Monday, October 17, 2016

Win Or Lose

In “Democracy Depends on the Consent of the Losers” Uri Friedman references Losers’ Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy, telling us that the “democratic bargain,” as it is termed, “calls for winners who are willing to ensure that losers are not too unhappy and for losers, in exchange, to extend their consent to the winners’ right to rule.” But somewhat later on, Mr. Friedman notes the winner’s side of the bargain as follows: “Winners do not suppress losers, which means losers can hope to be winners in the future.” But that’s a different thing than ensuring that the losers are not too unhappy. That idea never surfaces again in the piece.

And I think that it should, because that’s really what’s at stake. For much of American history, there have been various groups, such as the landless, immigrants, slaves, et cetera who could be made unhappy so that the losers in elections didn’t have to be. One could, perhaps, view the American Civil War as a breakdown in that pattern. The residents and (perhaps more importantly) leadership of the Confederate states concluded that they were too unhappy with the direction of things to consent to the Union’s right to govern. And so they went to war.

There have been threats of civil war in this election cycle, some of them over laughably trivial slights. But they point to losers who are too unhappy to consent to the winners’ right to govern. Does this mean that the winners are not holding up their end of the bargain? And if they aren’t what are the losers allowed to ask for? Since most of the toy saber-rattling about civil war today comes from the Right, let’s look at one of their concerns. The American Left can be stereotyped (if not always accurately described) as concerned with ecological and environmental issues, “saving the planet,” as it were. To this end, they can be hostile to fossil fuels, and the vehicles that run on them. (It’s a typically urban mindset. Mass-transit works in cities, not so much in places where one’s nearest neighbors are over the horizon.) And even if they aren’t hostile to the people who do the day-to-day work of producing fossil fuels, they don’t spend much time thinking about what those people would do if their jobs went away. It’s easy to assume that whatever new form the economy takes is going to magically create enough well-paying positions that no-one will notice the change, but job market shifts have not historically worked that way, in that it’s rare for the old economy to demand the skills that will be useful in the new economy. So even if enough new jobs are created to take up the slack in the job market, for someone who’s a 20-year veteran of their field, they’re unlikely, even with retraining programs, to qualify for the jobs in the new professions that would pay them as much. In fact, they’ll likely be fortunate to do much better than entry-level. And that’s quite a hit to one’s finances. Faced with that prospect, should the losers be “not too unhappy?” Or should they try to force the winners into conceding more to them? With what leverage?

I suspect that a number of other examples could present themselves. As the two parties have drifted further and further apart from one another, they’ve come to care less and less about whether the other side’s voters would be “too unhappy” with the policies that would be enacted after their victory. They’ve simply told themselves that consent to their right to govern is their due, because “elections matter.” But both sides have carved out exceptions to that rule for themselves, and so they understand that there are situations in which elections don’t matter, because the subject matter is too important - whether it’s about the rights of couples to have their same-sex marriages recognized by the state, or that abortion should be considered murder. Many people understand that there are some things that should not be subject to the will of the people. It’s the degree to which we understand that these should be the issues we compromise on that matters. Partisanship tends to lend the causes one agrees with greater legitimacy than those one disagrees with. When we see the losers as deserving to loose, whether or not they will be very unhappy with the result becomes less of a concern. And there’s a danger in that.

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