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Tuesday, October 12, 2021


Rereading Rousseau in preparation for teaching next semester has had on me interesting effect that I did not anticipate. It made clearer to me the present situation in the United States. I realized that by any reasonable 21st century construal of Rousseau’s analysis, it is not accurate to say that it is uncertain whether the United States will remain a representative democracy. It is more accurate to say that the United States is not now a representative democracy, if indeed it ever was. Let me explain.


The United States is formally or legally a representative democracy in which one of the two major parties no longer believes that control of the levers of government should be determined by elections. Instead, right now, the Republican Party with the active support of perhaps 35% or 40% of adult Americans, believes that elections are legitimate only when its candidate wins. I do not mean this puckishly or for dramatic effect. I mean quite literally that Republicans at the local, state, and national level are right now attempting to arrange things so that they will never again “lose” an election. In this effort, they are supported by scores of millions of Americans. Now, any time you find 80 million or more people believing something, it goes without saying that there will be countless reasons why they believe it, countless ways in which they believe it, and countless ways in which they act out of this belief. 

Some of the Americans who believe that only elections in which the Republican wins are legitimate believe that because they are white supremacist racists. Others believe it because they are fundamentalist Christians. Still others neither believe it nor disbelieve it but simply find it in their interest to act as though they do. But the total net effect is that somewhat less, but not much less, than half of adult Americans no longer have any functional, operational belief in representative democracy.


Regardless of what happens in the 2022 or 2024 elections – regardless of whether Republicans are literally able to steal the 2024 presidential election, as they are now deliberately, openly, systematically preparing to do – it is clear that the United States is not in the usual understanding of this term, a representative democracy, Wwhich is to say a polity in which it is generally accepted that control of government should be determined by democratic elections of representatives.


Because I so much fear what the Republicans will do with the vast power of the American government if they succeed in seizing control of it, I believe that all of us must do everything in our power to stop them, and that may even involve pretending that we believe American democracy is at risk. But the simple fact is that American democracy no longer exists.


If you respond that it never has existed, I will not argue with you. After all, the next book on my reading list is a little tract entitled In Defense of Anarchism.


I freely confess that it was rereading Of the Social Contract that cleared my mind and made all of this transparently obvious to me in a way that it had not quite been before.


There is something to be said for preparing to teach a course.


Anonymous said...

I seem to recall that, not long ago, it was the Democrats who spent just about the entire 4-year term of a lawfully elected President, trying to undermine democracy by claiming that the President was essentially a Russian agent, guilty of treason, etc.

So far no real evidence has been produced to back such claims.

Oh, the hypocrisy!

Ásgeir said...

I see that Anonymous has not read the Mueller report, nor the Senate Intelligence Committee report.

aaall said...

Anon, before you comment you should learn some basics. No one who understands the difference between agents, assets, and useful idiots would claim that Trump was anyone's agent. He simply doesn't possess the necessities. The campaign had a number of the latter two at many levels. I've always been amused by the Animal Farmish photo of Putin, Flynn, and Jill Stein dining at the same table in Moscow. Also we should keep in mind that not all of the Americans were caught.

Every attempt to make the US a more representative democracy has been followed by revanchist backsliding. We are approaching the kleptocrats eating the plutocrats stage of the current cycle.

David Palmeter said...

What are your thoughts on Rousseau's "forced to be free" statement? (Book I,Ch 7)

Dave Powell said...

I understood this as saying the freedoms one enjoys under the social contract, such as walking down the street without a sword or musket without fear are impossible in a state of nature. Without having the state enforce the laws that freedom would not exist. Rousseau was aware people will tend to take their own case as special and not abide by the laws when they get the chance. The social contact would dissolve without that force.

Eric said...

David Palmeter,
I believe Prof Wolff has a whole section explaining that in In Defense of Anarchism, pp ~48-58 of the 1998 paperback.

Jerry Fresia said...

Great blog. Should get a wider airing. And I'm always caught up in your little phrases ("if indeed it ever was")and splendid grace notes ("puckishly").

A bit of good news. I see where Jayapal and crew are deftly challenging Pelosi's rumination that the reconciliation package needs to be slashed yet again by proposing that they merely cut the period or duration of the funding. Brilliant. This not only highlights the fact that the 3.5 trillion is, in actuality just 350 billion per year over 10 years (and paid for with increased taxes on the super wealthy) but it forces Pelosi and the "moderates" to specifically identify those programs they they are willing to slash. Now, all Jayapal needs to do is propose cutting the F-35 entitlement and call it a day.

Ahmed Fares said...

Alex Tabarrok (Marginal Revolution University) quoting Jason Brennan:

The Negative Externality of Voting

How other people vote is my business. After all, they make it my business. Electoral decisions are imposed upon all through force, that is, through violence and threats of violence. When it comes to politics, we are not free to walk away from bad decisions. Voters impose externalities upon others.

We would never say to everyone, “Who cares if you know anything about surgery or medicine? The important thing is that you make your cut.” Yet for some reason, we do say, “It doesn’t matter if you know much about politics. The important thing is to vote.” In both cases, incompetent decision-making can hurt innocent people.

Commonsense morality tells us to treat the two cases differently. Commonsense morality is wrong.

…In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that…voters should vote on the basis of sound evidence. They must put in heavy work to make sure their reasons for voting as they do are morally and epistemically justified. In general, they must vote for the common good rather than for narrow self-interest. Citizens who are unwilling or unable to put in the hard work of becoming good voters should not vote at all. They should stay home on election day rather than pollute the polls with their bad votes.

source of above quote: The Ethics of Voting

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

to Ahmed Fares,(Ethics of voting ect.)
What Mr. Brennan is calling for is a variation of "philosopher rule" as Plato had it in mind. The final state of this form of rule is consistently thought through to the end in the film 'Elysium' by Neill Blomkamp. The most interesting detail in this film for me is that it shows that this form of government can only really "work" if the spheres of existence of the "smart, well-informed and rich people" and those of all others are radically separated from each other. In the end, a maximum of energy is invested in definitively excluding any possibility of revolution.

I wonder, however, what sense this ethical demand of Mr. Brennan makes, which is so far removed from reality. Doesn't just the Internet show every day that stupidity in its pure form is present when the stupid one considers himself to be the smartest head among all others? How much voluntary restraint can be expected on election day and out of "ethical conviction"?

Anonymous said...

@Achim Kriechel,

I am not fond of Ahmed Fares's style of commenting, by quoting what others wrote. The trouble is not so much with the quotes he drops here and there, but what one is supposed to make of them. Another difficulty is that Fares often does not seem to understand what the quotes themselves mean.

This last quote, though, from Alex Tabarrok's Marginal Revolution Blog is exceptionally pertinent and also very interesting.

Wolff is obsessed with the future of American democracy. More precisely, his obsession is to persuade his readers that American democracy is in imminent danger. This post is merely a reformulation of an already empirically falsified claim he's been making in the last five years. It all began, if memory serves, in 2016, when the Pussy-Grabber in Chief was merely a nominee among ten or twenty others. The difference it that in this latest iteration Wolff dumped the Fascism word.

The problem for Wolff is that too many Americans are ready to dump democracy.

Brennan has a similar problem. Too many people, he believes, vote irresponsibly, without putting enough thought or without adequate knowledge.

Brennan's solution? To abolish universal voting rights. Only people like Brennan should be allowed to vote. Wolff's solution? Unquestioning support for the Democratic Party. Everybody gets to keep the right to vote ... for whomever Wolff prefers.

Wolff's solution preserves the right to vote, by forfeiting choice. I prefer Brennan's. It's more honest.

- The AnonyMouse

Ahmed Fares said...


I quote because while I understand what others say, they have a better way of expressing it than I do. Also, I always link to the whole article so that others can read it also and understand the context of the quote.

As an aside, by quoting, I give credit where credit is due. It also allows people to say, for example, search Brennan's other writing and expand their knowledge also.

Ahmed Fares said...

Further to my comment,

I would add to Brennan's concerns that certain people should not be allowed to vote, not because of negative externalities, but of the harm they do to themselves. Allow me to explain.

We just recently had an election here in Canada where part of the Liberal Party's platform was a promise to increase the corporate tax rate on large corporations.

Trudeau [Liberal Party of Canada] said that, if re-elected, his government would raise the corporate income tax rate by three percentage points — from 15 per cent to 18 per cent — on all bank and insurance earnings over $1 billion to "support middle-class Canadians in their goal of home ownership."

A bit of information on Canada's banking system:

It is dominated by a small number of large banks, with the six largest combining for 90% of the market share. The two largest, the Royal Bank of Canada and the Toronto Dominion Bank are among the world's 25 largest banks. It is widely considered one of the safest banking systems in the world, and avoided major problems in the Financial crisis of 2007–2008.

Now knowing what I know about the literature on corporate tax incidence, and I have read a lot on the subject including Harberger's writings, I'm fairly confident that the burden of this new tax if imposed will end up in higher banking spreads and banking fees, and higher insurance premiums. In essence, these are consumption taxes which are regressive and strike hardest at the poor, the very people who can least afford them.

The sad thing is that these people who vote for the Left think they're sticking it to the rich, when in fact they're sticking it to themselves.

So, in line with Brennan's ideas, people should not be allowed to vote unless they can display a certain proficiency in the subject they're voting on. In the US, I would add military issues also. For example, did you know that to defeat an insurgency you need a force ratio of 10-to-1 and even then, you only win two-thirds of the time. Maybe if Americans knew that, they wouldn't be so eager to vote for warmongers.

Ahmed Fares said...

re: why I don't vote

The reason that I don't vote is that I know that after studying the issues, there are ten low information voters who will show up on election day and dilute away the power of my vote.

The sad thing is that some of these people not only don't understand the issues, they don't even understand voting. Take the example of the US where people voted for Ralph Nader's Green Party thinking they were moving to the left of Al Gore, but in fact were draining votes away from Gore, which in effect means they were voting for Bush. They don't understand the idea of strategic voting.

Spoiler controversy

In the 2000 presidential election in Florida, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes. Nader received 97,421 votes, which led to claims that he was responsible for Gore's defeat. Nader disputes that he helped Bush to win. A 2003 study found that Nader's candidacy was a critical factor in Bush's victory. A 2004 study found that Nader voters had the profile of likely voters with a preference for Democratic candidates. They were therefore likely to vote for Gore over Bush in the absence of Nader's candidacy.

Low information voter

A 1992 study found that in the absence of other information voters used candidates' physical attractiveness to draw inferences about their personal qualities and political ideology.

It's even worse than I thought.

aaall said...

During the 2000 Dem convention in LA I ran into an individual who was high in the Gore campaign. During the conversation I mentioned that for reasons Nader was going be a potential problem in Florida. I was assured they had a handle on it Actively campaigning to the left of a center-left, electable candidate in a swing state with a FPTP system is malpractice...or suspicious. Nader, Stein, and now Sinema - something is rotten in the Green Party.

Also, I've always considered Bush v. Gore as a coup by the Gang of Five on the SC.