They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within--Leonard Cohen First We Take Manhattan
We shall never prevent the abuse of power if we are not prepared to limit power in a way which occasionally may prevent its use for desirable purposes.--Hayek.
I have been meaning to write about Leonard Cohen's death,* but this week-end I got distracted by the many rather critical responses (primarily on Facebook) to my previous post in which I resist the (quite understandable urge for those alarmed by the results of the Presidential Election) to hold Trump voters morally accountable. Some of the most distinguished theorists of the day, accused me of confusion, holding bizarre views, and simply producing outright blunders.+ In reflecting on these comments, I recognize one clear mistake in my post: I treated Jacob's Levy's post as an illiberal instance of collective moral responsibility; I should have said, as Levy noted in his comments, aggregate moral responsibility. I doubt this mistake undermines the substance of my post because the mistake does not occur in my core argument which is that the pragmatic and moral justification of representative/liberal democracy assumes that voters are imperfect (including immoral). To say this is not to be committed (in Lionel McPherson's words) "to the illusion of a post-racial America," where qua theorists we point to some favored electoral outcome and assume that under the forces of moral progress we have somehow become enlightened and live in a world in which we can safely "pretend that racism and White racial resentment are not still central features of American life." In a properly functioning representative democracy, flawed agents rise above their worst impulses, but it is a dangerous illusion to think these impulses can be eradicated--it is especially dangerous to the least powerful among us.
My critics have not made me rethink my core argument because they simply apply morality to voting (and thus beg the question). While I did not state this in my previous post, my suspicion is that if you take the very idea of an ethic of voting seriously, you end up advocating disenfranchising (immoral, ignorant, etc.) voters. It follows on my view that voting is, in principle, a-moral (although it is certainly permissible to allow morals to guide one's vote) and that treating (other people's) voting as a moral act is a category error. Perhaps, I caused confusion about my position because most of my post was devoted to explaining why the core argument accords with the existing, institutional arrangements of voting (which undercut, I claim, the grounds for assigning moral responsibility.) It is a corollary of my view that the locus of moral responsibility is primarily at the level of the elected and their behavior as well as the powerful institutions that mediate in candidate selection and implementation of policy. (Something Levy's post downplayed and one reason why I was prompted to respond.)
For clarity's purpose, it is worth noting the position of one my fiercest (facebook) critics, Alex Guerrero, who advocates some variant of issue-specific sortition instead of election. He and I agree (with Achen & Bartels) that "group attachments and social identities drive our thinking about politics." But he thinks that this is probably manufactured, and that in a different institutional context,
We aren’t that far apart on fundamental values. We all love our families. We want a better future for our children. We care about this country. We don’t always understand those who are different than us. We want to feel productive, protected, respected, valued, engaged. We might even like each other if we came to know each other. Call this the We the People hypothesis.
While I share the lofty ambitions, Guerrero slides here from a sensible observation -- different institutions may well produce different outcomes [I haven been struck how rarely education is mentioned by us educators] -- into dangerous illusion, which fundamentally denies human (moral) diversity not to mention denies genuine depravity and venality. (Reminder: true mutual loathing is often a product of knowing another too well.)
In fact, when Guerrero confronts the possibility that "perhaps disagreement and distrust runs too deep" he then suggests, "If that is our situation, we should consider going our separate ways, breaking up the USA." When he then contemplates the possible costs and benefits involved he finds himself on a technocratic realm (e.g. on the cost side "harder to solve collective action problems...inefficiencies (at least until the relevant trade agreements were in place)...[and] some period of reduced global stability") not acknowledging the risk of civil war (it would not be the first time) and the dangerous end of Pax Americana (with the present global competitors and would be hegemons currently being rather illiberal).
As Joe Heath notes in his piece, ordinarily the US is essentially unreformable. He is right about this unless, as a glance at history shows, there is a (temporary) wide consensus at doing so (as there was in 1919-1920, the 1930s, and in 1964-1965). What most successful reforms have in common is that (with hindsight) they are a perfection of principles that are already latent in existing practice, even if they may also prevent the fruition of other elements latent in practice.
The previous paragraph is a bit cryptic. What I mean to say is that two permanent streams within American political thought, Libertarianism and Neo-Conservativism, have suffered heavy defeats in this past election. Both these streams were intrinsic parts of the Goldwater-Reagan coalition and, in so doing, facilitated, despite their electoral coalition with social and Christian conservatives, the rise of a kind of meritocratic, Liberal Cosmopolitanism alongside these elements in the Democratic party. While it is possible that Trump himself may not have a coherent worldview, his campaign resonated with the recently impotent Jacksonian stream which combines anti-elitism and commitment to white superiority and nationalism. While Trump's focus on deal-making is not especially Jacksonian, the clear sense that we live in a zero-sum world is.* While this position is not the majority it resonated widely in the Rust belt, the South, and Plains. As I have noted before, if you think you live in a zero-sum world of crony capitalism it is completely rational to vote for the crony capitalist that you take to be on your side (although this also depends on what else is on offer).
Many of us think it is very possible that Donald Trump and his partners in government will not just be immoral and worse in various bits of policy but, more fundamentally, use the awful powers of the imperial presidency to end the very possibility of liberal democracy Stateside. (And we must not ignore our complicity and indifference in granting these powers.) I hope we are wrong. But if we are not, and if society is incapable or unwilling to resist this outcome (and ignore prophets like Justin Smith), then the broad outlines of Hayek's slippery slope argument will end up being right, after all (recall) even if he got the timing and details wrong. (In particular, I think Hayek failed to foresee that the re-introduction of liberal principles (markets, open borders, free range to finance, etc.) in the context of the military-industrial-financial state would rebound rather badly on true liberal values.) It is possible that Liberalism will not get a new chance (and undoubtedly some of my readers will say good riddance), but if through our courage and efforts it does for us or our children (in a post-environmental catastrophe era) some day, we need sober thinking to guide us and confront painful questions.
*I was introduced to Leonard Cohen twenty years ago (recall).
+I have to admit that I did not expect this post, which includes a call to rethink liberalism afresh, to strike a nerve because my posts about Trump this past year, in which I explored the rise of Trump (w/o downplaying his dangerous potential) and reflected on its meaning and cause(s) received almost no comment and were pretty much nearly uniformly ignored.
**I am not suggesting Trump is in all things a Jacksonian. Jackson was a prisoner of war, and we know that Trump was not especially respectful of prisoners.