Once again with the Nagelian voter

The East coast political pundit is a reliable product. Every four years, when the presidential candidates do their greyhound around the track thing, their is sure to be a section in the stands where they moan and gibber for moderates. This year is no different. The punditocracy is viewing the GOP race through moist eyes, because obviously with such extremism, it is the end of the GOP and all things bright and beautiful. This is the tenor of Ryan Liazza’s recent piece in the New Yorker, which surfs the poli sci lit for explanations of how extremists capture parties. In the case of the GOP, the extremists that lead the GOP to that massive 2010 defeat in Congress seem to be in control… or, er, wasn’t that a massive GOP victory?

A good pundit, however, has a tough hide, and can ignore counter-evidence if it gets in the way of the narrative. Joan Didion uses the nice phrase, the  “self-created and self-referring” class, for the administrators of public opinion who take it upon themselves to treat politics much the way Phil Spector treated Beatles songs on the Let it Be album: taking out the unprofessional bits and adding the expected continuity. That continuity is what Didion called the “narrative”: 

“When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. “I didn’t realize you were a political junkie,” Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists.”

The insularity continues to be ever more insular, quickly absorbing the insurgent energies of the political blogger scene of the early 2000s as those bloggers self-identified as “political junkies” and happily cycled the process. Those of us within the rez, upon whose head the process is merrily played, with all its wars, its plutocracy, its merciless jails, are supposed to be good sports: the horrendous people who emerge like fabulous locusts to darken the airwaves on election years  (often as a step to what they really want – the excellent lobbying job) are there to administer to the great need they presume we still possess to pretend to be connected, by all the democratic ties, to what they are going to do to us anyway. The quickest route to courage, for the pundit class, is to propose something “unpopular” that will damage the lives of most of the 99 percent in some way, but that will deal with one or another politically created crisis: the debt crisis (caused by chronic undertaxing of the wealthy, and the neo-liberal penchant to find ever more ways to shuffle money from the wage class into securities funds that will ultimately fail to fund retirement, healthcare or education, but will make the rentseeking class wealthy); the foreign policy crisis (caused by the huge gravitational pulls of the Pentagon and the defense industry that lead America by the nose from one act of aggression to another); and the war crisis (ditto).

Myself, I long to be the raven from Poe’s poem, perching on the head of east coast pundits and cawing, nevermore, and gently shitting down the back of their necks.

Liazza’s piece did make me think about my own little contribution to poli sci: using Thomas Nagel’s model, in what is it like to be a bat, to ask the question: what is it like to be a voter?  

The presumption of the pundit class is that the ‘process’ is most aptly run by those with an intelligent grasp of the issues. The issues, of course, are created by those with the intelligent grasp of them, so there is something nice, solid and incestuous about the whole thing.

However, I don’t think election based democracy is about those with an intelligent grasp of the issues, at least if that grasp is defined in terms of having informed opinions about policy. In my opinion, a philosophical defense of democracy has to begin with a better description of how voting functions in a democracy in the first place. What kind of feed back is voting? This is where Thomas Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat? Proves to be handy.

Now of course Nagel’s essay doesn’t seem like it is about politics at all. It is about the narrow set of questions that are posed by the cog sci school to frame the problem of consciousness. And, famously, Nagel suggests that these questions do not pose the central problem of consciousness at all : “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.”

’What it is like’ questions grab hold of subjectivity, rather than deductive activity:

“We may call this the subjective character of experience. It is not captured by any of the familiar, recently devised reductive analyses of the mental, for all of them are logically compatible with its absence. It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing.2 It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons.3 I do not deny that conscious mental states and events cause behavior, nor that they may be given functional characterizations. I deny only that this kind of thing exhausts their analysis. Any reductionist program has to be based on an analysis of what is to be reduced. If the analysis leaves something out, the problem will be falsely posed. It is useless to base the defense of materialism on any analysis of mental phenomena that fails to deal explicitly with their subjective character. For there is no reason to suppose that a reduction which seems plausible when no attempt is made to account for consciousness can be extended to include consciousness. With out some idea, therefore, of what the subjective character of experience is, we cannot know what is required of physicalist theory.”

The defense of the participation of the people in the government has traditionally been couched in terms of their education and their information about the policy issues. The Kantian dictum about enlightenment -- that it is the people treated as adults, or grown into their adulthood -- is often taken to be about the people educated, who are then ready to take up, in a Lockian manner, the reins of governance.  Relieved of their superstitions by some suitable immersion in the bath of facts, they can go out and find representation. However, to me the "adulthood" does not stand for a list of facts known. It stands for a complicated system of controls on behavior, for the capacity for a range of emotions, for imagination, for empathy, etc., etc. In the same way, defining the voters participation in the government in terms of checking things off the list of things known is much like defining the consciousness solely in terms of deductive or inductive mechanisms. Or, at a stretch, in terms of intentionality.

The picture I am against is like this: your educated voter looks up candidate x’s view on the issue of lowering or raising tariffs on the import of bananas, and looks up candidate y’s view of same, and – deciding which view accords with his own intelligent view of banana importation – votes accordingly. Votes, in fact, can be reduced to a digital function: for/not for.

I think this is a bare and distorted view of what voting is about, and how it functions in a democracy. The voter, on this account, merely confirms or disconfirms views represented by x and y. On this basis, we think, democracy has no real strength that would explain not only its survival, but also its survival in competition with its rivals of all sorts. It would simply be a system with a lag in the decision making process, called an election, as opposed to say tyranny, where the lags are unpredictable, and correspond to the mental life of the ruler. Since it is unlikely that any voter has the amount of knowledge to make a competent judgment about not only the banana import issue, but, say, subsidies to the ethanol industry and car safety standards and the proper foreign policy to assume towards Gabon, if election based democracies depended on a set of voters with competent listable knowledge alone, I wouldn't give it much chance of survival.

The question of success, here, is often obscured by the rhetoric of morality. Democracies are supposed to possess some moral superiority. I have my doubts about this. Any time a political system becomes dominant, you find intellectuals busy justifying the system as morally superior. So far, the most long lasting governmental arrangement known to man involved the ruler marrying his sister and being acclaimed, at some point or another, a god, before his dead body was embalmed and interred under a certain tonnage of rock. In my opinion, this doesn’t sound like the height of morality, although it makes for very impressive postcards. I think that the success of democracy, given the success of other governmental arrangements in the past, probably does not have to do with its moral status, and probably has more to do with structural qualities it possesses.

This is the reason I don't think voting is well described by the Lockean model. I don’t think voters are like that. I prefer the Nagel voter. The Nagel voter votes, of course, in the for/against mode. But the Nagel voter votes from what it is like to be him or her. This is why the motives of the Nagel voter aren't simply confirming or disconfirming, and why the appeal to him or her is going to be about the emotions around the issues, or the issues as passions. And why the idea that is sometimes bruited about by liberal commentators about injecting ideas into a race and the scandal of not doing so is wrong – not wrong morally, but wrong organizationally. When, for instance, the Swift boat veterans threw mud at Kerry, it was a perfectly legitimate ploy, and has precedents going all the way back to our first presidential elections – mud is part of the process. It is a good part of the process. The swiftboating of Kerry revealed something crucial about Kerry – not that he was a coward under fire on the battlefield, but that he’d become a coward long after that fire was over in denying what made him different from any other grunt: the courage he had to organize to end the war. This, the whole reason he was in politics, disappeared almost entirely from his bio, along with the pics with Jane Fonda and other hippies. This was a huge character flaw that was not unrelated to his huge political flaw – his belief in the “process.” It was a belief that betrayed his Nagelian knowledge that what it was like to fight in Vietnam was a horror show that the process started and was unwilling to stop. Or even stop and repent.   This isn't to say the better man was elected. The man who was elected was George Bush, who is perhaps the epitome of the non-better man, the worse man of all. It is to say that politics is about electing politicians, not better men, and the system's success is peculiarly linked to what makes politicians successful.

Of course, polls are not sensitive to these things: polls ask questions about itemized issues, in a pre-digested sentiential form. There are, of course, millions of Lockean voters out there, and they are variously scandalized by the lack of intellectual content in American political campaigns. And LI has sympathy for that indignation. In fact, my indignation is easily aroused about what I see as gross stupidity on the part of politicians. I dislike their lies, their riches, their easy way with the plutocrats, the stuntedness of their life experiences, and their power to fuck up and fuck me up personally. Just as I don’t want to throw deduction out as the enemy of consciousness, we don't want to entirely junk the image of the well informed voter. But eventually, the voting input is about what it is like to be an Irish ex-cop in New York city, or what it is like to be a embittered ex writer and insane blogger from Austin, Texas, etc., etc.

I will round this off with three paragraphs from Nagel’s essay that give us a sense of how the Lockean defense of democracy differs from a Nagel-like defense of it. The Lockean, remember, is one who, like the reductionist, believes the way to understand the functioning of a government is to find the elementary parts and their combinations. And who thus is comfortable with administering the “narrative’ and the “process”, loves “grand bargains” and “moderation”, and views the dissidence, anger and riotousness that has pushed forward, time and time again, radical ideas that, once adopted, become the conservative furniture of everyday life – as something unusual and that happens, best scenario, in a foreign country, telegenically with young people waving flags at the end of it. For the Lockean, the last sentence of the third paragraph in this quote contains an idea too shocking not to be wrong, since it seems to make it impossible to perfectly combine rationality and government. And, after all, if government is simply decision-making – with its past being a series of decisions made, and its future a series of decisions to be made - then the Lockean has to be right. But if what Nagel is calling experience is not a decision – if it is a style, a set of attitudes, unpredictable variations among language games – and if experience is what democracy depends on, then the pundit view of the administered election, the process, the narrative, and all of that stuff, should be flushed down the toilet, as it ignores or oppresses the expertiential core of democracy:

“In the case of experience, on the other hand, the connection with a particular point of view seems much closer. It is difficult to understand what could be meant by the objective character of an experience, apart from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it. After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat? But if experience does not have, in addition to its subjective character, an objective nature that can be apprehended from many different points of view, then how can it be supposed that a Martian investigating my brain might be observing physical processes which were my mental processes (as he might observe physical processes which were bolts of lightning), only from a different point of view? How, for that matter, could a human physiologist observe them from another point of view?10

... This is accomplished by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation. We describe it not in terms of the impressions it makes on our senses, but in terms of its more general effects and of properties detectable by means other than the human senses. The less it depends on a specifically human viewpoint, the more objective is our description. It is possible to follow this path because although the concepts and ideas we employ in thinking about the external world are initially applied from a point of view that involves our perceptual apparatus, they are used by us to refer to things beyond themselves—toward which we have the phenomenal point of view.

Therefore we can abandon it in favor of another, and still be thinking about the same things. Experience itself however, does not seem to fit the pattern. The idea of moving from appearance to reality seems to make no sense here. What is the analogue in this case to pursuing a more objective understanding of the same phenomena by abandoning the initial subjective viewpoint toward them in favour of another that is more objective but concerns the same thing? Certainly it appears unlikely that we will get closer to the real nature of human experience by leaving behind the particularity of our human point of view and striving for a description in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us. If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity—that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint—does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”


Ed said…
Aristotle's defense of democracy, though granted he was defending direct democracy, in what we would today call cantons, applied to a very limited body of citizens, was essentially that the client in the restaurant didn't have to know how to cook to know whether he liked the food. I don't know how that fits in with the rest of your argument. Voters are not being called on to make policy decisions (and if they are, they shouldn't be), its really no more about giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on what their government is doing to them. Admittedly the U.S. system, and this is going back to Madison, has been contorted in a thousand different ways to mute this type of feedback.