There’s a general assumption among most Americans that democracy is a good thing and that, as a general rule, more democracy is better. With the single exception that we ought to have a Bill of Rights to carve out protections so that the majority cannot persecute the minority, reforms like direct election of Senators (before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, state legislatures elected national Senators), direct involvement via ballot initiatives, and even reform of the Electoral College to apportion votes equitably with respect to population all seem to strike most people as more or less common sensical. The same general attitude is applied internationally as well, which is why so many Americans were initially supportive of the Arab Spring revolutions that swept the Middle East.
I think this is all wrong. Democracy, in my mind, is overrated. And for clarity, “democracy” means to me “rule by the majority” or even just “rule by the people”.
Let’s start at the beginning with the American Revolution. There’s a widespread urban legend that 1/3 of Americans supported the Revolution, 1/3 were neutral, and 1/3 opposed it. The problem with this view is that it’s not actually accurate. It stems from a letter by John Adams written in 1813 that was actually about American opinions of the French Revolution, although it has been mistakenly quoted by historians dating back to the early 1900′s. The best explanation I’ve found for this issue comes from the Journal of the American Revolution, which addressed the issue directly. According to that piece, no one really knows what the actual breakdown for support of the American Revolution was. In addition to the absence of statistical polling at the time, the issue is complicated by the fact that the American population was growing very rapidly. However (citing the Journal of the American Revolution again), historians like Robert Calhoon estimate that between 40% and 45% of the free population (so African American slaves are not included) or “at most no more than a bare majority” supported the Revolution. So the 1/3-1/3-1/3 quote is erroneous, but the idea that the Revolution was supported by a minority of Americans is reasonable.
This is a controversial claim. Another organization that weighed in on this issue is the Independent Institute, a conservative/libertarian think tank. William F. Marina wrote a piece for them denouncing the “minority myth” as a malicious lie to support elitism and citing “the obvious delight that these writers take, which is, indeed, a major reason they cite it, in the notion that it is a minority that often knows best.” Despite Marina’s foreceful defense of the view that the majority of Americans supported the Revolution, however, the Founders themselves seemed less clear about it. Writing to a friend in 1813, John Adams responded to his friend Thomas McKean’s assertion that the overwhelming majority of Americans had supported the Revolution, Adams demurred. He cited the strength of the Loyalist cause and then wrote (again, Journal of the American Revolution): “Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample?”
So we should take two things from this. The first is that we don’t really know if the majority of Americans supported the Revolution or not, and neither did (at least some of) the Founders. The second is that, to this day, that assertion is hotly contested. Why? Because of an idea that the American political system is founded on the “will of the people” and that–if the Founders did not follow the will of the people–they were “a pretty slippery and hypocritical bunch”, as Marina put it.
I have a different perspective. I think that there is an important distinction between (to use my own terminology) the consent of the governed and the intent of the governed. And I think that when most Americans envision “democracy” they are implicitly assuming that government ought to reflect the intent of the governed. For example, I think that most Americans believe that the purpose of elected representatives is basically practical. We can’t ask Americans for their opinion on every single law, and so we elect representatives, and their job is to go and act as a simple stand-in for their constituents. That is why we passed the 17th Amendment: so that Senators would directly represent their constituents, as opposed to having the state legislature exist as an intermediary. Based on this idea (the intent theory of representative government), not only do legislatures act as stand-ins for their constituents, but the rest of government (the executive and judicial branches) are also simply practical necessities. We have a President because, especially in times of crisis, we need a single person who can act decisively and unambiguously. We have a judicial system purely as a kind of expert legal consultant, although in recent years there has been increasingly a theory that even the Supreme Court ought to reflect the changing mores and attitudes of society. In short: the intent theory is the idea that the entire apparatus of the American political system is an elaborate attempt to enact the will of the American people. In this view, the government (and everyone who works there) is essentially a passive filter that processes the intent of Americans into official law and action.
I believe this is entirely wrong.
First of all, I don’t believe that was the intent of the Founders in creating the system. This is clear from both their actions before and during the Revolution and also from the system that they created. In terms of actions: they acted proactively without waiting for the will of the majority to be clear. John Adams’ letter reflects this. It’s obvious that the will of the people was crucial to their view of governmental legitimacy, but it didn’t serve as the source of government action. In simple terms, the Founders asked for permission from the American people, but didn’t wait for instructions. That’s fundamentally incompatible with the idea that the government merely enacts the intent of the American people. In terms of political structure: the design of the American political system laid down in the Constitution is incompatible with the idea that it is merely a passive filter. After all, the 17th Amendment wasn’t passed until the 20th century. The original intent of the Founders was to intentionally create a layer between national and state government, and have that layer remove the American people a step or two from the process. Since there’s no practical reason for that design decision (it wouldn’t have been significantly more difficult to have popular election for the Senate), it shows that the Founders deliberately chose a less-democratic political system.
Why? Because the Founders were not fools.
The most influential writer on this topic that I’ve read is the modern libertarian scholar Bryan Caplan who wrote The Myth of the Rational Voter. Caplan’s main point, in this book, was to document specific systematic biases common to American voters that lead to poor economic policies. But, along the way, he also pointed out that an important advantage of voter ignorance is that it leaves wiggle room for their representatives to make better decisions that would be unpopular if (biased) American voters knew exactly what was going.
Now I expect that this line of argument is going to raise all kinds of red flags with people, and it should. But the fundamental reality is that elitism has some things going for it. Who do you want to do analysis about global warming, PhD scientists or the man on the street? Who do you want to perform surgery on your kid, a trained and accredited surgeon or a randomly selected poll respondent? Then elitism has a role to play in our society. The government makes policies based on or impacting scientific, strategic, economic, and other matters where expertise is absolutely essential if you want good policies. Then elitism has a role to play in our government.
But obviously the possibility for reliance on elites to be abused is incredibly dangerous. There has to be a counterweight to elitism, and that counterweight is the consent of the governed. Our political system is designed to allow representatives (hopefully representing our elite in the best sense of the word) a wide range of latitude in governance, but to make them ultimately accountable to the people. It is neither populist nor elitist, but a fusion of the two.
So what happens when the balance between populism and elitism is disrupted? Well, take a look at the increasing partisanship and dysfunction in Washington D.C. since the rise of the Internet to get an example. Knowledge is power, and power can be abused. The Internet is, fundamentally, a communication technology that allows for the wide and targeted distribution of information. How much easier is it for activist groups (like the NRA) to micromanage elected representatives and then pass that information directly to their self-selecting constituents who have this information in the absence of any meaningful context. We complain that there’s so little real compromise in Washington, but who can compromise when there are hundreds of single-issue and ideological groups who are literally scoring our legislators on every vote they take?
Again: when I make an argument that says “less informed voters would be better” that ought to send up some red flags. But viewing it as less / more informed isn’t helpful. It’s not just about the amount of information that voters have, but also the kind of information that voters have. I would absolutely love to have voters who are more informed about the nature of our government, what the various branches are responsible for, and so on. I think that a kind of basic citizenship test before voting is a good idea (but not an unproblematic one). But when voters get myopic rankings on hot-button issues without any context: that’s more like noise than information. Voters don’t actually know what votes their representatives cast. They don’t even understand the arcane and complex procedures by which the House and Senate operate. They don’t know when a vote represents a pure capitulation, and when it represents a give-and-take. All they know is that on Position X Candidate Y has a D- from their favorite activist organization. So we’ve got a bunch of elected representatives who have to game the system with their votes in order to stay in office.
And that’s thanks to democracy.
What’s the solution? Well, there’s no silver bullet, but I do believe the first step is a recognition of what the American political system is for. And I don’t think that the American political system was designed or intended to get representatives to either guess what Americans would want if they were asked or merely act out their reactions to poll questions. I think the American political system harnesses the concept of consent of the governed to create accountability by creating healthy incentives. In short, representatives (in the past) have had more incentive to get good outcomes then to react to the preferred ideologies of their constituents. But, since we’ve lost an appreciation for that distinction, we risk reforms that will actually make the problem better rather than worse. Banning single-interest groups or clamping down on their free speech is not, in my mind, a viable solution. Reforming the way we create districts (to restrict gerrymandering), reforming the way we vote (to eliminate strategic voting), and reforming the schedule for primaries (to decrease entrenched special interests) all are.
In short: you have to know how the machine is supposed to work before you can understand how to repair or improve it.
[This post has no real spoilers for the most recent Star Trek movie, but it does have spoilers for a lot of older Star Trek material as well as World War Z and especially the book version of Ender's Game.]
Gary Westfahl has an interesting review of the most recent Star Trek movie (which I haven’t seen) at Locus. In it, he laments the fact that recent Star Trek movies have abandoned Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic view of the future:
Essentially, Roddenberry envisioned a future universe in which everybody could get along; intelligent beings might have their differences, but they could still respect each other and strive to resolve their conflicts without resorting to all-out war.
For Westfahl, the first Star Trek movie epitomized this essentially peaceful narrative structure:
[It] was completely congruent with the spirit of the original series: an enormous alien construct approaches Earth and threatens to destroy humanity, but investigation reveals that it is merely being motivated by a confused recollection of instructions that the machine absorbed when it merged with the space probe Voyager, and when it then combines with a human partner, it peacefully leaves Earth to pursue new goals.
Unfortunately, however, this movie was not very commercially successful. It was Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan that breathed new life into the franchise. And it did so by taking an empathy opponent from an earlier episode (Khan) and rendering him purely evil so that he could get blown up at the end and everyone would cheer. For Westfahl, this represents the unfortunate trend towards polarization in modern society, and it’s regrettable that it became the pattern for additional Star Trek movies (including the most recent one). I’m with Westfahl on most of this, but there are two glaring omissions that struck me as extremely puzzling. Continue Reading →
Aside from wishing that people would simply not talk about Kermit Gosnell at all, pro-choice groups in American politics would really like everyone to understand that Kermit Gosnell was a horrific aberration. As a group, the pro-choice movement tends to circle the wagon around late-term abortionists and idolize them. George Tiller, for example, was considered a hero even before his murder made him a martyr. So, when the late term abortion is legal, you’re a women’s rights crusader and paragon of sacrifice and bravery. But, if you take the exact same fetus and more or less the same method of execution and carry it out outside the womb, then all of a sudden that is something completely and totally different. So: killing human beings inside the womb at (for example) 24 weeks and killing human beings outside the womb (also, for example, at 24 weeks) are basically unrelated practices, as far as the pro-choice movement is concerned. One gets you awards and fame, the other gets you a life-term prison sentence.
The pro-life side is, to put it mildly, rather skeptical of this bright-line distinction.
When pro-choice individuals are honest, of course, they also admit that there’s not much of a distinction at all. Pro-choice philosophers openly call for infanticide (aka “after birth abortion“), so have Planned Parenthood spokespersons, and most notably there’s an extensive article called “Second trimester abortion provision: breaking the silence and changing the discourse” by an abortionist about the personal trauma she feels when carrying out late-term abortions. The truth is undeniable: abortion–and especially late-term abortion–is an act of savage and barbaric violence that dehumanizes everyone concerned: the woman, the abortionist, and of course the unborn (or born, does it really make a difference?) human being.
This may seem judgmental to women in crisis pregnancies, but the pro-life movement has from the earliest days of woman’s suffrage understood that abortion is a means for exploiting women who, because of an unplanned pregnancy, are in an incredibly vulnerable position. Rather than the stereotypical angry abortion clinic protester yelling at women or calling them murderers, the pro-life movement as I have known it my entire life is best summarized by this bumper sticker I once saw: Abortion has two victims: One killed and one wounded.
Today I read tragic news from Texas that confirms the pro-life understanding of abortion (especially late-term abortion) as a dehumanizing practice. WARNING: THIS NEWS IS GRAPHIC. Continue Reading →
I read a very odd piece in Psychology Today that purports to be written by a “diagnosed sociopath”. Psychology is well outside my area of expertise, but I’m not sure if that matters because the author seemed to be relying much more heavily on Hollywood notions of sociopathy than the DSM’s definition of antisocial personality disorder. According to Hollywood, sociopaths are amoral (correct), manipulative (fairly correct), and brilliant (not necessarily). They villains around which plots revolve and who inspire heroes to come forth and do battle, so they’re sort of a big deal.
But M. E. Thomas is no supervillain. There was this one time that she followed a guy and fantasized about strangling him, but then she lost him. Not really how big a threat that ever was, because she had no weapon, no physical advantage, no training, and not even a plan. Oh yeah, and like I mentioned, she couldn’t even manage to keep up with him. So how, exactly, was she going to overpower him and strangle him to death? Also, there was this time she was so sarcastic to her dad that he put his hand through a wall. While it’s not exactly Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, it’s hardly American Pysho, either.
I understand that a main point she’s making is that not all sociopaths are violent criminals. Some are just a-holes. OK, point made. But… why would I read a book about that? A memoir has to either have interesting events or an interesting person, but M. E. Thomas evidences neither.
The only reason I was prodded into writing this post is the following:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a sociopath’s dream. Mormons believe that everyone has the potential to be godlike—I believe this includes me. Every being is capable of salvation; my actions are what matters, not my ruthless thoughts, not my nefarious motivations. Everyone is a sinner, and I never felt that I was outside this norm.
See, this is when I knew that M. E. Thomas is seriously deficient in the practical intellect department. The idea that a sociopath is cut out for “potential to be godlike” in a religion that defines God in terms of His empathy is ridiculous to the point of genuinely sad. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to pass judgment on her moral worth. Not my department. But the fact that she’s advancing such a ludicrous argument shows how completely out of touch she is. I’m not sure to what extent “delusions of grandeur” or “narcissism” play a role in sociopathy, but those are the only traits where’s she’s nailing perfect 10s.
But it’s just too delicious of a quote for anti-Mormons to pass up, especially because it summons up some additional bogeymen. She’s got the noxious idea that Mormons believe we earn salvation through our works and also the fun stereotype that we’re a superficial bunch obsessed with behavior and outward appearances and completely immune to moral introspection. Neither is true, but both will please those who already have an axe to grind, and so I’m fairly confident I’ll be seeing the “sociopath’s dream” quote on an image in my Facebook feed eventually. (Hey, at least it will add some variety.)
I can’t hardly wait.
In any case, I just don’t believe that articles like this one are really going to move copies of the book. It’s got the subtitle: “A life hiding in plain sight”, but I don’t think there’s anything “hidden” about non-violent sociopaths. I think we all know who they are. We just have a different word for them. We call them assholes.
Here’s a though provoking TEDx talk from Caroline Heldman.
This approach to analyzing sexuality in society is a possible antidote to the toxicity of Christian purity culture. There’s a danger among social liberalism that well-intentioned efforts to empower women can backfire, leading to both women and feminism being co-opted by a male-dominant, consumerist culture. Teaching that women ought to dress modestly to protect men from being tempted is wrong, because it says that women exist–or at least must make their clothing choices–for the benefit of men. Teaching what sexual objectification is and how women can rebel against it, however, replaces the subservient motivation with a genuinely empowering one. If women want to wear “sexy” clothing: OK. I support their choice. But if the consequences are habitual body monitoring and degradation of cognitive function (two of the most shocking aspects of the video for me), then women ought to know that.
But there’s an even simpler antidote to the toxicity of Christian purity culture that I also want to reference, however. It’s a video that Reece linked to in the comments to a previous post here at DR, and I loved it so much I wanted to post it on the front page here.
“Jesus wants the rose.” The passionate declaration has been ringing in my mind ever since I first saw the video. What could be more simple, more profound, and more Christian? Modesty and virtue are important, and I believe that they should be taught and celebrated, but as a matter of priority the really fundamental message is that Jesus wants the rose. No matter what.
So, in my last post, I said I wasn’t sure if either the Benghazi or the IRS scandals would continue to snowball. What I didn’t expect, however, was that there would be another scandal. I’m not seeing a lot of secondary coverage from the talking heads yet, but news broke today that:
The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.
The AP piece also contains this oft-neglected nugget:
The Obama administration has aggressively investigated disclosures of classified information to the media and has brought six cases against people suspected of providing classified information, more than under all previous presidents combined.
So, the DoJ was spying on 20 different phones lines used by approximately 100 different journalists in order to find out who leaked information about a May 2012 foiled terror plot. That’s a valid subject for investigation, of course, but as Issa put it:
They had an obligation to look for every other way to get it before they intruded on the freedom of the press.
So, we’ll still have to wait to see what happens with the other two proto-scandals, but in the meantime we’ve got a third. Will this finally turn the press against President Obama? Before the re-election, I doubt it. Now? I still doubt it, but it seems more possible.
As the old saying goes: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Last week has not been kind to the Obama administration in that regard. I watched a lot of the Benghazi hearings on C-SPAN while I was working, and to me it seemed clear that the most explosive accusation the GOP has been making is still completely unsubstantiated. There’s no evidence (that I’ve seen) that President Obama or anyone else refused to send military aid that could have arrived on time and would have made the difference. On the other hand, there seems to be pretty overwhelming evidence that the Administration willfully and knowingly lied to the American people in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and then doubled-down on the first set of lies. And it looks like even the non-paranoid, mainstream media outlets are taking notice.
This is one of those comparisons that, once made, seems so obvious you can’t believe you didn’t see it before. The NRA is hell-bent on preventing even the most moderate and reasonable gun-control regulation because they believe that any incremental shift today will lead to a gradual erosion of the Second Amendment over time and, to the NRA, there’s nothing more important than the Second Amendment. Well, how about pro-choice groups that oppose even the most moderate and reasonable abortion regulation because they believe that any incremental shift today will lead to a gradual erosion of the right to choose over time. Looks pretty similar, doesn’t it? (I picked out NARAL–the National Abortion Rights Action League–just because of the acronym is somewhat similar to the NRAs.)
What’s really surprising, however, is that this comparison is being drawn in a piece at The Daily Beast, of all places.
The piece, by Kirsten Powers, is obviously written from a pro-life slant. After all, one of her main points is the frank assertion that “late-term abortion is infanticide”. That’s an explosive-enough charge that I’m sure it’s going to make the entire article radioactive. The problem is: she’s pretty obviously right. In the first place, serious pro-choice thinkers and activists can’t tell the difference themselves. That’s why plenty of pro-choice philosophers like Peter Singer (there are others, too) build on the legacy of Judith Jarvis Thomson to openly argue for infanticide. But it’s not just academics, Planned Parenthood representatives will say the same thing, and Gosnell’s inability to see the significant of the before/after line when it comes to birth is not unique among abortionists who perform late-term abortions. So, explosive as the accusation may sound, it’s born out in reality.
But even setting aside that particular argument, Powers’ is clearly relatively moderate on this issue. She believes life begins at conception, but has also never voted for anyone but a Democrat and says this proves “overturning Roe v. Wade is not one of my priorities.” What isn’t moderate, however, is current American law. Powers draws the contrast with Europe to make that point:
But medical advances since Roe v. Wade have made it clear to me that late-term abortion is not a moral gray area, and we need to stop pretending it is. No six-months-pregnant woman is picking out names for her “fetus.” It’s a baby. Let’s stop playing Orwellian word games. We are talking about human beings here.
How is this OK? Even liberal Europe gets this. In France, Germany, Italy, andNorway, abortion is illegal after 12 weeks. In addition to the life-of-mother exception, they provide narrow health exceptions that require approval from multiple doctors or in some cases going before a board. In the U.S., if you suggest such stringent regulation and oversight of later-term abortions, you are tarred within seconds by the abortion rights movement as a misogynist who doesn’t “trust women.”
As with the gun-control issue, the fundamental problem seems to be Constitutionality. When an American law is questioned in a way that makes people think the Constitution is directly involved, the stakes go through the roof. Gun-control legislation clearly fits the bill because of the Second Amendment, and also the well-publicized statements from many leaders of the gun-control movement that their ultimate aim is to confiscate and ban virtually all civilian weapons. Until Roe v Wade, abortion wasn’t a Constitutional issue, and across the country in the 1970s the democratic process was working to liberalize the laws in fits and starts in the usual process of moderation that would likely have resulted in laws similar to what exist in Europe. But Roe v Wade, in further evidence that it was one of the worst SCOTUS decisions in history, short-circuited this democratic legislative process. It handed the pro-choice side everything they could have asked for and more and, as an ironic consequence, meant that from that moment forward the pro-choice side had nothing to win and everything to lose.
Which leads us directly to Gosnell.
There has never been evidence of a back-alley abortionists prior to Roe who operated with the same callous disregard for humanity (not to mention racism) of Kermit Gosnell. To the extent that pre-Roe abortions were dangerous, it was a reflection of overall dangerous surgical practices and not the legality of abortion. No, the real horrors or back-alley abortions have only happened after and as a result of Roe v. Wade.