what is it like to be a voter?



Neo-liberalism's attempt to shake the existential edge off politics is a futile and ultimately damaging enterprise, although you wouldn’t know it from the thumbsuckers. Every new election, every new populism, proves it. The left, when it is healthy, and the right, when it is not, both know that politics is all about dread and ecstasy.

That politics might be an existentialist errand is very much part of what I take to be the salient characteristic of contemporary election-based democracies. The common lament of editorialist and well heeled country clubber alike is that election based democracy allows those without an intelligent grasp of the issues, at least if that grasp is defined in terms of having informed opinions about policy. In our 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 is the meaning of voting? What is it about? I propose that we look for the answer to that question using Thomas Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat? 

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 cognitive 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, and thus pondering the policy blueprint. Relieved of their superstitions by some suitable immersion in the bath of facts. 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. It makes voting a test – but not for the candidate. Rather, for the voter.

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 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 are called the hysterical fits 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. We 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. The struggle to gain the vote, which is the bloody ghost behind the vote, is surely not summed up by electing some suited lame politico, but is much more like another bit of dialogue in an interminable family argument. Family arguments are as heated as they are because they address precisely the question of what one is like. What am I like, how am I recognized, why am I not, why don’t I feel like myself in the family, why do I feel like myself in the family, etc.
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  writer in Paris, France, or an old black woman beaten up by the police for no reason at a traffic stop in Atlanta, Georgia, and so on.

Of course, this is an approach to voting that takes into account only one side of it. The other side to voting is deductive, by its very nature. Because what is voting? Voting is additive. Voters may vote out of their tacit knowledge about what they are like, but in the end it is the side with more votes that wins. It is out of this tension, endlessly rocking, that democracies exist.


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