Tuesday, March 15, 2016

There Are Only Two Ways to Run a Government

Much ink has been spilled during this Presidential campaign cycle about the divisions within American politics. Analyses both sophisticated and mundane have been offered suggesting what divides us from each other. Of particular interest: what separates supporters of one candidate from supporters of another? Why do those people support candidate A, and what makes them different from supporters of candidate B? These are interesting and, to some degree, illuminating questions. But they miss a larger point.

The larger point is this: in the end, amidst all the ideologies and labels about "conservatives" and "liberals" and "progressives" and "tea partiers" and "socialists" and whatnot, there are really only two ways to run a government. All of those labels denote preferences - that is, things that people prefer to see in terms of the outcomes of politics. But as most people who study politics know, it's not about the outcomes so much as it is about the process. And in process, there aren't a multitude of options - there are only two:

1) We recognize that we have different preferences and devise a system in which everyone has a chance to express their preferences and give input. The end result is a weighted average of those preferences, with some bright lines ("rights") established and agreed to ahead of time that cannot be violated no matter what mass preferences are.

2) Political outcomes are decided by threats, intimidation, and force. Whoever has the most power will impose their preferences on everyone else, by threats if sufficient, by violence where necessary. Politics is essentially an extension of combat. Compromise occurs only when opposing preferences have sufficient power to balance each other.

In short, governments run either by a process of rules and agreement, or by a process of force and violence.

The first option, government by process and agreement, is largely but not completely a function of the Enlightenment. It holds up a particular set of ideas, chief among these being that people should not kill each other over political outcomes and that maximizing the welfare of the whole population is something that, as in Kant's Categorical Imperative, everybody should reasonably want.

The second, government by force, has largely been the default mode through much of human history. It can be found in every corner of the world, among every people, in nearly every age. It is so ubiquitous that some have suggested that it is at the heart of the human animal, a part of our very nature.

These are, to some degree, ideal types. Governments have been known to use horrific force against some groups (Jews in Nazi Germany, for example) while those same governments engage in cooperative action to look after the welfare of "their own". It is usually the lure of tribalism (or nationalism, or ethnocentrism, or racism - take your pick) that lures people back from the ideals of a reasonable society for all to a society in which violence against some is OK, even warranted.

Why does this matter? Because we tend to forget that, behind all of the other left/right, liberal/conservative divides that we put up, that there are some questions far more fundamental. We also tend to forget that, at least once upon a time, there was something that we really did all agree on.

I say "once upon a time", because now we have the Drumpf phenomenon.

I have said previously that I prefer not to write about Drumpf, because he gets enough press as it is. What I'm arguing here is not specific to his campaign, or to his followers. The phenomenon that is the Drumpf campaign has simply laid bare the choice that we face. It has also forced us to confront a difficult reality: we may have thought that Americans at least agreed on this, but it turns out that we do not.

What we have been faced with in recent months is a candidate, and his followers, who are clearly in Camp #2. They draw fairly clear lines between "us" and "them", even though members of both groups are what the rest of us would identify as "Americans". And Drumpf and his followers are clearly all too willing to engage in violence - in fact, that's exactly how they think things should be. Compromise, listening to others, following rules - those are for the weak, Drumpf says. And his followers clearly agree.

The Drumpf phenomenon is not alone here. Increasingly, "protestors" have been going to Drumpf rallies and attempting to shout him down or otherwise disrupt the proceedings. One even rushed the stage at an event here in Dayton, although that individual's motives were unclear. And while there has been much talk about free speech rights and their limits, some of these protestors aren't engaged in speech per se - they're trying to force a different outcome. They, too, want to exercise power in order to impose their will on others, if only in a limited way (by disrupting an event).

When faced with force, it is easy to resort to force ourselves. It is tempting to argue that we need to "fight fire with fire". But in a political process, that takes us all down the same road. We're not conducting campaigns anymore, we're simply engaged in a backyard brawl. And every escalation by one side is taken as justification for counter-escalation by another.

For me at least, this is what the Presidential campaign is about. It's not about Democrat or Republican, not about Conservative or Liberal, Socialist or Capitalist. Those are for the most part outcome preferences. This election cycle is really about the fundamental process question: what kind of politics do we want? Will we decide our futures together, as one nation of competing interests and ideas working with each other? Or will our futures be decided by brute force, with the strongest and most brutal winning out?

I know that kind of country I want to live in. I used to think I could take it for granted. I don't think that's true anymore.

No comments:

Post a Comment