The last weekend in October of last year, I was at the former Labyrinth Bookstore in New York City where I picked up Jacques Rancière’s The Hatred of Democracy. Ten days later, the country would elect Donald Trump to the presidency. Since then (and well before), the cries against democracy have come in from many corners. Jason Brennan, philosopher at Georgetown, wrote a book Against Democracy in which he calls for an epistocracy. Andrew Sullivan argues that democracies end when they are too democratic in New York Magazine. Caleb Crain discusses the case against it in The New Yorker in the issue published the week before the election. Crain quotes the famous Winston Churchill line, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time. That line put me in mind of what Chesterton said about Christianity, that it hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried. Or perhaps not difficult, but scandalous. This I believe is what Rancière is arguing about democracy.
Rancière makes three relevant points. First, the people are dismissed as problematic because of a process that divides democratic politics from democratic society and then denigrates all that is associated with democratic society. Second, democracy is a rule without measure, without legitimacy (which is why lottery is the most, perhaps the only true, democratic form of choosing leaders). All efforts to establish legitimacy set up a rationale for rule that make that measure and not the people as such, the source of legitimacy. Third, voting in representative governments is a ruse that gives cover to oligarchic regimes. I argue on the basis of this analysis that blaming democracy or the people in a situation that is not democratic legitimates anti-democratic policies and processes in a system that already was anti-democratic. Read more
Donald Trump has for several weeks now been calling into question the results of an election he has yet to lose. He has suggested that he will put his opponent in prison if he is elected. Earlier in this campaign he said he would instruct the US military to go after the families of suspected terrorists and he encouraged his own supporters to attack protesters with promises of paying their legal fees. He has publicly shamed members of the media whose coverage of his campaign he does not like, as in this most recent case with Katy Tur. He has generally violated the unwritten norms of American public discourse and political office-seeking. His supporters describe his approach as refreshing. I think what Trump has showcased for better or worse is how fragile the democratic project is.
This year in buying our house I learned a little something about how the rule of law operates on a fiction. The fiction is that there is something that binds us to the rule of law. Generally, we act as if the law binds us, but on occasion, when people decide it does not bind them, the fictive nature of the rule of law becomes clear. That’s when you have to decide if you want to do anything to actually force the law to work, because it won’t on its own. Making the law have teeth then requires an additional expenditure of time, energy and money. Just ask any of Trump’s vendors that he never paid.
It turns out that the laws and mores whereby our institutions and political structures work also operate on a bit of a fiction. They work because we believe they work, which means they also stop working when we stop believing that they work. To the extent that Congress tries to represent the people it is because the people believe that Congress represents them and should be representing them. To the extent that state governments accept judgments handed down by the Supreme Court and other arbitrating bodies they do so because they believe that those judgments require it of them. Read more
Since Rousseau expressed his concern that government, established to carry out the general will of the people, might become a separate body with its own distinct general will, members of the polity have worried from one end of the political spectrum to the other, that government is imposing its will on the people, rather than executing the people’s will. It’s not even correct to date this concern to Rousseau, since we could argue that such a concern is encapsulated in Thrasymachus’ realpolitik definition of justice — we all know, let’s be honest Socrates, that the laws serve the powerful and not those who are supposed to follow them. In these cases, government is understood to be against us, treading on us with its laws and impositions, limiting our freedom rather than protecting it.
Government and Constitution in Aristotle
Eric Schwitzgebel refers to Aristotle to talk about blameworthiness for implicit biases in his talk at the Pacific APA next week. I’m pleased to join in the appeal to Aristotle to think about contemporary political and ethical problems. My argument is that Aristotle addresses this problem of thinking the government as an imposition by arguing for an account that drives politeuma, or government, closer to an identity with the politeia, constitution or regime. Read more