Sunday, March 23, 2014

Tea Party Politics versus the Collective Intelligence & Rule of the Many: The (elusive) Virtues of Democratic Reason

Grassroots Tea Partiers see themselves in a last-ditch effort to save “their country,” and big-money ideologues are determined to undercut Democrats and sabotage active government. They are in this fight for the long haul. Neither set of actors will stand down easily or very soon. [….] [I]t will take a long and dogged struggle to root out radical obstructionism on the right, and the years ahead could yet see Tea Partiers succeed by default. Unless non-Tea Party Republicans, independents, and Democrats learn both to defeat and to work around anti-government extremism—finding ways to do positive things for the majority of ordinary citizens along the way—Tea Party forces will still win in the end. They will triumph just by hanging on long enough to cause most Americans to give up in disgust on our blatantly manipulated democracy and our permanently hobbled government.— Theda Skocpol

In a liberal democratic polity, “[m]uch of what goes on in actual social and political bargaining…concern[s] the negotiation and renegotiation of beliefs.”[1] In a legislative assembly, we find bargaining alongside another form of communication or “speech act,” arguing. Both arguing and bargaining as speech acts occur in the context of the collective decision-making of legislative bodies that typically conclude with the act of voting (and ‘vote trading,’ as a form of bargaining, may be part of this aggregation of preferences). Robert Goodin notes that disputes over beliefs are occasionally resolved through persuasion, but more often they’re “resolved” through negotiation. In such cases, the parties retain belief in the truth of their respective beliefs, but seeing the need to “get on with it” (e.g., governing; doing something rather nothing; having some predictable and tangible effect on a problem rather than effectively ignoring it, and so forth), are willing to work toward decisions that allow them to retain their beliefs but act “as if” other propositions may be true (for the time being at least or until such time as they may prove otherwise). The propositions agreed to through such bargaining or negotiation are therefore treated “as if true” for the purposes at hand, so as to come to a resolution, arrive at a decision, determine this or that course of coordinated action. When the give-and-take of bargaining is successful, according to Goodin, it ends in an agreement, an agreement on “what we will do, and why.” As to arguing, those representing the Tea Party in the legislature believe such arguments should only end in consensus: in final agreement on their political views. Short of consensus, arguments are merely rhetorical formulations designed for mass media consumption, hence the voting of legislator is of little value (say, to identify the enemy) unless there’s assurance it will end in consensual agreement on their platform (or some component part thereof).

More could be said (and Goodin has much more to say) about such bargaining, but it suffices to demonstrate how Tea Party activists and politicians are conspicuous in their stubbornness with regard to acting as if they’ll succeed only through argument that ends in persuading or convincing those who disagree with them in the (absolute) truth of their political “agenda.” This helps explain their recalcitrant refusal to negotiate, which is couched in the rhetoric of political “principle” so as to appear to be taking the high road above the dark and dire world of conventional politics, the former possessing putative revolutionary resonance in the politics of the Founding Fathers and an ostensibly “popular originalist” reading of the Constitution. The ritual invocation of principle reflects rather a collective self-righteousness and an unwarranted confidence in the absolute veracity of their beliefs, in other words, an unwillingness to concede that it’s possible they may be mistaken or wrong, in addition to reckless disregard of the likely harmful socio-economic and political consequences of such arrogant confidence. It further reflects their belief that “no-governance” is a perfectly acceptable political outcome (a satisfactory default position as it were), a viable alternative to some-governance, real-world effects on people’s lives be damned. In turn, this unduly restricts (or insulates or diminishes) the scope and content of otherwise “public reasons” insofar as parties are assumed to (or should) be arguing and bargaining over reasons, values, and interests among a public (or publics). Why? Because it effectively ignores the fact that such political deliberation necessarily entails arguing and bargaining in recognition of differential perceptions of the most compelling public reasons about what is in the public interest, about what constitutes the common good. It is in that case, that the need to come to a political resolution among the parties, to act in one way or another, perforce must allow for a decision to be reached that may and usually does fall considerably short of anything close to the rational persuasion or conversion of one party by another party of the (absolute) truth of its agenda.

What makes for politics here, with regard to the common good at least, is a zero-sum game, and for the Tea Party itself, a winner-take-all game. For Tea Party members, second- or third-best scenarios do not exist: what is not at the top of their preference ranking is by definition at the bottom. Agreeing to joint action is not a sufficient reason to engage in give-and-take bargaining, to reach compromises of some sort, for to let another party—in the end, and this time ‘round at least—prevail, is out of the question, for that is to relativize absolute truth, to compromise on patriotic principle. Reasoning together in the legislature as a whole, on this account, can never improve the prospects for “just” legislation:

“I may think politically as the partisan of a particular conception of justice competing uncompromisingly with its rivals. But I cannot think responsibly about institutions if my thinking is dominated completely by my substantive political convictions. To think about institutions and politics, I must be willing at least part of the time to view even my own convictions about justice—however true or important I take them to be—as merely one set of convictions among others in society, and to address in a relatively neutral way the question of what we as a society are to do about the fact that people like me disagree with others in society about matters on which we need a common view. That is the logic of legislation. It is not an easy logic to live with, for it entails that much of the time one will be party to—or, at the very least, one’s name will be associated with—the sharing and implementation of a view about justice that is not one’s own.”[2]

The collective endeavors served by meeting the responsibilities intrinsic to democratic representation cannot trump the essentially libertarian agenda for Tea Party Republicans, for they must act merely, hence solely, as populist (i.e., direct and unreflective) representatives of a (neoliberal and extremist right-wing) political agenda, thus neither in the first instance or incidentally as guardians or trustees of a common good arrived at though (indirect and reflective) democratic processes of representation and deliberation that, in part, at least, must resort to bargaining and negotiation so as to responsibly govern in a liberal democratic fashion. In other words, Tea Party members let their commitment to largely libertarian and neo-conservative politics and values run roughshod over a possibly deeper or simply prior commitment to democratic decision-making and the institutional bodies designed to give voice to the sovereignty of “the people.” Tea Party members do not believe in the wisdom of “the people” as democratically constituted by legislative assemblies (one reason we refer so often to and well understand the meaning of ‘Tea Party obstructionism’). Put differently, they do not believe that “[t]he people acting as a body are capable of making better decisions by pooling their knowledge, experience, and insight, than any subset of the people acting as a body and pooling the knowledge, experience, and insight of the members of the subset.”[3] In short, the Tea Party “subset” of “the people” believes it has a monopoly on knowledge, experience, and insight. To subject this knowledge, experience, and insight to the terms and conditions of negotiation and bargaining is to break up its ideological monopoly on what makes for justice, to abandon its factional vision of the Good, to soil its patriotic convictions. Their politics is at odds with what Rawls identified as a defining feature of a democratic political culture, namely, a “diversity of conflicting and irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines.” Tea Party members can never concede that those not persuaded by or convinced of its political platform may nonetheless be capable of articulating the “wisdom of the multitude” in an Aristotelian sense, that those who disagree with them may turn out to be the better judges “not only of matters of fact, not only of social utility, but also and most importantly of matters of value, matters of principle and the nature of the good life….”[4]

For the Tea Party, the legislative product of political argument and bargaining—and thus anything short of incarnating belief in the truth of its political agenda—must be characterized, ironically, as the “tyranny of the majority.” The Tea Party is not committed to pluralist politics, to granting the likelihood let alone the virtues of persisting political disagreements, what Waldron argues “must be regarded…as one of the elementary conditions of modern politics,” such disagreement being part and parcel of the Humean-like (i.e., conducted within the constraints of scarcity and limited altruism) “circumstances of politics.” Tea Party aficionados can never concede that “our common basis for action in matters of justice has to be forged in the heat of our disagreements.”[5] Only legislative enactment of Tea Party principles and political goals would warrant their possibly speaking of the “dignity of legislation,” there being nothing whatsoever virtuous or accomplished in the mere “achievement of concerted, cooperative, coordinated or collective action” as such, whatever the circumstances of modern life.

Deliberative democratic politics, on this view, is valuable only to the extent we persuade or convert others to the truth of our political program: only their preferences are potentially subject to deliberative transformation, for ours has the sanctity of correct conviction, a salvific or messianic monopoly on truth. On this view, there can be no “epistemic” case for democracy, for there is no such thing as “democratic reason” if that is premised upon a sufficient degree of cognitive diversity and achieved through processes of deliberation (including arguing and bargaining) and majority rule, for democratic reason is “conditional on the existence of a social and cultural context.” The Tea Party seeks to overcome or transcend or subsume that context within its political “subset,” that is, it is dispositionally hostile to any social milieu that “nurtures and protects, among other differences, cognitive differences.”[6] The Tea Party enables us to see the vices of an illiberal or authoritarian democratic politics that seek, in the end, to “foster conformism of views and stifle dissent” (its dissent is nonetheless of strategic and contingent value). In doing so, its partisans cavalierly risk the distortion of “both deliberation and majority rule into dangerous mechanisms for collective unreason, depriving themselves in particular of the possibility to come up with efficient solutions to collective problems, accurate information aggregation, and reliable predictions.”[7]

[1] Robert E. Goodin, Reflective Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2003): 75. Cf.: “The upshot of bargaining over beliefs is…not any change in people’s beliefs. Nor is it simply an ‘agreement to disagree.’ The upshot of bargaining over beliefs is instead that bargainers settle on some course of action, together with some rationale as to how it is supposed to work to produce the desired results. In the course of that, they agree to treat certain beliefs ‘as if they were true.’ But they definitely do so in the subjunctive case—in the tentative and hypothetical way in which propositions being tested are treated in scientific experiments.” Goodin: 86-87.
[2] Jeremy Waldron, The Dignity of Legislation (Cambridge University Press, 1999): 91.
[3] Ibid., 94.
[4] Ibid., 105-106.
[5] Ibid., 155.
[6] Hélène Landemore, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many (Princeton University Press, 2013).
[7] Ibid., 234.


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3/25/2014 1:59 PM  

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