Wednesday, November 09, 2005
my civic failure
I hate the way the Internet has turned into a new version of talk radio with the number of annoying partisan channels approaching infinity, but at the risk of piling it on, I want to say something else about elections, and, more specifically, why they make me so sad. As I have written many times, I don't like democracy, and I distrust decisions made by majority rule. But this is the system we insist on, and since we do, it's on us to work with it as best as we can.
As I see it, there are three reasons why intelligent people cast votes. Well, four, really, but I'm ignoring those who cast their ballots for friends and neighbors whom they believe will give them favors. Those voters exist – you might even know a few of them – but they're the subject of a separate discussion.
Reason #1: you vote for the candidate who you believe has best demonstrated leadership ability. This could be organizational capacity, a way with people, or some kind of inspirational presence. Jim Florio was nobody's idea of a charismatic or messianic figure, but when I voted for him, I did so because the things he'd said genuinely inspired me. When
Reason #2: you vote for the candidate who seems to have demonstrated applied intellect and a mastery of policy issues. This strikes me as an inferior reason to support a politician than the first, since no layman can ever approach comprehensive and detailed knowledge of anything other than his immediate preoccupations. But I think it is fair – and probably often right – to generalize from a candidate's public appearances. People often wondered why I was so enthusiastic about Albert Gore, and why I have always been willing to argue so passionately in favor of his candidacies. I did so because he struck me as so much better prepared and attentive to detail than his opponents that he earned my immediate respect. When Bob Dole was senate majority leader (yes, people, I am an admirer of Bob Dole), he took stands on hundreds of issues that were contrary to what I believed would be best for the country. But I always had faith that he'd studied the issue and reasoned his way to a thoughtful conclusion. I may have disagreed with him, but I never kidded myself that I knew better than Senator Dole did.
Reason #3: you vote for the candidate who best resembles you. This is, I believe, the reason that most votes are cast, including, I am sad to say, almost all of my own. In my more big-headed moments, I often compliment myself on the comprehensiveness of my self-education, and I fancy myself peculiarly suited for the ballot booth. But upon extended inspection, I see only the most marginal distinction between casting a ballot for a member of your ethnic group and casting one for a member of your policy or affinity group. Strip away everything you take for granted about political campaigns, and ask yourself: why am I really voting for Senator Jones? Is it actually because I believe Senator Jones is better for America (that abstract and indefinable concept), or is it because I believe that sophisticated and witty Senator Jones looks, acts, and thinks more like I do than Representative Hicks, his folksy challenger? I know very intelligent people who express contempt for "identity politics", and who then turn around and vote for a politician because that candidate's view of the environment or NAFTA or censorship of video games most closely resembles their own. Both acts do the same thing: they attempt to use the politician to extend the dominion of the voter, and to reward those who share her values and punish those who don’t.
Viewed this way, it is actually nobler for an immigrant Latino voter to choose representatives purely because they, too, are Latinos than it is for an educated and sophisticated voter to cast ballots based on individual policy preferences. The former act presupposes a community conscience and a wholesome belief in behaving in concert with neighbors. The latter simply instrumentalizes the candidate and turns him into an extension of the voter’s will. And whether you know it or not, when you vote for Senator Jones because you believe he is best positioned to discharge an agenda to which you swear fealty, you are secretly subordinating the politician to yourself. You have become the assessor, evaluating the candidate on his conformity to a slate of beliefs developed by you and those who think and act like you. Pressure groups actually send candidates policy checklists and administer percentile grades based on agreement with the “correct” positions; online surveys match voters with prospective officeholders based on preference quizzes. The assumption is that You the Voter have the roster in your head, and the candidate who best aligns himself with those on the answer key will win the right to receive the great gift of your vote.
To which I ask: who the hell are you? You are not a senator, or even a senator's aide; most likely, you are an aesthete of some sort with a heart that is at least two sizes too big for your own good, and at least four sizes too big for government. You are, of course, a democratic subject, and you have been taught that your opinion is just as good as the next man’s – or at least, you have learned to insist that it is, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. But because you’ve grown accustomed to fooling yourself into thinking that the role of the politician is to sign on to a policy slate developed by the advocacy group that best suits your taste and social stratum, you’ve absolved yourself of having to think at all. You can rest comfortably, knowing that there is a big enviable Truth burning out there on the plane of ideas – one you know by rote, and one which your local politician will fail to live up to by making any sort of compromise. And when he makes that compromise, he will not be a nuanced student of policy, or a studied, ambivalent thinker, or even a diplomat. He will be a coward, or a stooge, or corrupt, or an Idiot in Charge.
And this is the great failing and flaw of democracy, and the best reason I can think of to quit trying to ram it down the throats of other countries that may be on their way to developing something alternate: it creates contempt for leadership. It makes us disregard and often even despise the leadership qualities of its most prominent actors, it teaches us to insist on rigidity of thought over mercurial and adaptable vision, and in so doing, it drives natural leaders out of government and into the boardroom, or the music industry, or the crack dens. Now, this is the point where people think I’ve become a frontrunner or an establishmentarian in my old age, but actually, it’s just the opposite. Leadership is not the police, or the
I always hope to have the strength to vote for reason #1. Failing that, I will settle for reason #2. But when I am honest with myself, I can recognize that I almost always vote for the third reason: seeking out candidates who have “seen the light” on Important Issues (in other words, those who agree with me) or who live in my neighborhood and can thus be counted on to perform acts of heroism on behalf of my pals, or who somehow remind me of me. At base level, I voted for Jon Corzine because he lives in
"How upsetting it is, that so many of our citizens (good people, not lawless ones, on both sides of this abortion issue, and on various sides of other issues as well) think that we Justices should properly take into account [505 U.S. 833, 1000] their views, as though we were engaged not in ascertaining an objective law, but in determining some kind of social consensus....if in reality, our process of constitutional adjudication consists primarily of making value judgments...then a free and intelligent people's attitude towards us can be expected to be (ought to be) quite different...If, indeed, the "liberties" protected by the Constitution are, as the Court says, undefined and unbounded, then the people should demonstrate, to protest that we do not implement their values instead of ours. Not only that, but the confirmation hearings for new Justices should deteriorate into question-and-answer sessions in which Senators go through a list of their constituents' most favored and most disfavored alleged constitutional rights, and seek the nominee's commitment to support or oppose them. Value judgments, after all, should be voted on, not dictated; and if our Constitution has somehow accidentally committed them to the Supreme Court, at least we can have a sort of plebiscite each time a new nominee to that body is put forward...by foreclosing all democratic outlet for the deep passions this issue arouses, by banishing the issue from the political forum that gives all participants, even the losers, the satisfaction of a fair hearing and an honest fight, by continuing the imposition of a rigid national rule instead of allowing for regional differences, the Court merely prolongs and intensifies the anguish.
We should get out of this area, where we have no right to be, and where we do neither ourselves nor the country any good by remaining."
one of the reasons that the roberts hearings that struck me as really healthy for the country was that here you had a guy who was making the whole idea of cherry-picking judges based on a checklist of issues look very second-grade. he might yet turn out to be a judicial bob dole: a figure i disagree with all the time, but who i respect.
that said, i have never felt that way about scalia. while i am feeling him on this quote intellectually, i think in practice, he has always been aggressive about orienting the court toward whatever social bugaboo he's trying to stamp out that day (usually reproductive rights). again, who the hell am i?, i'm just somebody who reads his opinions in the newspaper. but i do think scalia -- and the entire court, for that matter -- really tipped their hands when they all voted along strict party lines during bush vs. gore. after that, it became hard for me to view any of these guys as beacons of objectivity. just like everybody else, they started to seem like functionaries.
so while i sympathize with scalia's frustration about the silliness of the court nomination process, i think he's being disingenuous about roe vs. wade. he cannot seriously believe that our massive and debilitating cultural differences are going to be healed up if new york and new jersey maintain abortion rights and kansas and utah are suddenly allowed to shut down its clinics. that's just going to exacerbate the problem.
from a distance, it has always appeared to me that scalia wants this ruling overturned at all costs, and that he's not going to rest until it happens. it would be nice to have a counterweight on the court, but that's not going to happen for three years at least. until then -- or until roberts grabs the wheel -- scalia is driving this bus. so get set for a rough ride.
i believed roberts when he said that he had great respect for settled law and precedent. it seemed to me at the time that he understood that overturning a long-standing law -- especially one with great symbolic value, and one that many of us have come to count on for their own feelings of comfort within american society -- is a much more dramatic and defining act than never having passed the law at all. i think i saw an understanding there of the psychological damage that overturning roe vs. wade would inflict on the country. i hope he wasn't just snowing me. we'll see. gulp.
when i was just a kid during the cold war, other kids used to rehearse the platitude that communism looked great on paper, but did not work well when applied. surely that is true. but i have found that it is *democracy* that doesn't suffer transition from page into practice, but instead degenerates almost immediately into mob construction contests. i have seen this on every level from student council elections to decision '04. "nothing good has ever come of a vote" used to be my motto back when i was a crappy political science student, and lately, i have been resurrecting it.
i don't mean to sound cavalier about this stuff, especially since nobody fears unchecked authority and totalitarianism more than i do. but i have come to see the enforcement of mob rule as the central preoccupation of democratic decisionmakers, and the mystification of mob rule as the preoccupation of most everybody else. you could say (i wouldn't) that president bush has been governing from a minority position, but he's certainly got his mob behind him, and the emotional fervor in that mob is no small beer. he still believes that if push ever came to shove, his mob would kick the asses of all opposing mobs. and he is probably right.
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