Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dreaming, Principles, and Cooperation: Science Fiction, Philosophy, and Politics (Part Two)

In Part One I described the contrast between what I called principled politics and cooperative politics as well as a general discussion of whether voting for the lesser evil is a good idea.  In Part Two, I'll start with a specific application.

Clinton and Trump (Credit:

Voting for Clinton for the Sake of Sanders’s Ideals

I vote strategically and encourage political cooperation because I care about my political ideals.  I probably didn’t say this enough during all the contentious, tiresome, but occasionally fruitful discussions with friends and random strangers about the 2016 Democratic primaries. 

The following may shock some principled Sanders supporters: I basically agree with most of Bernie Sanders’s ideals, especially on issues like healthcare and education.  But I never thought he articulated a realistic plan for getting from where we are to where we ought to be.  

The “political revolution” is never going to happen as long as we have rampant Gerrymandering and obstructionist Republicans in Congress.  It’s not going to happen in 2016.  Maybe in 2020 or 2024.  It needs to happen most during midterm elections, where progressives have typically had lower voter turnout.  On a more positive note, I think it’s great that some Sanders supporters have been inspired to run for office themselves. Sanders and many of his supporters were rightfully thrilled about the attention the ideals were getting (which was remarkably surprising), but they didn’t pay enough attention to the boring, nitty-gritty details of politics.  A lot of these details are admittedly unpalatable, especially for those of us who don’t work in politics and have never seen the sausage being made, but we need to start from where we are.

As weird as this is going to sound in the divisive, us-versus-them climate of contemporary politics, I think a tough, competent, political operator like Hillary Clinton is the kind of politician we need to make our political reality hospitable for Sanders-style ideals.  She’s been fighting the worst that the right and now the left can throw at her, and she’s still standing, which shows that she has what it takes to keep us moving forward while holding back the worst of the Republicans.  I don’t always agree with her.  But I’ve always thought that the irrational hatred directed at Hillary Clinton is a national disgrace, sprung from and nourished by the depths of American misogyny.  I think an impartial examination shows that she’s far from perfect, but she’s gotten a raw deal.  The decades-long smear campaign that frames much of what people think about her is not in fact worth taking seriously, certainly not as the gospel truth across the political spectrum. 

I don’t want to awaken any more vehemence than I already have just by mentioning Hillary Clinton’s name on the internet, but here are some pre-emptive points for anyone frothing at the mouth.  Let’s not spend time on nonsense conspiracy theories like whether she murdered Vince Foster or paid actors to attend the DNC. As troubling as the DNC email leaks are, they don’t show that the primary election was stolen.  Frankly, none of that bothers me nearly as much as anything Trump stands for, although the possibility that the DNC was hacked by a foreign government is worrisome, as is Trump’s “sarcastic” appeal to the Russians to hack more emails.  I’d rather not read your gleeful liberal or right wing or libertarian or whatever take down of Clinton.  Instead of engaging in those debates, I direct readers to defenses like this one and this one.

Given our current political system, strategic voting rules out third parties for President, because they have no realistic chance of winning and couldn’t accomplish anything even if they did as they lack a party organization in Congress.  So, like it or not, the choice for all but the most principled (or uninformed) voters is between Clinton and Trump.  It’s clear to me that Hillary Clinton is nowhere near as bad as Donald Trump.  The choice is easy.  If you don’t believe that Clinton is better than Trump, we may live in different moral universes, or maybe your brilliant analysis will convince me, but I doubt it.

I’ve discussed what I think is wrong with Trump before (here, here, here, and here) and specific, concrete harms can be found here.  One of the biggest things wrong with his whole campaign is that it’s normalizing bigotry in our national discourse.  This is something none of his recent Republican predecessors did, not Mitt Romney, not John McCain, not even George W. Bush.  I haven’t been this horrified by any Republican since Bush’s re-election in 2004.  I don’t want to live in whatever “Great America” that Trump claims he can return us to.  I don’t want my country represented by a President who combines dystopian wannabe fascism and immature buffoonery. 

I live in a Red State where due to the Electoral College my vote will probably not directly elect Clinton.  If you do live in a swing state, your vote is especially crucial.  Still, I think it's important for Clinton to have a strong showing in the popular vote.  This will signal a resounding rejection of the hackneyed bigotry of Trumpism.

Voting for the Lesser Evil, AKA, Strategic Voting, AAKA, The Wisdom of Skeletor

I will vote for the lesser of two evils partly because one of them is isn’t as evil as many believe, but also because those of us leaning toward the cooperative side of our political instincts see voting and other political behavior as both a principled articulation of the good and a cooperative, strategic minimizing of evil.  When faced with an evil as great as Trumpism, it must be minimized. 

It’s pretty simple: voting for the lesser evil is better, because living in a world with less evil is better than living in a world with more evil. 

My friends on the academic left wanting a more nuanced analysis of this claim should read “An Eight Point Brief for LEV (Lesser Evil Voting)” by John Halle and Noam Chomsky.  This is Chomsky, people.  You know things are bad when Noam Chomsky tells you to vote for the Democrats.

When I was a kid my favorite episodes of He-Man were those where He-Man and Skeletor had to join forces in order to defeat a greater threat.  During this election season I think Americans could learn a lot from Skeletor.

The Big Objection: Feeding the Monster of the Status Quo?

The deepest and strongest objection to cooperative arguments in favor of strategic voting is that it will only serve to reward and deepen the status quo.  Far from having the effect of lessening evil, it will expand evil.  Nothing will ever change.  Only by standing firmly with our principles in voting and other political behavior can we make the world we ought to have.

It may seem odd that this objection is a straightforward appeal to consequences, because this is something those with principled political instincts aren’t supposed to care about.  But it’s not so odd when you remember that most of us have instincts along a spectrum somewhere between two poles of principles and cooperation. 

This objection is one I have thought about a lot.  It’s one I implore my fellow cooperativists to think about, too.  While the claim that I don’t care about ideals stings a bit, the charge that I’ve never considered this objection is somewhat insulting to both my moral and intellectual character.  Again, I care deeply about ideals and the harms of the status quo.

I doubt there is any fully successful answer to this objection.  It’s a political paradox: the more you try to do good the less good you seem to do.  The most anarchic among us ask, “Why not let it all burn and see what happens?”

An answer might begin by noting that doing some good in some areas even at the expense of good in other areas yields the most good overall.  For example, you might think the Democrats aren’t going to do much about poverty, but they might do something about climate change, whereas the Republicans are going to screw the poor and absurdly don’t believe climate change exists.  Of course, it’s worth observing that the most vulnerable among us usually suffer most in these calculations.  This disturbs me greatly, and I’m not sure what to do about it.

I’m not sure because the principled alternative doesn’t seem any better to me.  Maybe the principled revolution will come in the long run if we stick with it, but in the meantime people are suffering right now.  I would rather gradually make things a little better for some while (hopefully momentarily) keeping the status quo for others than make the whole world suffer for my ideals while we plan some eventual revolution.  I don’t know if I’m right.  But neither, I might add, do you.  Perhaps we need our utopian imagination to dream up more alternatives.

Midgley’s Practical Utopianism

I’ve called many of my principled friends on the left, especially in academia, “curmudgeonly utopians,” by which I mean the idea that “all celebration must be postponed until the revolution is complete.”  As I wrote in a post last year, I felt that marriage equality in the US, while far from the end of the fight for justice for LGBTQIA+ Americans, is at least a step in the right direction and might actually encourage rethinking of the idea of marriage itself along more radical lines.  We can celebrate it without thinking our work is done.  Likewise, I think we should celebrate that a major US party finally nominated a woman for President (something we’ve been waiting for since the first Presidential election in 1788!) without thinking that misogyny is over or that our parties aren’t part of a deeply troubled political system.

The line between the type of utopian thinking so predominant in philosophy and science fiction and the hardnosed realities of politics is a difficult line to walk.  One of the things I love most about philosophy and science fiction is that they allow us to imagine better worlds without being confined by the messy real-world business of politics.  But in my political life, I realize that harnessing our dreams of a better world into something that makes a real difference requires a clear-eyed view of where we are and how we’re going to get closer to where we ought to be.  In other words, I think we need both principled and cooperative political insincts.

I end with a quote from one of the most highly imaginative yet practical philosophers alive today, Mary Midgley: 

“Writings like this [i.e., utopias and dystopias] aren’t meant as literal blueprints for what ought to be built or as exact itineraries for our journey.  Instead, they act as imaginative pictures of possible houses to be built or as searchlights, plunging their beams deep into the surrounding landscape at a single point to light up our journey.  At times these searchlights show us distant mountains toward which we are travelling.  These are landmarks which will serve to direct us even though we don’t actually need to reach them, like signposts that say simply ‘To the North’.  At other times, they show us appalling precipices over which we might fall.  They indicate possible long-term goals and dangers.  They light up general directions.  And they have to suggest these things in a way that is very far from literal, a way that must often be startling and paradoxical, because paradox can give our imagination the shock that it needs to start it working.”  
- Mary Midgley, “Practical Utopianism” in Utopias, Dolphins, and Computers: Problemsof Philosophical Plumbing (p. 24)

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