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Contingency

November 14, 2016

A sequel to my election-day post: now that the apocalypse has arrived, what has been revealed? In fact, very little; almost nothing. On the one hand, because everyone already knew how all but a minute fraction of the population would vote; the outcome was surprising, but the intentions behind the outcome were all known in advance. On the other, because, precisely because the outcome was surprising, we thus far have no idea what it means.

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This absence of significance reminds me of an essay written by a professor of mine, Miguel Tamen, called “In Defense of King Louis XVI”. (For those not on a university campus it might be behind a paywall. I’m not sure.) Tamen observes that we often insist on the right to determine the meaning of our actions, and argues that

A conflation of psychology and politics appears to be responsible for this state of affairs. Such is the confusion of self-description with self-­determination that surrendering one’s right to the former feels like surrendering a civil right. Self-description, however, is barely a right, if at all; it is, rather, a matter of being good, true, accurate, and successful at describing this-­thing-­here. Some people are naturally good at it, some learn how to become good at it, some forget how good they once were, and some are hopelessly inept. None should be deprived of their civil rights because they failed the introspection exam, just as no one should be granted any additional right because he or she happened to be at the right time in the right place.

Which is to say: you do not get to decide what your vote meant. You cannot say “I voted for A because of X, not because of Y, and so Y is not my responsibility.” Ignorance of Y is not excuse; you might be culpably ignorant. A belief that X outweighs Y is no excuse; you might be culpably mistaken. Even your belief that you did not vote for A because of Y might be mistaken; you have no special insight into your own motives. You cannot know if your conscience is clean. This is, incidentally, why I do not trust Kant as a moral guide: he assumes that the good will will always recognize its own purity.

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Note that your ignorance as to your own culpability is increased, not decreased, by the fact that to vote is to participate in a collective action. “We the people” elected Donald J. Trump president. If you voted, regardless of whom you voted for, you are a member of this “we”; you demonstrated your assent to the system of government under which Trump is the lawful president-elect. (If you want to take your assent back because Trump won, it means that all along your vote was in bad faith.) The meaning of this election might already be determined, but it remains to be seen what it signified, and no one has the authority to decide what their vote meant independent of the meaning of the election as a whole.

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At least, so we must say if our vote is to make any sense at all. But I worry—are elections epiphenomenal? By which I mean, does any human being have any significant influence on the results, or are they merely the spontaneous overflow of collective feeling? Does it even make sense to think of the election as a collective action—and if not, is democracy any more meaningful than augury?

In favor of the individual-action theory, we can place these facts: that Clinton could have won if she had just campaigned in the states where she most needed to; that Trump won without winning the popular vote because he realized that he lived in a system where he did not have to do so. The former is pure hubris and ineptitude, the latter a winning strategy open to anyone willing to give up on the idea that winning an election conveys, above and beyond the raw power, some sort of moral legitimacy. These are both comprehensible as human actions, and lend themselves, even in these democratic times, to somewhat of a “great man” theory of politics.

In favor of epiphenomenalism, on the other hand: the fact that it came down to these two candidates in the first place; the fact that not only were both candidates wildly unpopular, but also all of the third party candidates were more laughable than usual; the fact that, despite the caution of the most competent data analysts, all of that part of the country that thinks it represents the country was convinced that Clinton would win easily. None of these facts can be blamed on Trump, or on Clinton, or on any other particular person. Rather, we can identify a number of systemic causes: our “first past the post” voting system (a ranked-preference voting system would have led, if nothing else, to a considerably larger third party vote, and might well have changed the results of the Republican primary); the flash-in-the-pan faux-outrage made possible by Facebook and Twitter; the epistemic bubbles made possible by those same technologies. All of these things could have been otherwise, but could only have been changed by people who had no idea why the change might matter.

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Implicit in this skeptical doubt, of course, is the feeling that Facebook and Twitter &co. simply exist, independent of anything we do. I’ve written before about how dangerous this feeling is. What I want to mark now is its pervasiveness. “For those not on a university campus,” I wrote earlier, “it might be behind a paywall, I’m not sure.” It’s difficult to specify why, but I can’t help but think that to make such a link while failing to know such a thing is somehow in bad faith. I have no idea what the election will turn out to mean. For now,  I can’t help but suspect that what we’ve seen so far is more significant as an epiphenomenon of the history of technology than as an action in the arena of politics.

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