Digifesto

The meaning of gridlock in governance

I’ve been so intrigued by this article, “Dems Can Abandon the Center — Because the Center Doesn’t Exist”, by Eric Levitz in NY Mag. The gist of the article is that most policies that we think of as “centrist” are actually very unrepresentative of the U.S. population’s median attitude on any particular subject, and are held only by a small minority that Levitz associates with former Mayor Bloomberg of New York City. It’s a great read and cites much more significant research on the subject.

One cool thing the article provides is this nice graphic showing the current political spectrum in the U.S.:

The U.S. political spectrum , from Levitz, 2017.

In comparison to that, this blog post is your usual ramble of no consequence.

Suppose there’s an organization whose governing body doesn’t accomplish anything, despite being controversial, well-publicized, and apparently not performing satisfactorily. What does that mean?

From an outside position (somebody being governed by such a body), what is means is sustained dissatisfaction and the perception that the governing body is dys- or non- functional. This spurs the dissatisfied party to invest resources or take action to change the situation.

However, if the governing body is responsive to the many and conflicting interests of the governed, the stasis of the government could mean one of at least two things.

One thing it could mean is that the mechanism through which the government changes is broken.

Another thing it could mean is that the mechanism through which the government changes is working, and the state of governance reflects the equilibrium of the powers the contest for control of the government.

The latter view is not a politically exciting view and indeed it is politically self-defeating for whoever holds it. If we see government as something responding to the activity of many interests, mediating between them and somehow achieving their collective agenda, then the problem with seeing a government in gridlock as having achieved a “happy” equilibrium, or a “correct” view, is that it discourages partisan or interested engagement. If one side stops participating in the (expensive, exhausting) arm wrestle, then the other side gains ground.

On the other hand, the stasis should not in itself be considered cause for alarm, apart from the dissatisfaction resulting from ones particular perspective on the total system.

Another angle on this is that from every point in the political spectrum, and especially those points at the extremes, the procedural mechanisms of government are going to look broken because they don’t result in satisfying outcomes. (Consider the last election, where both sides argued that the system was rigged when they thought they were losing or had lost.) But, of course, these mechanisms are always already part of the governance system itself and subject to being governed by it, so pragmatically one will approve of them just in so far as it gives ones own position influence over outcomes (here I’m assuming strict proceduralism are somewhere on the multidimensional political spectrum themselves and is motivated by e.g. the appeal of the stability or legitimacy in some sense).

Habermas seems quaint right now, but shouldn’t

By chance I was looking up Habermas’s later philosophical work today, like Between Facts and Norms (1992), which has been said to be the culmination of the project he began with The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1962. In it, he argues that the law is what gives pluralistic states their legitimacy, because the law enshrines the consent of the governed. Power cannot legitimize itself; democratic law is the foundation for the legitimate state.

Habermas’s later work is widely respected in the European Union, which by and large has functioning pluralistic democratic states. Habermas emerged from the Frankfurt School to become a theorist of modern liberalism and was good at it. While it is an empirical question how much education in political theory is tied to the legitimacy and stability of the state, anecdotally we can say that Habermas is a successful theorist and the German-led European Union is, presently, a successful government. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that this is at least in part due to the fact that citizens are convinced, through the education system, of the legitimacy of their form of government.

In the United States, something different happened. Habermas’s earlier work (such as the The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) was introduced to United States intellectuals through a critical lens. Craig Calhoun, for example, argued in 1992 that the politics of identity was more relevant or significant than the politics of deliberation and democratic consensus.

That was over 25 years ago, and that moment was influential in the way political thought has unfolded in Europe and the United States. In my experience, it is very difficult to find support in academia for the view that rational consensus around democratic institutions is a worthwhile thing to study or advocate for. Identity politics and the endless contest of perspectives is much more popular among students and scholars coming out of places like UC Berkeley. In my own department, students were encouraged to read Habermas’s early work in the context of the identity politics critique, but never exposed to the later work that reacted to these critiques constructively to build a theory that was specifically about pluralism, which is what political identities need in order to unify as a legitimate state. There’s a sense in which the whole idea that one should continue a philosophical argument to the point of constructive agreement, despite the hard work and discipline that this demands, was abandoned in favor of an ideology of intellectual diversity that discouraged scrutiny and rigor across boundaries of identity, even in the narrow sense of professional or disciplinary identity.

The problem with this approach to intellectualism is that it is fractious and undermines itself. When these qualities are taken as intellectual virtues, it is no wonder that boorish overconfidence can take advantage of it in an open contest. And indeed the political class in the United States today has been undermined by its inability to justify its own power and institutions in anything but the fragmented arguments of identity politics.

It is a sad state of affairs. I can’t help but feel my generation is intellectually ill-equipped to respond to the very prominent challenges to the legitimacy of the state that are being leveled at it every day. Not to put too fine a point on it, I blame the intellectual laziness of American critical theory and its inability to absorb the insights of Habermas’s later theoretical work.

Addendum 8/7/17a:

It has come to my attention that this post is receiving a relatively large amount of traffic. This seems to happen when I hit a nerve, specifically when I recommend Habermas over identitarianism in the context of UC Berkeley. Go figure. I respectfully ask for comments from any readers. Some have already helped me further my thinking on this subject. Also, I am aware that a Wikipedia link is not the best way to spread understanding of Habermas’s later political theory. I can recommend this book review (Chriss, 1998) of Between Facts and Norms as well as the Habermas entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which includes a section specifically on Habermasian cosmopolitanism, which seems relevant to the particular situation today.

Addendum 8/7/17b:

I may have guessed wrong. The recent traffic has come from Reddit. Welcome, Redditors!