration as a solution to our social problems. This is dangerous in a country that has only ever known what W.E.B. Du Bois called our “two systems of justice,” one for our white citizens, and the other for our black citizens. When the president-elect randomly tweets, apropos nothing, that burning the flag should lead to loss of citizenship, or a term in prison, he is signaling that it is the second system of justice that awaits those who dissent.

Both previous administrations have defended an all-powerful security apparatus and severe punishment for its whistleblowers. In the face of legal protest, our police don the garments of our military. Too many members of the political class in the UK and USA have profited mightily from power. While it has not been to the extent of the world’s most notable authoritarians, it has been notable enough to ward off future alarm bells that should be headed. Charges of dynastic succession will ring hollow when it is recalled that in this election, the “smart money” pit the son and brother of two former presidents against the wife of another.

Suspicion of the press has mutated into the loss of truth; we lack a common reality. But when truth is gone, the press can no longer defend itself against charges of bias. Our deliberative bodies have long since collapsed, our representatives locked in combat, not cooperation. Politicians have placed fealty to Christian values explicitly over democratic ones, and have been rewarded for it at the ballot box. With this background, it is understandable that many Americans are sympathetic to the view that all politics is struggle between groups, with the façade of cooperation or honesty being only propaganda used to mask that reality. Convincing American citizens that the values of liberal democracy are not mere masks for political struggle between groups is the largest challenge we face.

Illiberal nationalist parties have swept to power, or its doorstep, in healthy and prosperous European liberal democracies. Judging by Hungary and Poland, such parties have no incentive to be fair to their critics. Nor we should not expect them to be. Fairness is a liberal value. Illiberal nationalists view politics through the prism of war, and the legal system as a weapon.

Plato predicted that democracy would end by the hand of a demagogue who stoked the fuel of the resentments caused by freedom’s disturbances of the ground of tradition. Faced with an enemy for whom political disagreement is war, the struggle to retain our liberal freedoms will be hard. We must resist the temptation to adopt their ethic; it is no way to defend our own. But the window of liberal democracy is closing, and the time for its vigorous defense is now.

StanleyJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of How Propaganda Works.

Cass Sunstein: A sneak peek at #Republic

Forthcoming in March 2017, Cass Sunstein’s new book, #Republic speaks to our heightened state of internet-driven polarization. Arguing that social media sorts us into like-minded groups, causing political fragmentation and even extremism, Sunstein proposes practical and legal changes to make the Internet friendlier to democratic deliberation. Today on Facebook, he shared a snapshot of a section of his page proofs addressing the 2016 presidential election:

Sunstein

Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler) and The World According to Star Wars. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Michael Chwe: Can democracy be saved by those who have been historically excluded?

Election 2016

by Michael Suk-Young Chwe

If only whites could vote, or only men could vote, Donald Trump would be elected president. The people we rely upon to save democracy are exactly those people whom the United States historically excluded: women and people of color.

Women and people of color have been fighting all these years not just for inclusion in U.S. democracy, but for democracy itself, it turns out. Trump’s candidacy is evidence that the project of Western liberal democracy is not self-sustaining; the ethnic and gender group that claims to have originated it has been unable to maintain consensus around its ideals, and must be bailed out by newcomers who actually take those ideals seriously. Women and people of color have been reluctantly invited to a storied and elegant social engagement, only to have to clean up after the hosts trashing the place.

Only since 2008 has our country’s choice of president differed from the choice of a majority or near-majority of white voters. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won 47 percent of the white vote compared with Gerald Ford’s 52 percent, and in 1992 Bill Clinton won 39 percent of the white vote compared with George H. W. Bush’s 40 percent (the remaining 20 percent of the white vote went to Ross Perot). In all other elections from 1972 to 2004, the candidate who won the white vote won the presidency. However, in 2008 Obama won 43 percent of the white vote compared with McCain’s 55 percent, and in 2012 Obama won only 39 percent of the white vote compared with Romney’s 59 percent.

White men have consistently voted Republican since 1972. When has their favored candidate lost? In 1976, 47 percent of white men voted for Carter and 51 percent voted for Ford, a 4 point “gap.” In 1992, Clinton won 37 percent of the white male vote compared to Bush’s 40 percent, a 3 point gap. In 1996, Clinton won 38 percent of the white male vote compared to Dole’s 49 percent, a much larger 11 point gap. In 2008, Obama won 41 percent of the white male vote compared to McCain’s 57 percent, a 16 point gap. In 2012, Obama won only 35 percent of the white male vote compared to Romney’s 62 percent, a 27 point gap. If only white men could vote, Romney would have been elected in a landslide. But the US elected Obama. As the population of color grows, and the power of women only increases, white men become less important.

How will whites, especially white men, adapt to the new demographic reality: gracefully, petulantly, or destructively? Even ostensibly liberal whites (for example Academy Awards voters, who are overwhelmingly white and male) will have to make changes far outside their previous experience. For example, the relatively liberal Bernie Sanders campaign never tried very hard to reach black voters and focused on working-class whites, an error which should have been obvious. Perhaps the U.S. avoids confronting global warming because of deeply-ingrained American consumer habits. But the U.S. has been led by white men longer than it has been a consumer society.

In a democracy, your goal is to get more votes than your opponents. So if you must offend one group in order to ingratiate yourself to another group, you should try to offend a small group. When Romney famously remarked in a private fundraiser that he was not going to “worry about” 47 percent of the U.S .electorate, what surprised me was not his callousness but his apparent belief that 47 percent was a small number. Maybe you can write off 10 percent of the population, but if you write off 47 percent, you have to win almost all of the 53 percent remaining to win a majority.

Trump insults very large groups such as women, Latinos, and veterans; indeed there are few groups whom Trump has not personally offended, including Republican voters. It is as if Trump does not realize that he should be trying to get votes, not express dominance over other people. His behavior is more consistent with an authoritarian strongman operating in pre-democratic times, or a vindictive mob boss seeking to defend territory in an autarkic free-for-all, not a candidate seeking to win an election. Perhaps Trump supporters, who tend to have authoritarian personality traits, also don’t really believe that we are operating in a democracy.

Much has been said about how Trump supporters are racist, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic, but it is possible to be racist or anti-immigrant and still support basic democratic values such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, and equal protection, and basic norms of civil society such as politeness, mutual respect, and avoiding threats of violence. What particularly delighted Trump supporters, and distinguished Trump from other Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz who took equally bigoted positions, was Trump’s demonstrated willingness to violate democratic values and basic norms of civil society. Evidently for Trump supporters, the “racial and gender order,” enforced by the authoritarian tactics of bullying, harassment, intimidation, and violence, is more important than democratic values. Trump has endorsed violence against protestors at his rallies, tried to intimidate the news media, called for his opponent to be jailed, and most recently stated that he will not necessarily respect the outcome of the election. Each statement crosses a new “red line” but should not be surprising; violating democratic norms is the essence of Trump’s brand and what attracts his supporters. Among Republican voters, 84 percent say that listening to Trump brag about sexually assaulting women does not change their support for him.

Elizabeth Warren has said that Trump is the “natural consequence” of Republican extremism. But this does not go back far enough. Democracy and protection of basic human rights are valued by people who seek protection from persecution. Perhaps the roughly 40 percent of U.S. voters who support Trump are willing to sacrifice democratic values because they never expect to be in need of the protection that democratic values provide; they have always been part of the ruling coalition, and believe they always will be. Trump is struggling among Mormons, who are normally solidly Republican but have a fear and real history of being persecuted, and is struggling among white Catholics for partly the same reason. Part of Trump’s weakness with women voters is that women understand being victimized by men in a way that men do not.

Another possibility is that Trump supporters fear being outside the ruling coalition so much that they feel they must resort to authoritarian means to preserve their ruling coalition. In other words, if they truly believed in the strength of democratic values and institutions, they would not fear becoming a numerical minority. But perhaps they never believed in the first place.

What we are seeing in the widespread support for Trump is not just right-wing extremism but a deep, almost fatal, weakness in the Western democratic project. Despite constant promulgation of democratic values in its civic, educational, and cultural institutions, the majority of the largest ethnic and gender group in one of the world’s most powerful democracies are willing to dispose of those values when their historical dominance is slightly threatened. In a country founded on the ideals of welcoming immigrants and religious tolerance, with even a national holiday celebrating these values, the majority of the members of the largest ethnic group support a candidate who calls immigrants murderers and rapists.

This weakness has always existed, but Trump’s candidacy has revealed it more fully and shockingly. Trump has taken more extreme positions than any major candidate has taken before, not on the left-right spectrum, but on the desirability and legitimacy of democracy itself, and we observe roughly 40 percent of America in support. A person’s preferences over two outcomes can be observed only when she chooses among those outcomes. For the first time in modern history, Americans have been offered a clear choice between democracy and authoritarianism, and 40 percent are choosing authoritarianism. Not all of this 40 percent are Trump enthusiasts; for example, some might support Trump out of Republican party loyalty. But in some sense the existence of reluctant Trump supporters is even more alarming: a reluctant supporter is willing to vote for authoritarian values and tactics despite revulsion for Trump, and might become enthusiastic if a more polished authoritarian comes along.

Until Obama’s election, the conflict between democratic institutions and the “racial and gender order” was less apparent because the outcomes of national elections were consistent with overall white and male dominance. It is often said that the first test of a fledgling democracy is when the first peaceful transfer of power takes place. If we think of this transfer as occurring from one ethnic and gender group to another, democracy in the United States and in most western European nations has not yet passed its first real test. Instead of willingly giving up power to multiracial and multi-gender coalitions, a majority of whites and males support a candidate who wants to upend the democratic process.

It is sometimes claimed that people not in the Western cultural tradition are not “ready” for democracy. But the opposite is true. The majority of the ethnic and cultural descendants of Western Europe in one of the largest democracies are demonstrating their willingness to abandon democracy in an attempt to preserve their ethnic and gender authority. If a majority of Asians, Latinos, or African Americans, or a majority of women, supported an openly insurrectionist leader, this would be considered a national emergency.

What will Trump supporters do once Trump loses? By 2065, white men are projected to be between 20 and 25 percent of the US population, and by then would presumably realize the futility of an electoral strategy centered around themselves. But in the medium term, the 40 percent of the population who are Trump supporters will maintain power, especially in regions such as the southern and mountain states. Our federal system, which gives less populous states like Nebraska and Wyoming disproportionate representation and allows state legislatures to create congressional districts, creates safe seats for Republicans but makes the party unresponsive to national demographic trends. Republicans will not build multiethnic coalitions or appeal broadly to women and thus will not win the presidency, but they will maintain seats in Congress and lose them only slowly. Hence they will continue to use tactics of obstruction at the federal level and maintain “white enclaves” in certain states which will last even as the percentage of whites in the nation as a whole declines.

After the Civil War, the federal government found it too costly to enforce the rights of African Americans in southern states, and tolerated lynching, Jim Crow, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Only more than a century later, when the civil rights movement forced the issue, did the federal government intervene. In the coming decades, will the federal government find it too costly to intervene and “pacify” the enclaves of Trump supporters?

What will people who oppose Trump do once he loses? Most of us will feel like a bad dream is finally over and things will go back to “normal.” But “normal” no longer exists. We used to see people like the armed white supremacists who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as pathetic idiots, but now it is clear that circumstances exist in which 40 percent of the U.S. population would support people who are equally pathetic and idiotic, and much more dangerous. It is now obvious to everyone, including would-be demagogues, that these 40 percent are mobilizable, and that white male authoritarianism can attract much more than a fringe. Even before Trump, white nationalists enjoyed enough congressional support to force the dismantling of the branch of the Department of Homeland Security that monitored their activities. After Trump loses, will there be enough political will, for example among moderate Democrats, to confront the hatred and violence his campaign has legitimized?

The Republican party, which could have gone in the direction of multiethnic coalitions after its 2013 “autopsy report,” has gone in the opposite direction, and cannot really change course given its now close and radioactive (to women and people of color) association with Trump. Hence a large chunk of the U.S. political system is “locked in” to white male authoritarianism at least for a few decades.

Some recommend trying to understand and sympathize with Trump supporters, who feel like something is being taken away from them and have low education in an economy which increasingly rewards only smarts and favors “female” over “male” personality traits. This is of course necessary, but this sympathy and understanding is more expedient than fairly given; have you ever heard anyone advocating sympathy for the “Asian working class” or “Black working class?”

We need to think about how we can make whites, especially white men, feel that they can continue to be valued and respected members of society. The end of apartheid is a reasonable analogy: famously, Nelson Mandela appeared in full uniform for the 1995 world rugby final won by the South African team, lending his support to a sport and team that symbolized apartheid. For many, this gesture did more to unite post-apartheid South Africa than any other event. Perhaps Obama can go to Branson.

The danger to democracy itself from Trump supporters is real and must be confronted. It is the greatest danger to democracy since World War II, even perhaps since the Civil War, and completely internal. If we had done a better and earlier job with confronting, as opposed to accommodating, white and male privilege, and convincing people that what they feel is being taken away is something that they never should have felt they had in the first place, we might not have reached this situation. Combating white and male privilege is now not only about justice but also about steering democracy away from self-destruction. As it is, we made our society just inclusive enough to save it.

ChweMichael Suk-Young Chwe is professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge and Jane Austen, Game Theorist (both Princeton).

Jason Brennan: The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge

BrennanWho should hold power: the few or the many? Concentrating power in the hands of a few – in monarchy, dictatorship or oligarchy – tends to result in power for personal benefit at the expense of others. Yet in spreading power among the many – as in a democracy – individual votes no longer matter, and so most voters remain ignorant, biased and misinformed.

We have a dilemma.

Republican, representative democracy tries to split the difference. Checks and balances, judicial reviews, bills of rights and elected representatives are all designed to hold leaders accountable to the people while also constraining the foolishness of the ignorant masses. Overall, these institutions work well: in general, people in democracies have the highest standards of living. But what if we could do better?

Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence.

The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent. Democracies tend to pass laws and policies that appeal to the median voter, yet the median voter would fail Econ, History, Sociology, and Poli Sci 101. Empirical work generally shows that voters would support different policies if they were better informed.

Voters tend to mean well, but voting well takes more than a kind heart. It requires tremendous social scientific knowledge: knowledge that most citizens lack. Most voters know nothing, but some know a great deal, and some know less than nothing. The goal of liberal republican epistocracy is to protect against democracy’s downsides, by reducing the power of the least-informed voters, or increasing the power of better-informed ones.

There are many ways of instituting epistocracy, some of which would work better than others. For instance, an epistocracy might deny citizens the franchise unless they can pass a test of basic political knowledge. They might give every citizen one vote, but grant additional votes to citizens who pass certain tests or obtain certain credentials. They might pass all laws through normal democratic means, but then permit bands of experts to veto badly designed legislation. For instance, a board of economic advisors might have the right to veto rent-control laws, just as the Supreme Court can veto laws that violate the Constitution.

Or, an epistocracy might allow every citizen to vote at the same time as requiring them to take a test of basic political knowledge and submit their demographic information. With such data, any statistician could calculate the public’s ‘enlightened preferences’, that is, what a demographically identical voting population would support if only it were better informed. An epistocracy might then instantiate the public’s enlightened preferences rather than their actual, unenlightened preferences.

A major question is what counts (and who decides what counts) as political competence, or basic political knowledge. We don’t want self-interested politicians rigging a political competence exam in their own favour. One might use widely accepted pre-existing tests; the Unites States citizenship test, for example, or the same questions that the American National Election Studies have used for 60 years. These questions – who is the current president? Which item is the largest part of the federal budget? – are easily verifiable and uncontroversial, plus an ability to answer them correctly is strongly correlated with the kind of political knowledge that does matter in an election.

One common objection to epistocracy – at least among political philosophers – is that democracy is essential to expressing the idea that everyone is equal. On its face, this is a strange claim. Democracy is a political system, not a poem or a painting. Yet people treat the right to vote like a certificate of commendation, meant to show that society regards you as a full member of the national club. (That’s one reason we disenfranchise felons.) But we could instead view the franchise as no more significant than a plumbing or medical licence. The US government denies me such licences, but I don’t regard that as expressing I’m inferior, all things considered, to others.

Others object that the equal right to vote is essential to make government respond to our interests. But the math doesn’t check out. In most major elections, I have as much chance of making a difference as I do of winning the lottery. How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes, or even whether one votes, makes no difference. It might be a disaster if Donald Trump wins the presidency, but it’s not a disaster for me to vote for him. As the political theorist Ben Saunders says: in a democracy, each person’s power is so small that insisting on equality is like arguing over the crumbs of a cake rather than an equal slice.

On the other hand, it’s true (at least right now) that certain demographic groups (such as rich white men) are more likely to pass a basic political knowledge test than others (such as poor black women). Hence the worry that epistocracies will favour the interests of some groups over others. But this worry might be overstated. Political scientists routinely find that so long as individual voters have a low chance of being decisive, they vote for what they perceive to be the common good rather than their self-interest. Further, it might well be that excluding or reducing the power of the least knowledgeable 75 per cent of white people produces better results for poor black women than democracy does.

Of course, any epistocratic system would face abuse. It’s easy to imagine all the things that might go wrong. But that’s also true of democracy. The more interesting question is which system, warts and all, would work best. In the end, it’s a mistake to picture epistocracy as being the rule of an elite band of technocrats or ‘philosopher kings’. Rather, the idea is: do what democracy does, but better. Democracy and epistocracy both spread power among the many, but epistocracy tries to make sure the informed many are not drowned out by the ignorant or misinformed many.Aeon counter – do not remove

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, Libertarianism and most recently, Against Democracy. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Hammer, Painting, Person: How to Value Democracy

Jason Brennan

What kind of value does democracy have? Should we value it the way we value hammers, paintings, or persons?

When we ask what makes a hammer valuable, we usually ask whether it is functional for us, as we are. Hammers have a purpose—to pound in nails—and good hammers serve that purpose. Hammers primarily have instrumental value. They help us achieve an independent goal. If some other tool better serves that goal, then we’d gladly replace our hammers with that other tool. No one insists on using a hammer when a driver or wrench works better.

When we ask what makes a painting valuable, we usually look to its symbolic value. We ask whether the painting is sublime, whether it evokes various feelings or ideas. We also value some paintings more highly because of how they were made, and who made them. An ugly Picasso scribble on a napkin might fetch a hundred grand, but if you or I drew the same picture, it wouldn’t fetch a dollar.

When we ask what makes human beings valuable, we will often say that they are ends in themselves. Sure, people can also have instrumental value—the person who makes you coffee serves a purpose—but they also have intrinsic value. People have a dignity, not a price, or so many philosophers insist.

What about democracy? Most political philosophers agree that democracy has instrumental value. It functions pretty well, and tends to produce relatively just outcomes. So, they think, democracy is valuable at least in the way a hammer is valuable.

They have a point. In general, the best places to live are liberal democracies, not genuine monarchies, sham democracies, oligarchies, or one party states. But, still, if democracy only has the kind of value a hammer has, then if we we’re able to identify a better functioning form of government, a form of government that better realizes procedure-independent standards of justice, we would happily replace democracy with this better functioning regime.

However, most philosophers—and many laypeople living in modern democracies—also think we should also value democracy the way we value a painting or a person. They claim that democracy uniquely expresses the idea that all people have equal worth and value. They claim that democratic outcomes are justified because of who made them and how they were made. They see democracy as an end in itself. Some philosophers think that democracy is an inherently just decision-making procedure. A few go so far as to hold that anything a democracy decides to do is justified simply because a democracy decided to do it. They deny there any procedure-independent standards by which to judge what democracies do.

Proceduralism is the view that certain political regimes are inherently just or that certain regimes are inherently unjust. Proceduralists about democracy tend to think democracy has the kind of value paintings and people have. For instance, the philosopher Thomas Christiano seems to think democracy is an end in itself, while David Estlund (in his 2007 Princeton University Press book Democratic Authority) argues most other forms of government other than democracy are inherently unjust.

Pure proceduralism, the most radical version of proceduralism, holds that there are no independent moral standards for evaluating the outcome of the decision-making institutions. Whatever a democracy does is just just because a democracy does it. This view—which is popular among certain democratic theorists—is on reflection rather absurd. For instance, suppose we had a dispute about whether citizens should be allowed to rape children. Suppose the majority votes, after following an idealized deliberative procedure, to allow adults to rape any children they please. They also vote to have the police ensure that no one stops adults from raping children. A pure proceduralist about democracy would have to say that, in this case, child rape would indeed be permissible. For that reason, pure proceduralism appears to be absurd. There are at least some procedure-independent standards of justice. It would be odd if there were independent moral truths about how to make decisions but not independent truths about what we may do.

Instrumentalism, in contrast, holds that 1) there are procedure-independent right answers to at least some political questions, and 2) what justifies a distribution of power or decision-making method is, at least in part, that this distribution or that method tends to select the right answer. So, for instance, in criminal law, we have an adversarial system, in which one lawyer represents the state and the other represents the defendant. There is an independent truth of the matter about whether the defendant is guilty. This truth is not decided by the jury’s fiat. Rather, the jury is supposed to discover what the truth is. Defenders of jury trials and the adversarial system believe that, as a whole, the system tends to track the truth better than other systems. If they learned they were mistaken about that, they’d stop advocating jury trials.

When it comes to democracy, do you advocate it on procedural grounds, instrumental grounds, or both?

In my forthcoming book Against Democracy, I argue that democracy is nothing more than a hammer. It is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. It is not intrinsically just. It is not justified on proceduralist grounds. Any value democracy has is purely instrumental. If we can find a better hammer, we’re obligated to use it. Further, I argue, there’s a good chance we know what the better hammer would be, and it’s time to experiment and find out.

BrennanJason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He has written numerous books including The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism and is the coauthor of  Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His most recent book is Against Democracy. He frequently writes for the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Jason Brennan: Justice isn’t “whatever democracy decides”

brennanThree cheers for democracy! Not so fast, says Jason Brennan, who argues that justice isn’t necessarily ‘whatever democracy decides’, and that participation in the political process all too often fails to produce citizens who are smarter, nobler, and more considerate of others. In his new book, Against Democracy, Brennan says democracy isn’t the only path to moral justice, and that it’s time to experiment with a new form of government called epistocracy. Recently, Brennan took the time to answer a few questions about his new book:

Your book is a response to a view you call “democratic triumphalism.” What is that view and what’s wrong with it?

JB: Triumphalism—a widely accepted set of conclusions—holds that democracy deserves three cheers. Cheer one: Political participation is good for us, makes us smarter, and produces fellow-feeling. Cheer two: We have a basic right to an equal share of political power. Cheer three: Democracy is a uniquely just form of politics.

I think democracy doesn’t deserve the first two cheers, and probably doesn’t deserve the latter. Politics is bad for us and we’re bad at politics.

Empirical work generally shows that participating in politics makes us worse: meaner, more biased, more angry. Ideally, I argue, we’d want to minimize our degree of political participation. Further, I examine about twelve major arguments for the claim that we’re owed the right to vote, and find them all lacking. In the end, the right to vote isn’t so much about giving individuals power over themselves, but power over others. The problem is that because individuals matter so little, most individuals use what little power they have unwisely. As a result, democracies tend to make bad decisions. Against the third chair, I suggest that epistocracy—a constitutional, republican form of government in which political power is to some degree, by law, apportioned according to competence—may outperform democracy.

What kind of value does democracy have, then?

JB: The best places to live right now are almost all liberal democracies. So, the point isn’t to argue that democracy is a disaster. But it’s not the end of history either. In my view, democracy has the same kind of value a hammer has. It’s an instrument for producing just and efficient outcomes, according to procedure-independent standards of justice. If we can find a better hammer, we should feel free to use it.

Some people deny there are procedure-independent standards of justice. Justice, they say, is whatever a democracy decides. But on reflection, I doubt anyone would accept that. Suppose the US has a referendum and unanimously votes to nuke Tuvalu. Or suppose 70 percent of voters decide to enact protectionist policies simply because they don’t understand economics. I don’t see either move as just.

We tend to treat the right to vote as a badge of honor, as a way of saying, “You’re a valuable member of our national club.” I think that’s a mistake. We should view the right to vote the way we view a fishing or plumbing license. We should view the president not as a majestic leader but as the chief public goods administrator. We need to downgrade the “status” we attach to political participation and power. If we did that, then differences in voting rights would carry no further stigma than the stigma I face for lacking a plumbing license.

You claim people have a “right to competent government.” What does that mean, and why think that?

JB: Political decisions are high stakes. They decide matters of life and death, peace and prosperity. Our decisions can deprive innocent people of life, liberty, and their rights, or greatly harm them.

Most of us think a jury owes the defendant (or owes the rest of us) a competent decision. They should decide a criminal trial by 1) being aware of the relevant facts, 2) processing those facts in a rational way, and 3) deciding on good faith rather than out of prejudice, malice, or bias. Similarly, I argue, any group that wields political power must act out competently and in good faith. Just as it would be unjust to enforce a jury decision if the jurors paid no attention to the fact and decided on whim, it would be unjust to enforce a vote made out of ignorance, misinformation, or whimsy.

Are democracies competent?

JB: Sixty years of empirical work show that mean, median, and modal levels of political knowledge among the electorate are low. In fact, voters aren’t just ignorant, but systematically misinformed about many issues, including simple issues like what the unemployment rate is, and complicated issues like basic economic theory. Further, empirical work shows that voters would have different policy preferences if they were better informed. In a world where every voter has high information, we’d never have an election between Trump and Clinton. We’d have better candidates.

That said, democracies do tend to have pretty good policies compared to, say, monarchies and oligarchies. But part of the reason for that is that democracies don’t just do what the people want. Instead, elites, parties, bureaucrats, and others have significant discretion to act against the will of the people.

Some political theorists have advanced ambitious arguments trying to claim that democratic electorates are highly competent as a whole even though most voters are ignorant. These arguments, however, are usually based on mathematical theorems that, while correct in principle, bear no resemblance to the reality of democratic behavior. For instance, Hélène Landemore’s book Democratic Reason (PUP 2012) isn’t a defense of any actual existing  or likely to exist democracy, but instead at most an argument about why democracies would be smart if only voters behaved in radically different ways.

Throughout the book, you talk about three species of voters: hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. What are these?

 JB: I use these as terms of art to describe three classes of voters. In the Lord of the Rings, Hobbits are simply folk who don’t care much about the outside world, and just want to eat, drink, and be merry. The political analogue would be a person who doesn’t care much about politics, doesn’t have strong opinions, doesn’t know much, and doesn’t participate much. Roughly half of Americans are political hobbits. Think the typical non-voter.

Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. Consider: Soccer hooligans are pretty well informed about soccer, but they are biased and mean. They tend to be nasty toward fans from other teams. They only accept information that makes their team look good. Political hooligans are like that about Team Republican or Team Democrat. They have more information, and they participate frequently. But they are biased, and only accept evidence that confirms their own pre-existing views. They tend to think anyone who disagrees with them is mean or stupid. Roughly half of Americans are political hooligans. Think your typical activist or party member.

Vulcans are dispassionate, scientific thinkers. They have high knowledge, but are also aware of what they don’t know. They change their minds when the evidence calls for it. In the US, hardly anyone is a Vulcan.

Most political theories that defend democracy inadvertently do so by imagining how democracy would work if only we were all Vulcans (or on our way to becoming Vulcans). But we’re not Vulcans; we’re hobbits and hooligans. And so many proposals for making democracy better actually make it worse. For example, democratic deliberation not only fails to deliver the results political theorist say it would, but backfires.

 Your view is often criticized as elitist. What’s your response?

JB: We don’t say it’s elitist to think a plumber knows more about pipes than I do. We don’t think it’s elitist to say a truck driver knows more about driving than I do. But for some reason it seems elitist to say that I know more about economics than the average truck driver or plumber. Why? The issue here is that we treat truck driving and plumbing as low status, and political power as high status. But, I think, we should change that attitude. We should upgrade the status of non-political activities and downgrade the status of political activity. Once we do that, we can freely say something that’s, to be blunt, obviously true: The electorate doesn’t know what it’s doing, and putting so much power in the hands of a body that doesn’t know what it’s doing is dangerous.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Policy at the McDonough School of Business in Georgetown University. He is the author of  The Ethics of VotingWhy Not Capitalism? and Libertarianism.

Along with these books, Brennan is the co-author of Markets Without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He is a regular writer for the blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

 

 

Digital Keyword: “Participation”

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Christopher Kelty’s broad-minded and brilliant essay on participation is a welcomed participant in the Digital Keywords volume. It both intellectually broadens as well as analytically tightens the contemporary understanding of that classic concept and near constant discussion of it online. Marshaling together insights ranging from Parmenides to Polanyi, Kelty offers insights such as how participation proves a boundary function, excluding at the same time it constitutes community, democracy, and sharing, three towering keywords covered elsewhere in the volume by Rosemary Avance, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, and Nicholas A. John.

If, as Kelty clarifies, to participate is to belong but not always voluntarily, what does it mean to participate in public life?

Christopher Kelty: Participation

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197