Magical thinking around democracy

I have this album, from an obscure band, which includes a lot of sampled speech from movies etc., most of which I don’t recognize. I have no idea where they got the bit which begins “nobody in the music industry knows anything about the industry.” But it has been on my mind for some time as a useful insight into American politics.

Hardly anyone in politics seems really to know much about politics, beyond shallow ideas and practices adopted from those already in it. I’m not sure much of anyone within American democracy really thinks very deeply about the concept at all.

That seems harsh and probably conceited, and yet. There is so much evidence of even elites who purport to be very concerned with and active in the realm of democracy, all the time, yet demonstrate childishly shallow and nonsensical thinking about it.

I have noted examples of this. One biggie is all the people alarmed about the prospect of “a presidential election being overturned, procedurally” whose solution is to reinforce rules and procedures which routinely overturn voters’ choice for president. As I phrased it on Twitter, last weekend, the concern here amounts only to making sure voters have a “fair” chance to play a stupid board game with dubious rules and rigged maps, not that voters reliably win. It has also occurred to me that this criticism of the ludicrous Electoral College also applies to how our political parties—very much including the Democratic Party—select someone for the presidency. The Democratic presidential primary process is not only a stupid board game which doesn’t give primacy to voters’ wishes, it almost seems designed to muddy as much as possible any chance of determining what voters’ wishes even are. This is less an approximation of democracy than of anti-democracy.

Yet hardly anyone questions this. Nor is that surprising when one notices how caught up elites are in trappings and symbols and processes. As I remarked, here, around the time the January 6 Committee got underway, actual national political leaders speak and act as though democracy is some kind of physical object or structure which could be destroyed by physical assault.

It’s horrifying to consider how literally liberal leaders seem to confuse democracy with procedural games, and the ramifications of that confusion. If one stops and thinks about it, the anxiety bordering on terror about Mike Pence single-handedly keeping Trump in office for a second term, simply by saying this, requires a lot of people to be hopelessly lost in magical thinking.

The panic around Mike Pence and some note cards or whatever goes way beyond just worries about “an already volatile situation,” or “throwing America into a Constitutional crisis,” I’m quite certain. The leadership of liberal democracy in our country seems genuinely convinced that the entire 2020 election—not just you know the vote, but even the vote as strained through an arbitrary weighted 150 year old game board, the vote certifications, the bloody Electoral College itself, and all facts about the fucking reality of all these things—have no true significance whatsoever to who is the real president during the next term. That has to be your conceptual framework, if you really believe that Mike Pence at the 11th hour could in any way have upended all that and made Donald Trump president for a second term. You have to believe that democracy is entirely a pantomime detached from the reality of which individual we defer to as president.

I’m sure that many things explain this. The legalistic obsessions of lawyers, the unconscious bias of elites toward familiar things which reinforce their sense of specialness, standard human blockheadedness, etc.

I think it might also be useful to think about this as magical thinking, with some consideration of Clarke’s Third Law.

Arthur C. Clark gave us the suggestion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’m not sure who first extrapolated the idea of a society with technology so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic even to them. I think I picked it up from a Warren Ellis story in the 90s. At all events it seems like America’s democracy—for all that I can criticize it as primitive and shitty—is at the same time a system of such complexity, at least, that its engineers and operators and users effectively conceive of it more like magic than a technology.

In fairness I think any real, honest understanding of not only democracy but politics in general has to acknowledge that most people never have a very advanced grasp on it. By default, certainly, these are elite-led phenomena. If that could be changed, it would require not just a lot of education in school but reinforcement in later life. Various people chime into angsty threads about our democracy to suggest “we need civics education,” but really, what would the teachers teach?

I have mused about this in a limited way, guessing that it’s mostly still “Schoolhouse Rock” “three branches” stories which are now so far out of alignment with political function at a national level as to be myth. But while one could teach more about the dismal realities of what determines power and policy in America, today (at least in theory, if one ignores the likelihood of being fired) what about actual working democracy?

A lot of people think they have answers to this but I’m not sure that most of them are much good. A small group of people can practice democracy easily enough in response to a simple yes-or-no question, familiar and of interest to all, by having a show of hands and going with which option gets the majority. You can pick at that scenario but it’s solid enough. Add more complexity and the relative solidity of these assumptions dissolves.

Voting is certainly not the same as democracy, a relatively easy distinction which our culture mostly misses anyway. Meanwhile, we do have democracy some places, and in other places neither voting nor democracy. Business is not really a democracy; most workplaces certainly aren’t. Churches? Social media platforms? Why not? What answer about the purpose of democracy fits its patchwork presence in our society?

A traditional answer about “self-government” is mostly slippery nonsense outside of, e.g., a handful of New England villages where the town meeting is the governing body. If you say, well, we have the power to hire and fire the people with power and authority (within the somewhat arbitrarily defined limit of the public sector), do we? How does it work? Who is the “we” who hired Donald Trump to be president, or for that matter who fired Barack Obama? How would “we” fire the Senate oligarchs blockading everything besides courtesy bills for business? I don’t recall when “we” hired Brett Kavanaugh, but how or when can “we” fire him?

Yeah okay, smartass, so what’s my explanation, but part of my purpose here is pointing out that we don’t have good explanations. I don’t claim that there are easy answers, I do propose that pretending there are easy answers will not lead us to good answers of any kind.

For what it’s worth, I have some vague ideas of democracy as—contrary to ideas of it as something robust and resilient—something complex, expensive and high maintenance which can over time provide return that’s absolutely worth it. A nuclear power plant might be sort of an illustrative comparison, if we ignore the details; alternately perhaps fusion power which, if we ever master it, will certainly have been ungodly expensive but will presumably be so rewarding that the alternative of going without will come to seem unimaginable.

In a more practical sense, I think we might usefully think of democracy like a jury. Questions are referred to juries, along with evidence and arguments, but juries are very much just parts within a larger system; no one supposes that juries govern that system, in fact that system operates and even creates the juries. Likewise, a democracy is probably in practice simply one means to select an answer to certain questions, which can be a useful means but which simply to function depends on broad agreement about all kinds of things like what the questions are, who asks them, when, who gets to be on the jury, how the jury’s verdict is determined, etc., etc.

I don’t honestly think this is beyond understanding. In some ways it seems awfully easy, and something which only a culture structured to avoid study (see e.g. the absence of any permanent Congressional committees on democracy) and avoid clear dialogue (see e.g. news media and our entire information infrastructure) could possibly get so far without better understanding. I only really got involved in, as opposed to interested in, politics within the past several years. I think I have come a considerable way in that time and could get a lot further, in terms of seeing past the rituals and myths and magical thinking.

Whether or not I can thereby accomplish anything practical, I don’t know.

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