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A short history of the democracy and the state

[ 275 ] September 28, 2012 |

So I was trying to have a discussion/argument with Henry Farrell on twitter, which was primarily useful for reminding me how much I dislike twitter.  I’m still trying to make sense of where he’s coming from in the current cross-blog disagreement; I continue to feel as though I must be missing something  because, well, I’m used to quite a bit more from him; I’ve long admired him has a blogger and scholar, and my general advice would be that if he and I disagree about something, you should probably stick with him.

To reproduce tweets that, more or less, get at the heart of the disagreement, here’s Farrell:

As noted, I will probably end up voting for Obama, but with some reluctance and respect for the autonomy of other people who abstain as a reasonable choice.

Here’s me:

…there’s a fundamental responsibility to take available affirmative steps to limit gov’t harm

It’s hard to read Henry any other way than suggesting that a withdrawal from electoral politics on moral grounds is, if done for the right reasons, an honorable choice that deserves significant moral respect. This is rather different than his initial claim, that overall Romney might not be much worse than Obama. Scott’s dealt with the initial claim thoroughly enough that there’s nothing left for me to say, but I’m not at all convinced Farrell’s argument following his surprisingly Kantian turn fares much better. My disagreement couldn’t be much more thorough, actually. The noble withdrawal takes the form and shape of an honorable position at first glance, but it’s an illusion; it’s an incoherent position rooted in a deep denial regarding our present condition.

I tried to lay out some of my reasons for this view in my post earlier this week, but it obviously wasn’t persuasive for many. I’m going to try again from a slightly different angle.

Five hundred-odd years ago, give or take, in Europe, the configuration of social power changed. A kind of entity called the state began to emerge as victorious in struggle for social power. This power grab wasn’t at all noble or particularly justifiable in normative terms, indeed, war making and state building were intimately connected developments. The quasi-monopoly this kind of entity was able to create on the exercise of legitimate violence created extraordinary new opportunities for exploitation but also contributed to an environment that allowed for extended periods of peace and prosperity, at least for certain lucky segments of the population. To state the obvious, the arrival of the state as the dominant form of social and political power was both wonderful and horrible: the state created new opportunities for wealth and security, and perpetrated brutal, oppressive crimes against humanity with staggering efficiency.

(Democracy is) the single greatest technology humankind has developed to  restrict at least some of the tremendous negatives associated with the state, while retaining access to most of the benefits. (Democracy, of course, is more than elections, but they remain central to the constraining power of democracy.) Even in the best and most effective democracies, the state remains a terrifying force for violent, abusive, and arbitrary power, at least some of the time. But it also becomes, oddly enough, an occasional force against other forms of abusive power–sometimes for selfish, monopoly-oriented reasons, but sometimes because it gets all mixed up with democratic values.

But the terrifying, deadly origins of the state never go away. The state kills people, and it does so for indefensible reasons and in indefensible ways, contrary to its purported values. Democracy can mitigate this, sometimes considerably, but it does not appear to be a technology capable of eliminating this fundamental feature of the state (and it occasionally goes awry and makes it worse).

When I said this:

The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world.

I was signalling my allegiance with what I call the “democracy against domination” school of thought in political theory (This is a good overview). It’s not much of a school of thought, really, because its main adherents (Shapiro, Pettit, Young, Walzer) have very little in common with each other. As I read it, the suggestion is that democracy potentially subverts domination in two ways: first, as a procedural roadblock against domination of citizens by the state; second, as a mechanism by which citizens can attempt to harness the power of the state to curtail private domination. Other conceptions of democracy (as deliberation or as common-good seeking community) are best understood as instances of democracy against domination; those secondary democratic values have democratic value to the extent that they contribute to the cause of anti-domination in a particular circumstance.

In terms of killing people, Obama is not particularly unusual among American presidents. If he is “beyond the pale” for the purposes of whatever endorsement you believe a vote implies, so to is pretty much all of American politics at the federal level. Identifying yourself as “better” than the American federal state in some important moral way is just fine; you probably are. So am I! I don’t kill people, either. But to move from that banal observation to abdicating the duty to use the primary tool we’ve got to constrain its abusive power is to badly miss democracy’s point. It’s the most dangerous power in our midst, and we have one noteworthy tool to shape and constrain its power; to attempt to make it more deadly. Farrell thinks I should honor and respect the decision to not pick up this tool and use it, because it brings them too close to that deadly power for their taste to do so. But that would involve indulging the fiction that that deadly power is something they can separate themselves from in a meaningful sense. I just don’t see it. It’s our state. There’s nothing we can do about *that*. It’s ours, and it’s incredibly dangerous. We absolutely have an affirmative duty to minimize the harm it can do, where we can, and to not let our wish it did even less harm and more good to get in the way of that. If there were good reasons to believe that short term harm minimization was extremely likely to cut against more significant medium to long term harm minimization, then we’d have a difficult decision on our hands, but the case for such a proposition has, to put it mildly, not been made. As long as that case hasn’t been made, refusing to engage in harm minimization when necessary is a betrayal of democracy’s central purpose; I can’t agree that it’s a reasonable or honorable choice.

Comments (275)

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  1. dollared says:

    This. And, of course, it’s yet another example of American “individualism” at work. It’s a wonder we can even get married, join the PTA, etc. (“No, I have to resign the PTA, they are spending far too much on refreshments for the welcoming social and I simply can’t be a part of that wasteful behavior….”)

    • dilan esper says:

      Actually the individualism model is the only one that works. If you start saying I have a moral obligation to vote for the collective good, whose conception of the collective good do I have to serve? Maybe I don’t respect the version of the collective good offered by some idiot on the internet who calls himself djw. Maybe I think his version of the collective good undervalues the lives of foreign victims of murderous US military policies.

      The point is, in the end it is all individualism. You get to use your vote however you want, and leftists may need to serve wharever theory of good that THEY subscribe to, but they have no obligation to use their vote to serve the version of the collective good espoused by some liberal on the internet.

      • Hogan says:

        “You’re not the boss of me, djw!”

        Yeah, that’s telling him.

        • dilan esper says:

          The thing here is that it is actually true. It is really arrogant to tell leftists that professional liberals, who they view as wrong on all sorts of matters, know better than they do as to how to use their votes.

          • Hogan says:

            It is really arrogant to tell leftists that professional liberals, who they view as wrong on all sorts of matters, know better than they do as to are entitled to evaluate how to use their votes.

            FTFY. And I assume that works the other way as well? You don’t get to tell liberals it’s wrong to vote for Obama?

          • Anderson says:

            The way this morality thing works is, actually you DO get to tell people what they’re doing is wrong.

            • dilan esper says:

              And often times, self appointed morality police types need to shut their arrogant asses.

              No wonder you guys voted for Gore. Lieberman was your kind of guy.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                No wonder you were happy with the election being thrown to Bush. His anti-intellectualism and incuriosity seems right up your alley, and anyway you can’t make an omelet without a few hundred thousand dead Iraqis.

              • And often times, self appointed morality police types need to shut their arrogant asses.

                Often time, Dilan. Often.

                That’s certainly been my impression, anyway. Way too many self-appointed morality police types on the internet need to shut their arrogant asses.

                I couldn’t agree more.

          • Jameson Quinn says:

            Dilan has a point. I mean, in this case the “professional liberals” are probably right and the leftists like Dilan* are wrong**. But that doesn’t make the “liberals” any less arrogant and insufferable.

            I think that the two sides should use agreement about voting system reform to build bridges. Because no matter how right either side is, yelling at each other gets us less than nowhere.

            * Until literally today, I too was an unrepentant Nader voter; but search below for “ultimatum game” and you’ll find where I saw the light and repented.)

            ** No, that doesn’t mean I condone drones or executive privilege or any other Obama sin. Leftists are right about all that. But leftists like Dilan who think clean hands voting is in any way the more moral thing to do are wrong.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              I’m not sure why Dilan gets to define who a leftist is. I’m a leftist, I think. I’m considerably to the left of the democratic party.

              Farrell did this too when he suggested that some people were more to the left than lesser evilites, but I see no other evidence for that. Unless leftist just means,”I won’t vote for the lesser evil”. But that’s not leftist per se.

              If you could explain how I’m a liberal and how I’m arrogant and insufferable, I’d be happy to take that on board. But, frankly, all I’ve seen from Dilan is “You don’t own real leftists” and not a lot of content.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Right. I’m certainly more of a “leftist” than a “professional liberal” in the American context; my preferred policies are way to the left of the typical Democratic officeholder.

              • Jameson Quinn says:

                Right. The terminology isn’t the point. I don’t feel like a “pro lib” either.

                Just saying that telling people their tactic is stupid and their hopes are unrealistic so they might as well give up and vote with you… isn’t the winningest message, even if it’s what you believe. So if what Dilan calls “leftists” and “professional liberals” can find common ground — and common hope — in voting reform, that might be more productive.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  Even the phrase “vote with you” gives too much away. No one is saying “vote my agenda, hahahah”. Instead, we’re all pointing out the relentless and unfortunately logic of the situation.

                  Until someone comes up with a plausible theory of why abstaining from the lesser evil is either 1) worth the possible cost (because of intrinsic value) or 2) produces a better outcome, then, well, I think they’re stuck. As am I.

                  The arguments for 2 tend to either be fantastic and incoherent (Nader produces Obama! Who sucks!) or nebulous (it will have long term good effects…like electing Obama, whom I loathe).

                  If people want to throw a hissy fit because they have crappy arguments, well, fine. I don’t much care about them. If they are anguished because of djw’s logic, well, then I feel for them, but then they need to express it a bit better.

                • Jameson Quinn says:

                  People who throw hissy fits exist. Finding rhetorical strategies that offer them a productive out, and practical strategies that offer them hope, is worth it.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  Sure. And I think I’ve offered some.

                  Marginalizing or shaming such people is another tactic.

                  djw’s vision offers some hope. Not necessarily “good outcome” hope, but a way to vote for lesser evils and feel less co-opted.

                  If you want rhetorical gentleness, you might try not calling the people from whom you are trying to elicite such gentleness “arrogant and insufferable” albeit right.

                  I’m happy to try to rise above things, but e.g., CF made a fairly blistering attack against all our moral senses while himself, in my analysis, failing in exactly the form he condemns, and worse.

                  As we’ve said over and over, what’s particularly striking about all this is that even on the pet issue, Obama is hugely better. If people were expressing personal inability to vote for him over dead babies, that would be easier to treat gently. But CF is making a case. That his case sucks is his own problem.

      • The argument that voting for the LP or Workers World or whatever candidate would do a better job serving the collective good than voting for the Democrat is quite different than what is being critiqued here, which is the argument that one should abjure utilitarian arguments about what action will do the most good, and vote based on keeping one’s hands clean.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        I know you’re on and on about it, but it should be noted that unless your collective good includes more overseas deaths, then you are likely to prefer Obama to Romney.

        From a straight evaluation of two options pov where exactly is the daylight between leftists vs. liberals on Obama vs. Romney?

        Sans such daylight, it’s just irrelevant to look to the difference between the fantasy liberal and the fantasy leftist candidate. That some liberal might be have Obama as their fantasy candidate is lucky for them and sucky for the leftist who finds Obama to be essentially a Republican.

        But unless your notion of the collective good embraces the awfulness of a Romney reign, you’re stuck. You can try to run a heighten the contradictions move, but I sincerely doubt that’s sensible.

      • djw says:

        You get to use your vote however you want, and leftists may need to serve wharever theory of good that THEY subscribe to, but they have no obligation to use their vote to serve the version of the collective good espoused by some liberal on the internet.

        Of course. Who is suggesting otherwise? An obviously true and completely trivial observation. It’s also trivially true that political action and strategy is a proper subject of deliberation. And you’re free to not deliberate! No one’s forcing you to have this discussion.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          You force me with your words, djw.

        • dilan esper says:

          I don’t think you have any business evaluating the “strategies” of voters who reject your liberal ideology. Nobody appointed you the enforcer of this supposed “duty” to vote strategically.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            I’m evaluating them on the basis of their professed beliefs. The brutal truth is that throwing elections to Republicans doesn’t advance any kind of left-wing interest in the short, medium, or long-term. Which is presumably why you are uninterested in any argument that goes beyond bare assertion.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            I don’t think you have any business evaluating the “strategies” of voters who reject your liberal ideology.

            Why not?

            Nobody appointed you the enforcer of this supposed “duty” to vote strategically.

            Who’s enforcing?

            You don’t need to have enforcement power in order to evaluate strategies. And I mean, isn’t part of the point of evaluating strategies (and sharing the evaluations) to determine whether to adopt them?

            Your argument seems to be that because people have different beliefs shut up. Not particularly helpful.

    • Cody says:

      I don’t understand this whole debate. It seems trivial.

      Lets run a hypothetical:

      Romney and Obama are tied in the election. Your vote decides who wins the electoral college delegate in your district. If Obama loses this delegate, he loses the election. (This isn’t how it works, but can we roll with this?)

      You have four options:
      1) Vote for Romney
      2) Vote for Obama
      3) Vote for Gary Johnson
      4) Don’t Vote

      Decisions 1, 3, and 4 have the same outcome. So you’re a good morally clean super-liberal who votes for Gary Johnson because you for some stupid reason think he’s actually better.

      Now Romney won. You just elected Romney, congratulations for progressing your goal of liberalism. How did this help ANYTHING?

      The decision to not vote for Obama is equal to the decision of voting for Romney. There is no other choice. That is the truth. To note vote for Obama because you disagree with some of his policies is the same as voting for Romney in this system.

  2. Jamie says:

    This is a strained comparison in any number of ways, but I can’t help but think of needle exchanges and harm reduction in a given environment. Junky’s gonna shoot, president’s gonna kill. Do you want to make a bad situation a little less bad, or wash your hands and walk away?

  3. Vance Maverick says:

    The single greatest technology humankind has developed to restrict at least some of the tremendous negatives associated with the state, while retaining access to most of the benefits.

    There’s a word missing here, possibly “democracy” or “elections”, or perhaps “political philosophy” or “graduate school”.

    • Joey Maloney says:

      “Fellatio”?

    • Icarus Wright says:

      Internets…aka “free porn.”

    • YankeeFrank says:

      You are correct Vance. Maverick. Vance Maverick. You’re point is correct, but can this be your real name? If it is I’m sorry, but I was watching Boogie Nights earlier this eve and your name reminds of — of “Brock Landers”. Vance Maverick. Its like John McCain’s porno name. Seriously though, he is missing a word there.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        What kind of a name is Vance Maverick? It’s Vance Maverick’s name, sir!

        And, yes, I believe it is his real name….and he’s a real Maverick, i.e. related to Sam Maverick, the original maverick.

        I, on the other hand, am but a pseodonym, stolen from Monty Python and designed– long long ago, back when anybody cared–to make fun of Josh Trevino’s calling himself “Tacitus.”

        • NonyNony says:

          Wait. You mean your real first name isn’t Incontinentia? And your last name isn’t Buttocks? Really?

          I thought everyone on the Internets used their real name. Just like me!

        • greylocks says:

          I, on the other hand, am but a pseodonym

          This reminds me of the systems analyst I once worked with who pronounced “pseudocode” sway-doh-code. We never did figure out whether he thought this was the correct pronunciation or was having fun with us.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            In this case, it was a typo

            (Preview, please!)

          • Ram Gladbone says:

            Hah! My Mom used to say certain people were “sway-do-intellectuals” and “It’s like a compellsion with him”. Very funny lady.
            Hell, she named me didn’t she?

            No, really . . . you might remember me from such favorites as “Bright Lights Big Titties”, “A Fisfull of Dolls” and “Shaving Ryan’s Privates”
            They were classics I tells ya! Just ask Loomis.

          • Jamie says:

            I went to high school in Tennessee in the late 80′s. My “science” “teacher,” who was also the football coach, threatened to paddle me when I pointed out that it wasn’t pronounced puh-sudo-pod.

            That was actually more forgivable than other things he taught.

    • djw says:

      Well, that was embarrassing. Fixed.

  4. Joe says:

    I think there is a sort of scorned lover feel about this (Bouie’s post underlines reality here): some fictional vision of what Obama was, some caricature that never was true, and when he actually acted like the imperfect executive someone honest with oneself should have expected, we get people all shocked and such. Anyway, blog replies are bad enough to try to have reasoned debate. Twitter … I admit it can be addictive, but, good luck with that.

    • djw says:

      The twitter process goes like this: Step one–write extremely truncated response. 170 characters. Step two–spend 5 minutes trying to figure out how to edit it down. Step three–WTF am I doing I have a blog.

      • Hogan says:

        One thinks of the exchanges of telegrams in The Code of the Woosters:

        See difficulty but think can fix it. In spite strained relations, still speaking terms Madeleine. Am telling her have received urgent letter from you pleading be allowed come here. Expect invitation shortly. Gussie

        Have worked it. Invitation dispatched. When you come, will you bring book entitled My Friends the Newts by Loretta Peabody published Popgood and Grooly get any bookshop. Gussie

        Please come here if you wish, but, oh Bertie, is this wise? Will not it cause you needless pain seeing me? Surely merely twisting knife wound. Madeleine

    • JL says:

      I think of Twitter as a (highly useful) medium for the spreading of news and information, not for conducting serious debates. I’ve watched too many people try to conduct serious debates on Twitter.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Generally I agree. The problem with not voting is there is an inherent presumption that frees one from any responsibility for subsequent decisions by whomever is elected. Furthermore, if one is withholding a vote for one candidate due to dissatisfaction with one candidate but cannot vote for the other due to a lack of confidence the other candidate will be a better President is in effect a failure to make a responsible decision in a democracy. While I concur that President Obama has made decisions that do involve authorizing the use of force that has killed people – I have no reason to think that a Mitt Romney as President will not use the power to authorize actions that might result in more deaths. For instance, candidate Romney has claimed that he would more aggressively use force in the Middle East than what he contends President Obama has. My sense is that President Obama is more inclined to follow the adage “Speak softly and carry a big stick” while Romney is not prone to ‘speaking softly’. So while I can object to some of President Obama’s decisions, I also have to consider what Romney might do and in that case I prefer reelecting the President. In making that choice I am not endorsing every action that President Obama has or will make nor am I ‘demonizing’ Mitt Romney – I am making a responsible choice about which person I believe is more likely to serve our country and its future most effectively compared to the alternative. If I do not vote for either person, that will not change anything nor will it even serve as a statement of moral belief.

  6. James E. Powell says:

    I blame Thoreau.

    • Jamie says:

      Yeah, that blogger fucks everything up.

      Although I don’t mind the Unibomber in the woods, so much, so long as he stays safely literary.

    • arguingwithsignposts says:

      Thoreau went to jail for his principle, at least. Sleeping in on a Tuesday doesn’t quite qualify.

    • Rarely Posts says:

      The argument for non-voting makes a great deal more sense if the person detaches as much as possible from modern society and the modern state. Obviously, that type of disconnect is impossible in our Country and has been for a long-time. Still, some people do create small communes, religious communities, or anarchist communities that they run largely apart from the rest of society. To the extent that people really go “all-in” and detach from the broader community in order to achieve some type of “purity” or detachment from the inherent injustice of violence, I can respect their action. In that context, I can also understand not-voting. If you’re willing to do everything you can to reject the state and the benefits and costs of the state, then I can see why you might feel you can’t or shouldn’t vote. You are doing what you can to non-violently reject the idea of a violent state, and not-voting is part of that.

      On the other hand, it’s hard for me to see using that justification in any other context. If you work for institutions and your personal life is intensely intertwined with the state (as everyone in suburban America is, for example), I don’t think you can deal yourself out when election day rolls around.

  7. If our job as voters is to minimize harm and curb the deadly power of the state, how do we know that we’re making rational choices? It’s bad enough that the things candidates say while they’re campaigning are poor predictors of what they’ll actually do, especially with respect to the coercive power of the state. The impression that’s gelling for me as I plow through this debate is that it’s just as hopeless looking backwards to evaluate how a president has actually done.

    And it’s not just this debate. It’s the kind of analysis that says that if Obama was a better president he would have managed to do X, and to some extent the cheerleading stuff that says Obama must be a great president because he managed to do X (I’m thinking of the likes of Andrew Sullivan). How can anyone really know that?

    The idealist position in this debate—the one articulated by Conor Friedersdorf—is that if Obama was a better, more moral president, he wouldn’t (for instance) be pursuing his drone warfare strategy. It seems to be obvious from that perspective that the president could just say no, could call off the drones and presumably other military means that might kill innocents. In practice it can’t be that simple, since he’d be dealing with a massive military apparatus and the assumptions behind its training, equipment, and deployment, and he’d be using political capital and that would have side effects. With no accounting for any of that stuff, I suspect that Friedersdorf’s position on moral voting comes down to this: don’t vote for anyone who wants to be president, because that person is choosing to commit immoral acts.

    Friedersdorf and the other idealists seem to think that there’s no question we could find a much better, more ethical president than Obama. Even the lesser-evilists tend to treat Obama as a tolerable but inferior choice, though clearly superior to the alternative. Is there any good reason to think that there’s someone who would do significantly better, though? Someone who would arrange for the American state to cause significantly less harm? Intuitively it seems like there must be, but what’s the scale, and who knows how to read it? I don’t see any reason to believe that anyone writing on this blog or The Atlantic or anywhere else I browse has done enough analysis to be able to judge.

    The one person who’s had to gather the information, sit down with the generals, and make the choices is Obama. And as far as I can tell, he is a moral and intellectual peer to all these critics, and much superior as a politician and executive. That tends to suggest that he’s about as good as it’s going to get (if I’m reading him right as a person, that is).

    I’m curious if anyone else wanders around in this same labyrinth, and how they navigate it.

    • Jameson Quinn says:

      He is a moral and intellectual peer to all these critics, and much superior as a politician and executive.

      The problem is, that’s a contradiction. In order to be a politician, you have to be able to lie sincerely. Obama is not Romney, made of nothing BUT lies. But he is a politician, and through aptitude or training he can ignore the voice saying “but wait, that’s not right”.

      Would Obama the blogger be a moral peer to djw et al? Would djw the national politician end up making the same brutal choices that Obama does, or fail as a politician? Those aren’t the right questions. If Obama has learned to shut up his conscience when he has to, well then our job is to be the conscience he can’t shut up. And as that conscience, we say: you are a murderer, Obama.

      And then we vote for him, because Romney would be worse.

      And then we work for a day when we don’t have so few, so horrible choices. Which, to me, means we need approval voting, among other things. YMMV.

      • arguingwithsignposts says:

        In order to be a politician human being, you have to be able to lie sincerely.

        FTFY. Politicians just have a larger stage and more on the line.

        • Jameson Quinn says:

          You’re absolutely right. Humans lie.

          Politicians just have a larger stage and more on the line. Which means, they have more practice, and get better at it. While some non-politicians make an attempt not to, and occasionally succeed.

      • djw says:

        I like this a great deal. There are limits to “people as conscience of the state” but it is certainly part of the array of democratic mechanisms for taming the state.

    • LFC says:

      As a point of info,the drone campaign in Pakistan (not elsewhere) is run by CIA not the military (unless there’s been a very recent change i’m not aware of).

      I have no quarrel with the gist of the OP. But I can’t agree that Obama (tho i’m going to vote for him) is as good as it can possibly get. Obviously if you wanted a pres. who was going to reorient US for policy you wd go w e.g. Kucinich. Could he get elected? –no. But wd he call in the military and CIA and then just do whatever their consensus advice was? No. Not that I’m suggesting Obama does that, precisely,but he’s more deferential to the natl sec establishment than someone like Kucinich wd be.

      • Hogan says:

        If all that changes is that we elect Kucinich instead of Obama, I’m not buying that; the institutional intertia in the national security state won’t let it be turned around on a dime, or even in four years. But it’s not going to happen anyway; what we need to think about is how to get to a point where someone with Kucinich’s positions could ever be elected president.

      • Obviously if you wanted a pres. who was going to reorient US for policy you wd go w e.g. Kucinich. Could he get elected? –no.

        This is the line of reasoning I’m wondering about. It seems obvious, at some level, that Kucinich would really change things. Or, if you’re Friedersdorf, it’s obvious that Gary Johnson would really change things. I inclined to think that’s a trap. It’s self-validating but inherently untestable.

        The flip side of this is the idea that Obama is just the same as (or just as bad as) Bush. In some areas that’s depressingly true. The personal and political differences between the two are huge, though. I assume that if I’d met Obama back in Hyde Park in the 90s, he would have deplored the idea of raining death and destruction down on foreigners as much as I do. So if he’s become so much like Bush, is that a good reason to think that we’d be better of with Kucinich or some other wonderfully unelectable politician?

      • Anderson says:

        But I can’t agree that Obama (tho i’m going to vote for him) is as good as it can possibly get.

        Surely no one here thinks that. Except for that Pats fan.

        • Cody says:

          Freggin’ Patriots fans!

          I think Obama is “as good as it gets” right now. Obviously we all want it to be better, but people farther to the left are currently un-electable to be President.

          Also, I love the discussion of institutional inertia. We can’t forget that Obama is the Green Lantern up there. There are a lot of decision makers, and a lot of pressure to not change what is currently happening.

    • agorabum says:

      The best I can figure is that Obama is navigating the labyrinth as follows:
      Ending the war in Iraq: First term campaign promise; done (which in this drone debate just doesn’t get enough credit…)
      Al Queda / Pashtun militants: primarily drone strikes as bulwark against attacks from the Republicans on “soft on terrorists” in first term: successful (Romney has no traction on this issue)
      2nd term: With flanks secured & death of bin laden, withdraw troops from Afghanistan and (hopefully) end Pakistan strikes, since our war with Taliban ends when we leave.
      There is a handful (maybe 100? 1000?) of terrorists who will attack America; overseas or at home (see: Benghazi). The US President has an obligation to do something about that. Hopefully, any action will be few and far between (and rarely needed) once we leave Afghanistan. Which Obama has promised to do.

      • DocAmazing says:

        our war with Taliban ends when we leave

        …unless someone, somewhere blows something up, and the Military-Industrial Complex is feeling underappreciated…

        • An American ambassador was just murdered during an attack on a consulate. What have we blown up?

          The only thing that has blown up has been a Republican talking point, denouncing the President and his staff for not immediately jumping to conclusions about the attack before reliable information came in.

          Things change. Elections have consequences.

      • LFC says:

        Well, this is a best-case scenario. I’m a bit less optimistic. Consider that there are drone strikes going on in Yemen, occasionally I would guess some going on elsewhere in the Horn of Africa that we don’t hear much about, there are US commandos/special forces in Mali, and so on. The ‘war’ w Al-Qaeda, Taliban and other similar groups is not seen in the official view as limited to Afghanistan/Pakistan. So when ISAF withdraws from Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan may be reduced or end, but not those elsewhere, not as long as al-Qaeda branches like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are seen (with or without some plausible reason) as a threat by natl sec. circles in the US.

  8. Bijan Parsia says:

    I really love this conception of how democracy works and our job within it. It works in a number of contexts (e.g., the workplace) and it’s helps support both a rational connection to and a rational alienation from one’s own state.

    Also, it helps mitigate the moral psychological tension that comes from voting “in support” of morally wretched things.

    But it also weakens the idea that a democratic state is grounded in the people. And almost certainly correct, but it at least changes our self conception as a citizen. Instead of sovereign, we’re more like engineers trying to manage powerful violent forces. So we build levees and dykes and evacuation routes which sometimes make things worse or cause other problems.

    It’s just a different conception. I can see a profound nobility in it, but it’s not the same nobility as being part of the general will.

    • Jameson Quinn says:

      I think the two can be reconciled. You just have to see “democracy” as an unfinished project, and “the general will” as being something that’s deeply flawed but always possible to improve.

      In other words, read my post just below.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        I don’t think that does it.

        Better technology can mitigate the dissonance. Better voting technology probably doesn’t solve it. For example, if all the actual candidates are bad, that I can rank them doesn’t help me. If my party is too small to wield any power under any voting regime, I’ll still be stuck. If my vote eventually ends up helping the lesser evil, it’s not like that makes me much better off than just voting directly for them.

        • Jameson Quinn says:

          I’m not saying that better voting technology solves the problem. It just makes it not completely insoluble. There’s still the decades-long-at-least-and-probably-never-finished project of actually building one or more parties with a moral backbone (and/or building or transplanting that backbone into existing parties that lack it) and getting such a party to win. The only difference is, the project isn’t being sabotaged at every turn by a voting system which turns your natural allies into your worst enemies and motivates almost 50% of the powerful at any given time to be rooting for failure.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            But then I rather suspect that voting tech per se is a minor problem.

            Voter suppression and getting out the vote seem more important.

            Relatively minor tweaks seem helpful (voting hours, early voting, etc.)

            • Jameson Quinn says:

              What??? I can understand “voting is impossible to fix because it’s too nerdy”. I don’t like it or agree, but I can’t deny it’s sensible.

              But “plurality voting is a minor problem”? That’s so incomprehensible to me that I can’t even see where it’s coming from to argue against it. I mean, I can think of many arguments, but they all seem so obvious to me that I suspect there must be some logic to what you’re saying that I’m not seeing.

              So can you explain what you mean a little more?

              • drs says:

                I advocate approval voting over plurality (or IRV) but I do wonder how much difference it would make. Electing single winners from a district of any size is kind of fundamentally flawed. For the House I’d advocate skipping ahead to PR by state. (That’s actually technically easy: the current system was set up by Federal law; Congress could instead require each delegation be elected by PR.)

                PR gives you a more representative legislature with more explicit choices (and might work better in a presidential system, where you don’t need a solid coalition to form a government), but there’s also the problem of voting only every few years, and thus having only a few bits of input, which tend to be dominated by domestic policy issues at the expense of foreign policy. (“Sucks that we’re killing people, but I need a job/rights.”)

                So better ‘tech’ would probably mean being able to vote separately on foreign policy issues, like having a separate foreign house or leader, or direct democracy in general, or maybe a sortition-based house (representing the people through sampling without money issues, and more able to deliberate.)

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  I agree that the effects of approval voting are almost certainly overrated. I favor it because I favor reducing irrational outcomes, but I don’t think it would produce significantly more left-wing outcomes. (It would mean no Bush, for example, but also no Lincoln. I don’t think there’s a clear ideological valence.)

                  PR would definitely lead to more small parties, but I think it would be more reactionary on balance, because it would make Congress even more dysfunctional. The House would be more like the Senate.

                • drs says:

                  House more like the Senate? How do you figure? I’d expect the opposite; you still need a majority, but — especially without the pressure of picking a PM and “forming a government” — you’d have more ways of forming a majority than two polarized parties gives you. You’d also have a House more representative of the population, with distributed minorities having a chance of a say, and Congressional gerrymandering completely wiped out.

                  I favor open party-list, where the voting and vote counting are still simple (I got to vote STV in Cambridge municipal. *ugh*) but the voters still have a large say as to who gets in. (Closed party-list might as well be proxy democracy, with the party leaders as proxy holders, seems to me.)

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  you’d have more ways of forming a majority than two polarized parties gives you.

                  This is exactly the problem. The Senate has historically had “more ways of making a majority” because of looser party discipline. But more ways of making a majority means more ways of disrupting majority coalitions through the use of poison pill amendments, etc. It’s the narrow range of choices that allows the House to operate efficiently. It would break down in a multi-party system.

                • drs says:

                  ” It’s the narrow range of choices that allows the House to operate efficiently. It would break down in a multi-party system.”

                  Is that supported by the behavior of PR legislatures around the world?

                  I think there’s differences in procedure as well, like how committees vs. the whole body deal with amendments, but I don’t remember any details. This is a matter of House rules, of course.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  It’s the narrow range of choices that allows the House to operate efficiently.

                  Well, then, a one-party system should be even more efficient!

                  This is supposed to be democracy. Efficiency is nice, but it isn’t a primary goal.

                • djw says:

                  Efficiency is nice, but it isn’t a primary goal.

                  Not primary, but if you care about progressive ends, a damned important secondary one. Inaction, inefficiency, delay are more likely to work against us than for us in the aggregate. Policy drift occurs, laws that effectively restrain power in real time are inevitably adapted to and worked around by the powerful and need to be revisited.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                Well, first, and most obviously, there are plenty of countries with various sorts of better voting or power sharing systems and not necessarily hugely better outcomes. If the substance is no good, then procedural fixes won’t help. In the US, blocking voter surpression is a bigger short term (at least) deal.

                But, let’s say you take your favorite voter system, e.g., one that allows people to vote their conscience without wasting their vote and apply it to the presidential election. What happens? Probably not very much. Yes, it would have blocked the Nader spoilage, but so too would have eliminating the electoral college. That wastes far more votes and introduces all sorts of annoying distortions (and provides lots of incentive for voter surpression).

                I’m for better voting for sure, but I’m not so sanguine that better voting ipso facto makes better outcomes more likely. I think it’s better primarily for the effects on my ability to vote substantively and honesty and for the hope that it will be beneficial around the margins.

                It’s not a very sophisticated argument, I guess, but I don’t see case the other way.

              • Jameson Quinn says:

                OK, I think I get it now. Approval voting is no big deal because if you rerun historical plurality elections with the same candidates and approval, the result is rarely different and sometimes worse. True, but that’s as silly as saying that democracy is something that happens once every 4 years. The point of approval voting is to expand voter power by increasing the choices available. There are plenty of issues where the elite bipartisan consensus overrides the popular will today. If therewere room for like-him-except-for-one-thing candidates, the major candidates would have to listen more to the popular will and coopt these issues in many cases. I realize that would not be uniformly good news — my wife’s chances of a US visa would be even worse if that’s possible — but it would be good on balance, and even more importantly, it would break us out of this dysfunctional stalemate.

                As to PR: yes, also good. I don’t see how poison pills would get any worse. It’s the two-party, zero-sum system that makes them such a thing. Usually a multiparty game will have a win-win, condorcet dominant solution. As for forms of PR: look into PAL representation, a bipraportional PR system that could use the same ballots and districts as today. Stands for proportional, accountable, local.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  There are plenty of issues where the elite bipartisan consensus overrides the popular will today. If therewere room for like-him-except-for-one-thing candidates, the major candidates would have to listen more to the popular will and coopt these issues in many cases.

                  I wish this were the case, but I don’t think so. In particular, I’m not clear that 1) there are plenty of issues where the elite bipartisan consensus overrides the popular will and 2) even if there were such issues, I’m skeptical that extra-main-party politicians would be able to capitalize on them in elections. That doesn’t really accord with what I’ve read about party identification and voter behavior. Plus, it presumes that the main parties couldn’t effectively adapt.

                  Esp. in the current polarization, it just seems unlikely.

                • Jameson Quinn says:

                  My point was exactly that the major parties would adapt. By coopting. Which would be good.

                  Basically, shorter me: “if you like primaries, you’ll love approval voting.”

                  And yes there are such issues:
                  Ending existing wars
                  Medicare option for all
                  Banksters to jail
                  Protectionism
                  Citizens united sucks
                  End oil subsidies

                  And others where the public is divided and the elite isn’t, or vice versa:
                  Drug war
                  capital gains tax
                  Infrastructure spending/stimulus
                  Abortion

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  I really don’t see why you think the co-option would work by movement on the parties.

                  Doesn’t current voting theory basically say that people don’t vote (most) issues? Are there any presidential prediction models that are issue sensitive?

                  Don’t party identification and economics play a far greater roll? I don’t see how alternative voting systems help in that context.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  If you want to make your case, I’d love to see a model where given a given set of populace vs. elite opinion, an alternative voting scheme would have made a difference such that a candidate would have felt pressure on it.

                • Jameson Quinn says:

                  My model is, take the two parties. Voters are pretty much 50/50. It doesn’t matter if the reason is group interest (urban vs suburban or whatever), or ideology, or pure tribal identification.

                  Now take some issue(s) where the elites in both parties are together overriding the masses.

                  Under a fair voting system, the best growth recipe for a new party is: be like one of the majors on the stuff that distinguishes the majors, but side with the people on the stuff the majors ignore. This doesn’t give you explosive growth, but it does give you enough of an edge to grow, to where it seems that one day you might be a threat. And as soon as they see you closing in in their rear view mirrors, they coopt enough of your issues until their money and logistic advantages outweigh your remaining ideological ones.

                  This sort of dynamic probably happens a tiny bit today, but the advantages of plurality are so overwhelming that it’s negligible. Wouldn’t be the case with approval (et al).

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  Could you actually fill in the numbers? Prima facie, it seems hugely unlikely.

                • Jameson Quinn says:

                  I don’t think this is easily susceptible to just filling in a few numbers. You need a model of the electorate that’s almst like two monolithic groups, but with enough play to give the dynamics of interest; a model of party growth that has friction in both directions, but different amounts and not too much; and several other details as finicky. And even if I could specify all that in a blog comment, there would be no analytic solution, so we’d still just be spouting hot air until one of us programmed and tuned the sim.

                  But as finicky as it would be to get a working model at all, I still think this result would be robust. There’s nothing in what I said that I don’t see as a foregone conclusion sooner or later. It’s just the dynamics of growth. It’s similar to the dynamics that led several to see the inevitability of the IRV pathology before it manifested in Burlington 2009.

    • YankeeFrank says:

      The last time anyone became a “noble part of the general will” on a national scale was probably WWII, and I don’t think we want a repeat of that if we can avoid it. In fact, democracy is as much about negating the general will as it is supporting it — the tyranny of the majority and all that. Protecting the minority from the majority is much of what democracy is about. And any study of history from the perspective that sees the nation (the people) as separate from the state (the government), in short any useful study of history, clearly shows that the state is a terrifying presence that must be curtailed and controlled very carefully and vigilantly. Our much-lauded and not-democratic-enough Constitution is built around the premise of curtailing the power of the state. The separation of powers is primary in the effort, along with the vote itself, to mitigate the power of the state. Having competing and balancing institutions with circumscribed (but often overlapping) responsibilities is THE way our constitution weakens the power of any one of these institutions.

      So I would say that the analysis proposed isn’t really so radical at all. Its just a different way of framing the situation.

      As an example of this confusion between nation and state, I am often offended that, in our criminal “justice” system on the state and federal levels, the state power vested in the attorneys’ general refers to itself as “the people”. It is most assuredly NOT “the people”, as many of our laws and the ways they are applied are NOT ones the people would support in a true democracy.

      The drug war/laws are a case in point. A large majority of the American people are against the drug war, and if offered the opportunity to devise an alternative, would likely come up with something much less draconian and more humanitarian. Another case is the lack of prosecutorial activity in the white collar criminal sphere. Its certainly not on behalf of “the people” that Eric Holder has refused to prosecute a single bankster responsible for the housing crash. Prosecutors should only be allowed to refer to their efforts on behalf of “the people” if we were a direct democracy where laws and their execution were a direct application of the democratic will.

      So seeing the state as separate from the people and often in conflict with us is very useful if we care about liberty. And seeing the state as an actor that commits terrible injustices and atrocities, and that needs to be reigned in, is just to see it honestly. The problem with the far right and the teabaggers is they propose to do away with the state for all its crimes, when common sense tells us that there is no way to get rid of the state — as getting rid of the current state merely throws us into the loving embrace of the next state, and only the lord above knows who or what interests that state would answer to; and that the wiser idea is to wrangle the state we have into acting more responsibly, less arbitrarily, and more in the interests of the commonwealth as a whole.

      So yes, Farrell is simply wrong. We, as a nation, need a huge civics lesson. And we should also all be required to vote as well. And ignorance should be shameful. But I’m content for now that this Farrell guy is a horse’s ass.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        Sorry, I wasn’t using “general will” in the sense of “what the majority wants”, but in Rousseau’s (admittedly vague) sense.

      • John says:

        Protecting minority rights isn’t what democracy’s about (c.f. ancient Greece). It’s what liberalism is about. We oughtn’t confuse the two.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          I think protecting minority rights (and fundamental rights) is a great innovation in democracy. Given djw’s conception, we can always appeal to the act version of democracy that’s in play.

          • John says:

            Protecting minority rights and political democracy have tended to be positively correlated with one another, but I still tend to think they’re rather distinct, and that each can exist (to a certain extent, at least) without the other. Look at England and France in 1793, for instance – the former was liberal but not democratic, the latter democratic but not liberal (more or less – obviously it’s more complicated than that, especially in the French case, where the democratic constitution written in that year was never actually implemented).

        • djw says:

          Nonsense. Was the civil rights movement anti-democratic? Majoritarianism is a central democratic technique, but it’s not synonymous with democracy.

          • John says:

            I wasn’t saying that protecting minority rights is opposed to democracy in any necessary (or even plausible) way, but I think they’re only tangentially related.

            The first regimes to do a pretty good job of protecting minority rights – early modern England and the Dutch Republic – were not by any stretch of the imagination democracies. And there have been democratic regimes that do a pretty bad job of protecting minority rights, especially democracies that are based on communitarian ideas with little commitment to individual rights.

    • djw says:

      Bijan, my official response is that this conception doesn’t do away with the aspiration to self rule, or seeking the common good, or deliberative rationality, and so on, but rather it decenters them. In other words, they retain their democratic value insofar as they contribute (sometimes indirectly) to the goal of reducing domination. So, for example: a robust culture of democratic equality has democratic value because it better protects society from the state; equality is a tool against domination. The common good on this conception can be understood as the vision of the state that best limits the dangers while also sufficiently empowers the state to effectively reduce private domination. A conversation about the common good, in a sufficiently deliberative and egalitarian political society (which I don’t think we have, but I do think may be possible), could serve as a potential guide to political action.

      So I think there’s potentially room for that sort of stuff. But from the angle I’m approaching it from, a robust Rousseauian democratic nobility is probably off the table.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        That doesn’t surprise me and it’s perfectly reasonable. I don’t like making their value extrinsic in the way that you do. I prefer to think of their value as intrinsic but subordinate to the restraint of power. This may come out the same in the wash.

        I think that may make me a bit more understanding of people who want to value protest or conscience voting. I think there is value there, just that (esp. in our current circumstances) it’s not one we can correctly act on.

        Note that this isn’t to say that I don’t find the restraint of power enobling. It’s just a different sort.

    • DrDick says:

      At its heart, the state is an instrument to consolidate, expand, and maintain the power and privilege of the elites, which is in large part why it emerges in the first place. Democracy provides a buffer, however imperfect, against that power and privilege.

  9. Jameson Quinn says:

    If democracy is the “single greatest technology humankind has developed to  restrict at least some of the tremendous negatives associated with the state, while retaining access to most of the benefits”, then isn’t it also a moral imperative to do what we can to refine that technology?

    It’s easy to understood the people who don’t want to vote for a mass murderer. They’re not making a cold, rational evaluation that there is some better option, they’re just holding on to a hope that there must be. That’s the same reason that I continue to preach the gospel of voting system reform. I realize that rationally the chances that the US will move to approval voting are slim, and that even if it does that’s only the start of a long uphill slog to making my country less deadly. But it’s a way for me to reconcile rationality and hope, and I need that. And when I see others making less constructive choices from that same moral need, is it so bad that I want to offer them my panacea, even if that does mean I end up making over 40 comments in some thread about Nader?

    Gramsci said “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” But to square that circle, he still needed the long term goal of communism. Voting reform may be decidedly weaker tea, but it is what I’ve found that my intellect and will can agree on. Wanna try my tea?

    • djw says:

      isn’t it also a moral imperative to do what we can to refine that technology?

      Yes! Democracy as a tool to limit the brutality of the state is often a fairly blunt instrument, but of course refinements can and do improve its ability to do this job, as well as the other, more affirmative one, reducing private domination. Such refinements can be institutional but they can also be broadly social; finding ways to reduce the amount of bigotry people are carrying around with them is an invaluable democratic refinement because it reduces the temptation of politicians to pander to it (for example).

      I don’t think the goal of reforming and refining democratic mechanisms is well served by sticking our head in the sand about the violent nature of the state.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Well, this is bopping around the tubes and hasn’t landed here yet, but as JC said, this will never not be accurate

    Tbogg:

    “Every year in Happy Gumdrop Fairy-Tale Land all of the sprites and elves and woodland creatures gather together to pick the Rainbow Sunshine Queen. Everyone is there: the Lollipop Guild, the Star-Twinkle Toddlers, the Sparkly Unicorns, the Cookie Baking Apple-cheeked Grandmothers, the Fluffy Bunny Bund, the Rumbly-Tumbly Pupperoos, the Snowflake Princesses, the Baby Duckies All-In-A-Row, the Laughing Babies, and the Dykes on Bikes. They have a big picnic with cupcakes and gumdrops and pudding pops, stopping only to cast their votes by throwing Magic Wishing Rocks into the Well of Laughter, Comity, and Good Intentions. Afterward they spend the rest of the night dancing and singing and waving glow sticks until dawn when they tumble sleepy-eyed into beds made of the purest and whitest goose down where they dream of angels and clouds of spun sugar.

    You don’t live there.

    Grow the fuck up.”

  11. The Pale Scot says:

    Above was moi.

  12. Scoobydoo says:

    You can store up all your outrage for when the next republican is elected president and he’s the one doing the same outrageous shit. Clearly, that’s when these issues will matter.

  13. This is a great post, and I agree with very nearly all of it. You’re right that clean hands can’t be *ultimately* right here.

    But:

    1) You skip right over the problem of how Weberian responsibility is supposed to work on the individual conscience when the individual is not decisive. The problem of aggregation here is, quite simply, real. It does not follow from the rejection of clean hands that one has a duty to imagine the problem of aggregation away and vote as if one were the only voter in the system, with direct responsibility for choosing the person who will be directing the apparatus of violence.

    1a) And, as I argued in the comments to the other thread, if we stipulate such a duty, that won’t make any progress against the third-party voters (though it would against the abstainers)– because in the world where I’m the only voter, I don’t spoil anything or tilt the electoral outcome toward my least-preferred candidate; I get to make my third party candidate president. There’s no non-arbitrary way to describe a duty with the shape “vote as if you’re completely decisive, but only between the two candidates who all the other voters have rendered ‘viable.’”

    2) Democracy’s good functioning for the purposes you describe isn’t necessarily enhanced by people declaring themselves perpetual hostages to Downsian logic. If this election were the only election, then maybe there’d be some duty to engage in emergency ethics, ignore the problem of aggregation, and use every tool in your power to limit the damage by trying to get the lesser evil into power.

    But we play a repeated game with politicians. And either third-party voting or abstaining can be a strategy. If we’re free to imagine one vote as mattering, then we have to be free to imagine it as mattering over time, and taking a stand like “I don’t vote for people who engage in extrajudicial imprisonment or execution” then affects the incentives facing future politicians. If the person who abstains bears some kind of responsibility for the extrajudicial-execution-plus-torture candidate beating the extrajudicial-execution-without-torture candidate– unwilling to confront the consequential weightiness of the difference!– then he or she is plausibly also entitled to claim some responsibility for changing politicians’ incentives in future iterations. Refusing to be an every-election-is-an-emergency, perpetual-hostage-to-the-median-voter-logic voter means that (at some tiny margin, but no tinier than the margin at which I pick the president!) I change the incentives facing future candidates.

    At some level of aggregation this can matter; candidates do try to shore up their bases and do worry about the enthusiasm that generates turnout. That’s a piece of the machinery of this system of domination! Keeping them worried about it, is one of the (individually feeble but collectively less so) tools we have for constraining the badness of their actions and positions– and voting is another.

    The perpetual principled clean-hands non-voter falls out of politicians’ calculations. But the kind of abstainer Henry was talking about, or the sometime third party voter, doesn’t.

    The abstainer, on this argument, doesn’t actually have cleaner hands than the rest of us. We’re all in the same responsibility boat. But making future candidates worry about the enthusiasm of soi-disant clean-hands voters, rather than letting them take such voters for granted, can be a responsible thing to do. Tying yourself to the mast of lesser-evil voting is not obviously more responsible, and I think may well be less. Insofar as you have any effect on electoral outcomes, you’re taking every shared evil out of the electoral calculus. It leaves you– and everyone else’s whose welfare and freedom from domination you’e supposed to be paying attention to!– perpetually vulnerable to Kang and Kodos.

    Even though well-functioning democracy (meaning contestatory democracy of the Shapiro/ Walzer/ et al school) depends on a partisanship and parties– there has to be a large stable base of voters attached to each party for the mechanisms to work– it also depends on elections being lose-able, whether because some voters swing to another party or because some voters stay home. Swing voting and being a disaffected base are among the tools available to those committed to using democracy to reduce domination, as they are to everyone else. We can’t categorical-imperative them away; universalizability makes a mess of systems that depend on the existence of multiple kinds of actors like that. And Weberian responsibility won’t do it either, because the possibility of alienating the voters on one’s own side is one of the constraints on politicians.

    • Jameson Quinn says:

      This makes sense.

      But any game-theory analysis of the situation which doesn’t mention the fact that ALL THE EQUILIBRIA IN THIS STUPID GAME SUCK and that WE COULD CHANGE THAT FACT BY SIMPLY NOT THROWING SOME BALLOTS (ie, “overvotes”) IN THE TRASH seems… incomplete.

      I mean, pardon me for shouting, but what’s going on here? I basically turn myself into an annoying troll by harping incessantly and redundantly over and over on one point, and all anybody says is “yes, we know that, go away”, before never mentioning it again. How can it not be important that there is an easy solution for this problem, and yet worthy of multiple 300-comment threads each on multiple blogs rehashing the problem? I’m honestly baffled.

      • djw says:

        What do you mean “easy solution”? Easy to grasp in theory, easy to implement if the relevant actors wanted do so, sure. But politically it’s not remotely easy; indeed, it’s a non-starter. Look at what happened in the UK, where voting reforms face far fewer procedural roadblocks.

        • drs says:

          I’m not sure what the UK proves, other than Nick Clegg making bad decisions and being a horrible leader. The Lib Dems want and need proper PR; getting it should have been a sine qua non of the coalition. A referendum on PR is a defensible compromise. A referendum on IRV is “…what? who ordered that?” No one wanted IRV. The LDs wanted PR, the main parties wanted no change, it had literally no constituency.

          Made worse given that a large chunk of the UK uses PR already for regional elections, and everyone uses it for MEP elections, so it’s a known factor. Closest to general IRV use is over in Ireland, for presidential elections.

          (Though apparently the parties use it to select their leaders. Maybe that’s why they keep having sucky leaders.)

          • Murc says:

            A referendum on PR is a defensible compromise.

            A little off-topic, but no, it really wasn’t. They’d have lost that one as well, and Clegg should have known it.

            I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if you’re going to sell out, you’d better get something in exchange. And “getting some minor ministers who have to take orders from Cameron” isn’t that; hell, if anything, that should have been considered a major disadvantage.

            Britain’s third party has been relevant perhaps three times in the last hundred years or so. If you ally with the Tories, things will get bad for awhile, very bad, but you’ve improved the body politic of the UK and have an easier time bouncing back.

            The only precondition of joining with the Tories should have been that PR is implemented via Parliament. If they were unwilling to meet that, the LibDems should have kicked back and joined Labour on the sidelines.

            • John says:

              The Tories would have been absolutely unwilling to give them that, no? The whole thing was just really poorly thought out by Clegg and company. Much better for the Liberal Democrats to tolerate a Conservative minority government from the sidelines, and threaten to help kick it out if it tried to go too far to the right.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                This is an interesting question: How much worse would the Tories have been without the LibDems in the mix?

                This is sorta the current argument from them, i.e., that they are mitigating the worst excesses.

                Since they could get voting reform (from the beginning) and they caved on student fees, I’m not sure if they’ve done anything worthwhile overall, but I don’t know how realistically constrained a minority govt would have been.

        • Jameson Quinn says:

          Don’t know what you mean by “fewer procedural roadblocks”. We could go all the way to my voting utopia (approval or SODA for pres, SODA or MJ for Senate, PAL for house, mix of the above at lower levels) with only a single statutory change at the federal level (to un-ban PR). If all you want is approval, you don’t even need that.

          And yes, these reforms are usually in the short-term interest of the locally-dominant party. No more spoilers y’know. Which would actually be a good argument for voting third party if this issue were anywhere close to ripe. But it’s not.

    • tt says:

      There’s no non-arbitrary way to describe a duty with the shape “vote as if you’re completely decisive, but only between the two candidates who all the other voters have rendered ‘viable.’”

      What about “vote to maximize the probability of better government”?

      • Jameson Quinn says:

        “… but only in the short term.”

        • chris says:

          Heighten the contradictions!

          Seriously, the idea that there is real tension between short-term improvement and long-term improvement is only ever raised as a base suppression strategy. It has no grounding in reality. The actions of the current administration become the status quo from which the next administration must begin (for which there is no better evidence than Obama).

          • Jameson Quinn says:

            I absolutely agree if we’re talking the choice now, or the one in 2000 (even without hindsight). But I think it’s fair to have bright lines, especially if you’re able to precommit to them loudly and collectively. There has to be something Obama could do to lose your vote.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              Be worse than Romney? (More precisely, electing Obama has to be in aggregate worse than electing Romney.)

              What else?

              • Jameson Quinn says:

                Game theory would say that’s not quite right. It’s an iterated ultimatum game, with Obama in the position of power. Rationally, you should only vote for him if he’s better than Romney by less than the amount of extra leverage you’d get by demonstrating your willingness to walk away.

                But OK, now I say that out loud I see how silly that quibble is. Because even for a Mighty Blogger with the power to sway thousands of votes, the difference is negligible. And behavioral economics tells us that even leaving the door open to the Naderite fallacy in this case is far more likely to hurt than help us. So in effect, you’re right.

    • djw says:

      Jacob, this is great; thanks. A couple of quick replies:

      1) Re: problem of aggregation; I’ll need to think about this more but I have a hard time worrying too much about this. I treat these kind of conversations as if they were among a group of like-minded about politics people (in this particular case, people who recognize the danger of contemporary Republican governance and find significant portions of Obama’s foreign policy morally reprehensible) about how ‘we’ should go about the task of voting, with the assumption that ‘we’ as a group are sufficiently large that our votes, collectively, might potentially matter. It’s a fiction, of course, but it’s a fiction that lets us talk about voting without falling into the Downsian trap. It’s a style of discourse that allows to abstract away the problem of the individual vote. In a context where individual votes really don’t matter, some sort of discursive fiction like this becomes necessary, I think. And once we’re thinking in these kind of collective terms, the third party voter once again becomes indistinguishable from the abstainer.

      2) You are, of course, entirely correct that the account of democracy I give here doesn’t rule out the possible democratic value of a bloc of clean hands-oriented potential abstainers in a particular polity. That said, there are very good reasons to think that the present day US is not that polity; especially given the kind of issues Henry’s talking about. A) there’s a huge, huge number of occasional abstainers, and the clean-hands folks would get lost in the ocean of low information voters. The signalling mechanisms are weak (3rd party voting could function as a signal to pay attention to the demands of a particular group, but it could just as easily function as a signal to marginalize and demagogue that position to limit its appeal, or a signal to shift positions to find more votes in the middle) and the positions those voters would like to see politicians take would risk endangering that politicians’ support elsewhere. In short: The contours of American nationalism are such that a strategy wouldn’t have much hope in the present(but the bloc might be just large enough to shift the election’s outcome in a very close year).

      Secondly, when I hear strategic arguments for a bloc of leftist voters potentially letting Romney win, which is how Farrell started off (without explicitly endorsing it), I have my doubts about sincerity. Farrell started off with a strategic argument, but ended up in a far more Kantian place; demanding more respect for the clean hands voter on general principle. Given the gaping holes in the strategic argument he offered, I can’t help but suspect that it was bootstrapped to create a more plausible case for clean hands voting. (The fantastical empirical narratives Nader voters provided way back when were even more obvious in this respect). So I’ll concede the general point in theory, but in the particular context that spawned this discussion, I think the case for a clean hands voting bloc as democratically valuable falls short on plausibility and sincerity.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Two quick responses:

        1)I’ve been thinking about a longer post on this, but while I accept the Downs Paradox on some level, it does seem to me that applications of it collapse pretty quickly. For example, “voting for Obama is immoral but I hope most people do the immoral thing” is I think just incoherent — ultimately, I think this means that voting for Obama isn’t in fact immoral. And if you’re making an argument about how a class of voters should vote, or trying to persuade others to share your preference for 3rd party voting or abstinence, the Downs Paradox doesn’t actually apply.

        2)”And either third-party voting or abstaining can be a strategy.” Yes, but this is exactly the argument. Given the current partisan alignments and voting system of the United States it’s a really, really, really bad strategy — ineffectual at best and disastrous at worst. This is the core of the dispute.

        Of course, this needs to be qualified. For a left-liberal or democratic socialist third party voting is irrational because national Republicans are vastly worse than the Democrats on many important things and better on nothing, so the de minimis upside is balanced by a horrible downside. But, of course, for you and Conor the calculus is different. For libertarians, there’s a lot more cross-cutting in the cleavages. (Although I would say that — taking Conor’s argument that he’s a single-issue security state voter on its face — supporting Johnson is completely irrational.)

        • Murc says:

          “voting for Obama is immoral but I hope most people do the immoral thing” is I think just incoherent — ultimately, I think this means that voting for Obama isn’t in fact immoral.

          No offense, Scott, but that just seems like a way to vote for the lesser evil and not feel remotely guilty about it.

          The country doesn’t hold a gun up to our heads and tell us to vote or they’ll kill us and our family. It’s a voluntary choice. (It is also a civic duty. Those two things are in a lot of conflict with each other.) When you pull the lever for something that is subjectively the best viable choice but objectively is still pretty fucking heinous, you’d better feel guilty. Because you just voted for something heinous!

          The last thing I want is for people who vote for the lesser evil to go home feeling that they’re morally clean and bear no guilt. They’re not, and they do. You want to stop feeling that way? Go do something about it!

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            I wouldn’t feel guilty about it, because there’s nothing to be guilty about. I would have voted for the best available choice, one that will marginally improve things rather than make things much worse.

            • Murc says:

              Choosing to associate yourself with something awful doesn’t also mean you’re off the hook just because it was the best available choice.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                Doesn’t it?

                The choices are:

                1) Associate with someone horrible.

                2) Not associate with them but potentially have something worse happen.

                In any case you are disapproving and resistent to the horribleness. It’s not like you are choosing or even endorsing them.

                I agree that there are negative moral feelings that might go with such voting (e.g., anguish, disappointment, ennui, etc.) but I don’t see that they are obligatory and they can get in the way of doing your best.

                • gmack says:

                  Sorry to intervene here, but my intuitions tell me that this whole discussion is confused. The categories of guilt, moral obligation, and the like do not have a place in discussions of voting, at least insofar as we see voting as a political and not as a moral act. And the difference is straightforward: the central category of moral action is the self–my integrity, my duty, my obligation, my sense of what I can live with; the central category of political action, by contrast, is the world–the space in between us, the web of meaning, institutions, and relationships that we share together. Thus, when I act politically, the concern is not whether I am doing the “right thing” for me as a moral agent, but how my actions will effect (build, undermine, alter) the world we share together. So far as I’m concerned, insofar as I act politically, guilt makes no sense.

                  Indeed, I’m almost inclined to say it’s a category error. For example, if I argued that the Iraq war was the awesomest idea evah, any guilt I might feel for having done so is politically irrelevant (morally speaking, it’s between me and God, or between me and my conscience, but in either case, it has nothing to do with the public world we live in. As soon as I try to make my guilt public, it becomes an “appearance” and can start to look disingenuous). I can and probably should experience shame or a sense of humiliation/dishonor, since I have demonstrated in public an astonishing lack of judgment, but humiliation, shame, or disgrace are different from guilt. They require a sense of appearance in public in order to exist.

                  More to the point, the only politically relevant feature of the negative feelings Bijan identifies (whether one characterizes them as guilt or something else), is whether or how they encourage us to pay attention not just to to the decision and whether it is justified (to support the war, to vote, etc.), but also to the important aftermath of the decision. Sometimes we have to do things in politics that are not morally justified. Sometimes, we have to support a candidate who will only kill thousands instead of tens of thousands. This might make us feel bad. It probably should. But politically speaking, the question is not whether I am justified in supporting the candidate who will kill fewer people, but rather how I handle the aftermath: what steps am I taking to try to prevent such choices in the future? What work am I doing to try to change the political culture so that there is less support for the actions I dislike? What steps can I take to try to build the world that I think is more fit for us to live in?

                  In any case, to me, this is why Scott’s or djw’s arguments on these questions are so on point: they consistently and relentlessly insists that we approach voting from a political and not a moral point of view. If I might paraphrase Rousseau, they insist that we make our determinations about voting by looking at people as they are (e.g., with the awareness of how various constituencies are likely to vote) and our laws/institutions as as they might be. We actually have to look at, for instance, existing constituencies and power structures, and make judgments about the likely effectiveness of forms of action, how institutions might respond, and so on. We can potentially disagree with their judgments about these constituencies or the effects of voting, not voting, or voting for third parties, but I think the criteria they use to make these judgments are precisely correct.

                • Murc says:

                  at least insofar as we see voting as a political and not as a moral act.

                  And if we see it as both, because it IS both?

                  I find efforts to separate morality from political acts to be… problematic. At best.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  Hi gmack,

                  And the difference is straightforward: the central category of moral action is the self–my integrity, my duty, my obligation, my sense of what I can live with; the central category of political action, by contrast, is the world–the space in between us, the web of meaning, institutions, and relationships that we share together.

                  Sorry, that seems rather bonkers to me, even putting aside consequentialist moral theories. Duties and obligations can relate to others and, indeed, typically do. Even if politics and morality are not precisely aligned (as I think they are not) they are intertwined, cf the Crito.

                  Thus, when I act politically, the concern is not whether I am doing the “right thing” for me as a moral agent, but how my actions will effect (build, undermine, alter) the world we share together.

                  Again, this just seems odd. The phrase “right thing for me as a moral agent” really makes it seem as if acting morally is a perfectionist enterprise, e.g., similar to improving my singing voice. There may be some strands of virtue ethics that end up there, but most systems think that how one’s actions affect the “world we share together” is a pretty big deal. And even if you could imagine a deontological system that was entirely self-regarding in content, that’s certainly not the typical case.

                  So far as I’m concerned, insofar as I act politically, guilt makes no sense.

                  I’ve no idea how this follows.

                  Sorry, I’m just completely lost as to your intuitions.

                  Indeed, I’m almost inclined to say it’s a category error.

                  It’s a category error to try to evaluate the moral weight of my actions when they are also political? An assassination might be the politically right thing to do as well as being a murder. When we wonder whether we’d kill young Hitler if we had a time machine that’s primarily a moral question.

                  For example, if I argued that the Iraq war was the awesomest idea evah, any guilt I might feel for having done so is politically irrelevant (morally speaking, it’s between me and God, or between me and my conscience, but in either case, it has nothing to do with the public world we live in.

                  I think you’ve made a different category error. Your feelings of guilt per se might be political irrelevant. Your actual guilt (i.e., the fact that you did something morally wrong) is up for public assessment. Moral evaluation isn’t, for most people and systems, a private thing. That you broke a promise to me isn’t a matter between you and your God, but between you and me and the moral community.

                  But I think you’ve missed the overall point of my comments. Voting has aspects for many people which are not captured by djw’s vision or Scott’s attitudes. Some of these are tied up with moral evaluation (cf Thoreau, though he went quite a bit farther).

                • gmack says:

                  Well, the threading is going to get difficult here, but I’ll try to respond as best I can to Bijan and Murc. My basic idea is that political activity is subject to different kinds of criteria than the normal ones we find in moral theory. In some ways, I take my point to be basically Aristotlean (or perhaps Machiavellian): there’s a difference between being a good citizen and being a good person. And a sub-point is that the failure to recognize this leads us to pointless debates (personally, I get tired of “ethics of voting” threads, but obviously not tired enough to not participate!).

                  If I may say so, I think the heart of Bijan’s objection is that there is no neat distinction here. I think the claim is that I have caricatured moral theory in order to create a false binary between politics and morality: moral action is not as “private” as my comments might imply. And I suppose I could be convinced of this (I’ll have to think on it further). Still, while it may be true that for a lot of people voting may have aspects that djw and Scott don’t mention, I am also inclined to say that this is a problem. I just think we are better off politically if we adopt the kind of orientation I’m groping for as opposed to an orientation toward justifying an action in a more traditionally moral sense (assuming I can spell out what I mean by morality in a more acceptable way).

              • Hogan says:

                I would say the thing to feel guilty about would be that voting is the only way you participate in politics. If that’s true. If you’re actively trying to rewrite the menu, you shouldn’t be blamed because the choices are still “shit” and “Spam with some shit in it. Quite a lot, actually. But not as much as there could have been.”

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                gmack, I’ve started a new one below.

      • DrDick says:

        (3rd party voting could function as a signal to pay attention to the demands of a particular group, but it could just as easily function as a signal to marginalize and demagogue that position to limit its appeal, or a signal to shift positions to find more votes in the middle)

        And in every example since 1950, third party votes (and abstentions) have been read as marginalizing those voters. It might be different if third parties could draw a substantial number of votes (over 20%), but they do not. Abstentions always get written off, because it is in the interests of important power blocs in both parties (including the dominant Democratic corporatists) that fewer people vote, as long as their faction votes, since they then do not have to make as meany compromises to their agenda.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          And in the American context, there’s another tool for moving parties in a different direction — the primary system — which is vastly more effective. The Republican Party has been completely transformed and conservative third parties have played no significant role in this process at all.

          • jeer9 says:

            Yes, big money interests have moved the Republican party rightward through primaries. This strategy, however, does not remotely work for the Dems, as there is no comparably powerful group whose driving force is social justice and economic equality. You’re still left with dreams of a liberal senator from Nebraska or Indiana and ending the filibuster bottleneck, neither of which will be occurring any time soon. Hell, we can’t even get a decent challenger for Feinstein here in California.

            • DocAmazing says:

              We can, however, scare hell out of local party bosses by posting sizable Green numbers, forcing them to accord us the sort of attention previously reserved for, say, real estate developers.

              • jeer9 says:

                Agreed. And it seems to me that if your strategy to turn the party left is to focus on primaries (and I don’t believe Dem leadership is at all interested in this view but rather prefers the Iron Law of Institutions), you have to go after the conservadems in red states and be willing to accept some short-term defeats in order to purge them, which means that such a plan contains a heighten the contradictions element.

                To refuse this “riskier” course of action is to consign oneself to managing the inevitable slow decline – which translates into acceptance of the safety net being pared away, the rule of law being dispensed with in regards to financiers and torturers, drone attacks on funerals being rationalized – because they’ll always be the lesser evil.

                • Murc says:

                  I will note that this runs directly counter to the successful parts of the Republican strategy.

                  The Republicans only started targeting liberal Republicans in blue states with primary challenges very recently, and it hasn’t worked out well for them, costing them a number of seats they could otherwise have held. I think the only real success story is Pat Toomey, and 2010 was a weird year. The big success of their primary strategy was going after liberal or moderate Republicans in RED states, where there was no fucking excuse for their elected officials to not be stark barking mad.

                  That’s something we should definitely be doing before going after the blue dogs. Let’s replace people like Feinstein first. THEN we can decide what to do about the McCaskills.

                • jeer9 says:

                  While making safe-state Dems more blue is commendable, it doesn’t really address the problem of the filibuster. And what’s the point of having 55 Dems in the Senate if they’re only “frustrated” participants in the endless obstruction/pseudo- reform?

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  While making safe-state Dems more blue is commendable, it doesn’t really address the problem of the filibuster. And what’s the point of having 55 Dems in the Senate if they’re only “frustrated” participants in the endless obstruction/pseudo- reform?

                  And replacing red state moderate or conservative Democrats with wingnut Republicans does is actively counterproductive in terms of the filibuster or anything else. I mean, it’s easy to solve the problems posed by American institutions if you assume a can opener liberals winning primaries and Senate elections in Alabama and Nebraska, but without an actual plan to do so it’s a useless tautology.

                  Since wishes are totally free, shouldn’t we also assume that most Fortune 500 CEOs see Denmark as the optimal economic model? That will make progressive change easier too!

                • jeer9 says:

                  You express a desire to transform the Dems as the Republicans have done in their own party through primaries (though apparently without defeating any conservadems), yet believe this view does not include any magical thinking? More McCaskills and Landrieus to the rescue! A real progressive could never have defeated Akin this year.

                  Given that you think the Dems have become more liberal than corporate over the past thirty years, I should realize that your “plan,” such as it is, is succeeding very well, and that what appears to be the management of a slow decline is actually a bold Panglossian vision becoming flesh.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  No, I think Democrats should follow exactly the kind of plan Republicans have largely followed — start with weeding out moderates in states where better candidates can win and go from there. Republicans have occasionally followed your preferred strategy — like in Delaware and Nevada last year — but it cost them control of the Senate.

                  And since you consider the Dems 30 years ago to be much more liberal, I’m still waiting to hear about the legislative accomplishment during the Carter administration that compares to the PPACA or repeal of DADT.

                • jeer9 says:

                  weeding out moderates in states where better candidates can win and go from there.

                  Like MO? That bus has already left the station.

                  but it cost them control of the Senate.

                  You are a funny man.

                  And Carter’s human rights and environmental achievements were fairly significant, not that you’re ever going to appreciate them. May PPACA possess not a single unintended consequence.

                • MO is not a state where a candidate more liberal than the incumbent can win, in the absence of an act of God.

                  There is no question that the bad nominations the Tea Party pushed through prevented the Senate from being controlled by the Republicans.

                  And Carter’s human rights and environmental achievements…were not legislative.

                • jeer9 says:

                  Since when are the Soil and Water Conservation Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Antarctic Conservation Act, the Endangered American Wilderness Act and the Superfund Act not legislative?

                • Anonymous says:

                  There is no question that the bad nominations the Tea Party pushed through prevented the Senate from being controlled by the Republicans.

                  I count 3: Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado. Wouldn’t that still leave us with D control, thanks to Joe Biden? Am I forgetting someone?

                  Or are you saying the Tea Party cost in 2010 cost the Republicans control in 2013? That’s not certain, but seems likely.

              • DrDick says:

                The effects of third parties can be much greater in local or even state elections if there is an effective organization in place there (whihc takes fewer resources than national elections).

  14. Aaron Bady says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your general argumenn, but when you argue against “abdicating the duty to use the primary tool we’ve got to constrain [the state's] abusive power” you are engaging in a kind of sophistry that’s endemic to this entire conversation. The thing about our current situation is that voting cannot, in any way, constrain our security state’s tendency to kill lots of random people in AfPak, and so forth. That’s exactly the point. You can still argue that, because Mitt Romney would be worse for various other reasons, we should still vote for Obama, and so forth, and that can be a coherent argument. But portraying support for the lesser of two evils as “constraining” the state’s abusive power is literally not true; by oting for Obama, you are voting for drones. You are literally voting for the guy who’s putting those policies into place. It may be polemically effective to overestimate the actual utility of voting by using words like “constrain,” but voting is not effective. It’s only that not-voting isn’t any more effective. You elide this point when you make it seem like we’re comparing a negative number and a positive number; we’re actually comparing two negative numbers, one higher than the other.

    It’s also polemically effective–but a little disingenuous–to simply state (and link to a shallow statement by Bouie) that Obama is not unusual among modern presidents in terms of death and destruction. You can argue that that’s the case, if you want, but the people you are arguing with would say that he *is* unusual, and they have a point. Drone warfare is qualitiatively different than the sorts of military power that’s been possible in the past. Pretending that it isn’t–but making no effort to engage with those who say it is–because it’s rhetorically convenient for you is convincing only to the already converted.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Like Scott expressed the other day, I am curious to understand precisely how drone warfare is fundamentally different? I assume it is the video game aspect of it with no threat to U.S. troops. I’m also not sure that this is necessarily a worse thing than exposing U.S. troops to danger in these operations. I am willing to be convinced on this and certainly on one level the video game aspect of this bothers me a lot, but I don’t see the clear moral difference between this and other forms of also terrible warfare.

      • Aaron Bady says:

        It goes way beyond the video-game aspect, though that’s a start. It’s that it routine-izes a state of war which has no political costs and in which the state no ability to know how many people are being killed by its low-cost actions. We literally have no idea how many of the people we’ve killed are actually terrorists. No one knows. And the fact that it is now much more possible to be completely ignorant of how much blood is on our hands, and to spill that blood very cheaply, changes the reason of the state, imho, in a very fundamental way. In the past, as Bouie points out, you the state killed lots of people, but the risks they had to take (and the knowledge of what they were doing) made it a different kind of calculus.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          How this differs from conventional air power in a negative way I still don’t understand.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Like Scott, I think you could apply every single one of these problems to traditional air warfare and to a lot of ground warfare as well. I’m just not seeing how this is uniquely immoral, as opposed the extreme immorality of (most) warfare itself and certainly traditional air warfare. Can you explain the difference between regular air warfare and drone warfare to me?

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            The argument would make sense if conventional warfare was unpopular or if the use of conventional air power was unpopular. The argument fails in the American context because neither of these propositions is remotely true.

            • DocAmazing says:

              Conventional ground and air warfare lose their luster when US personnel are killed and really start to look bad when US personnel are captured and paraded before cameras. Drone warfare is the ultimate in “out of sight, out of mind”. The population now has no skin in the game whatever–no cousins serving in Kabul, no 11-o’clock-news images of downed pilots–but the tally of victims keeps on growing.

              • John says:

                This is very much a difference in degree rather than kind, given the overwhelmingly massive air superiority the United States enjoys over any plausible opponent.

              • Name the last time an American air crew was paraded in front of cameras.

                The other problem with this argument is that it isn’t just UAV usage that has grown, to the detriment of conventional warfare, under Obama, but also special forces missions, like the bin Laden raid. We only have to go back to Black Hawk Down to remember that this type of warfare is particularly subject to such risks.

                Besides, the vast majority of Americans have no “skin in the game” as it is. Don’t you remember all of those wishful-thinking arguments, culminating in a bill in the House of Representatives, about how we needed to restart the draft because there were so few Americans with “skin in the game” that war had* become much less politically risky, and therefore more common?

                *allegedly. In reality, we fight fewer wars in the volunteer-military era than in the draft era, and politicians have suffered as much or more from casualties.

        • DrDick says:

          I agree with Scott, but think a more important comparison is the targeted assassinations by covert operatives that were routine in the 1950s and 1960s (and likely beyond, but they got better at hiding them).

          • DrDick says:

            I would also add the financing of death squads and reactionary militias (revolutionary or otherwise) that played a huge role at least through the first Bush administration.

          • Most people consider the use of deadly force in a war, vs. in the absence of a war, to be significantly different.

            • DrDick says:

              We were never at war with Iran, Iraq, or most of Latin America at that time, any more than we currently are with Pakistan or Yemen, so I fail to see the distinction.

              • DocAmazing says:

                Jesus, don’t get him started about AUMF.

                • Seriously.

                  There is no argument to be made here.

                  Whether you like it or not, we are at war with al Qaeda. You both know this. You’ve both had it explained to you a thousand time. Neither of you has been able to come up with any argument that we are not at war with al Qaeda, because no such argument exists.

                  Why do insist on going through these pointless preliminaries every single time, when you know what the answer is, and you know exactly how it will end up?

              • Flip! Barack Obama didn’t get a force resolution from Congress for the Libya operation! OMG OMG OMG!

                Flop! It doesn’t matter if Congress passed a war resolution against al Qaeda! That’s totally irrelevant!

                Anti-war liberals need to lose the habit of pretending to believe in something when it’s momentarily convenient, and then forgetting about it the second the perceive an advantage in dropping their former guiding principle.

                • DrDick says:

                  Stop arguing with the voices in your head. There is still no fundamental difference. An AUMF against a nebulous and ill defined network is simply a legalistic absurdity to begin with and there is little or no substantial evidence directly linking most of the groups attacked now with the former Al Qaeda.

                • Neither of things are remotely true. They certainly aren’t supportable with any evidence from history, American law, international law, or the available evidence.

                  There has never, ever been any ruling, rule, law, court case, resolution, or other action to indicate that war powers cannot be used against sub-state groups. There has been quite a bit of history of exactly that being done.

                  Anyway, the Constitution provides one and only one final arbiter of the appropriate usage of Congressional war powers – Congress itself. Whether you feel that they made the wrong call is utterly meaningless.

                  But even setting that aside, where do you get off, knowing all of this and having these pre-scripted arguments ready to go, writing about imaginary wars against Yemen and Pakistan? You knew, when you “argued with the voices in your head,” that that was not who the war was against.

                  Again, why do we have to go through these nonsense preliminaries every time? What is wrong with you, that you bring up such an argument, knowing it’s bullshit?

                  Are you just trying to deflect the conversation from the actual substance? Is it a stalling maneuver?

                  It’s a shitty, dishonest, irrational, truth-averse tapdance, whatever your reasons. Stop arguing things you don’t believe.

                  As for you shaky understanding of al Qaeda, you do know that a top al Qaeda figure who had been working with the HQ in Pakistan was killed in the car alongside Awlaki, right?

                • DrDick says:

                  I warned you about arguing with the voices in your head. I never said it was illegal. The phrase “legalistic absurdity” implies that it is technically legal, but profoundly stupid. The persons assassinated were in Pakistan and Yemen, among other places. You have not at all addressed the most salient issue, which is the lack of any clear, direct connection between those assassinated and the original Al Qaeda. The rest of your comments must be with those voices, as they have no relationship to anything I have done or said. So please go take your meds and fuck off.

                • I never said it was illegal.

                  Yes, you did, repeatedly:

                  We were never at war with Iran, Iraq, or most of Latin America at that time, any more than we currently are with Pakistan or Yemen, so I fail to see the distinction.

                  There is still no fundamental difference.

                  You have not at all addressed the most salient issue, which is the lack of any clear, direct connection between those assassinated and the original Al Qaeda.

                  Um, yes, I did: As for you shaky understanding of al Qaeda, you do know that a top al Qaeda figure who had been working with the HQ in Pakistan was killed in the car alongside Awlaki, right?

                  If you’re going to do your little superior dance, don’t screw up this badly. You look like an idiot.

                • DrDick says:

                  If you insist in willfully or delusionally misrepresenting my statements and motives, I see no reason to respond, as I have no desire to engage assholes or lunatics.

                  I never said it was illegal. The phrase “legalistic absurdity” implies that it is technically legal, but profoundly stupid.

                  The context makes clear that I was referring to the AUMF, not the killings, whose legality I have left up in the air.

                  you do know that a top al Qaeda figure who had been working with the HQ in Pakistan was killed in the car alongside Awlaki, right?

                  So out of the dozens of people assassinated you can come up with one possible link? Thanks for making my point for me.

                • Quit bitching and try to make arguments, you whiny little child.

                  “Boo hoo hoo, you accurately described my argument in an unflattering manner.” Too bad.

                  Anyway, given the reliable passion with which you respond when I smack the living shit out of you like this, I can only conclude that you don’t consider me an asshole or a lunatic.

                • Oh, there are plenty more I could list, but it really only takes the one to disprove your nonsense claim.

                  Stop making arguments you don’t believe. Stop asserting facts you don’t know to be true. Honesty: give it a shot, see how it works out for you.

                • The context makes clear that I was referring to the AUMF, not the killings

                  You want to talk about context, chumpy? OK, let’s look at the context:

                  I warned you about arguing with the voices in your head. I never said it was illegal. The phrase “legalistic absurdity” implies that it is technically legal, but profoundly stupid. The persons assassinated were in Pakistan and Yemen, among other places.

                  Wow, that context sure does make it clear that you weren’t talking about killings. I think you’re better describe another one of your comments as “the voiced in your head.”

                  Or, you could just stay down at this point.

        • In the past, as Bouie points out, you the state killed lots of people, but the risks they had to take (and the knowledge of what they were doing) made it a different kind of calculus.

          Vastly more people – on the order of 1000X more people – have been killed in the conventional, expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than in the war against al Qaeda. We have committed vastly more resources, and conducted many, many times more missions, in those wars than in the wars (al Qaeda, Libya) in which drones featured prominently.

          I can see the internal logic, but there just isn’t any evidence from the real world for this thesis.

      • Colin Day says:

        It’s not so much that the killing itself is less moral if done by drones, but that the very ease of drone warfare makes us too fond of it, in contrast with the carnage of Fredericksburg.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          How many people were killed in the Civil War after Fredricksburg? Hundreds of thousands certainly. We’d need centuries of Obama’s drone attacks to approach the number. And then we had the WWI less than 50 years later, which had similar carnage with less justification. So despite the nice quote I’m not really seeing the disincentive working very well here.

      • Murc says:

        I don’t see the clear moral difference between this and other forms of also terrible warfare.

        The moral difference between the drones and other forms of warfare isn’t large, and it flows directly from the PRACTICAL difference.

        the logic flows thusly: the American public is pretty bloodthirsty, but only for other peoples blood. When American soldiers start dying, they suddenly begin to ask questions like “How did this soldier die?” and “How many more are going to die?” and “We’re sending these people to die why now?”

        While nobody WANTS to see soldiers die, the combination of the fact that the public at large is pretty bloodthirsty and that “their” soldiers dieing is one of the few things that can restrain that bloodthirstiness means that our political masters and institutions are less likely to get into wars or conflicts, because there’s always a possible political downside.

        But drones offer a way for us to remove the human element, which removes that brake on warmaking.

        THIS is where the moral argument kicks in. In essence, as near as I can determine, it boils down to “a drone strike is no more damaging than a Blackhawk pumping a Hellfire into the same target on the individual level, but in the aggregate it makes it much more likely that many more such targets will be hit. Therefore making it a cornerstone of your military strategy is less moral than using other means.”

        That’s… oblique, but I think it makes a certain amount of sense. It’s not perfect, but it’s also not insane.

        I’d also like to add that the video game aspect of it doesn’t actually concern me much. I’d have to go dig it up, but I believe that it’s been found that drone operators actually are affected by the violence they commit to a greater negative degree than actual guys in-theatre.

        Its theorized that the reason for this is that the guys in-theatre work in an environment where that sort of shit is normal, and they’re surrounded by their unit as a support mechanism. The drone operator sits by himself in a cubicle, connected electronically to a lot of disembodied voices as he inflicts violence, and then he goes home to his family. The cognitive dissonance and isolation can apparently get pretty extreme.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          I feel like the unspoken implications of this is that people are saying we have to be willing to risk the death of Americans. Which, OK. But there are moral problems with that too. And I think this has to be articulated more. Anyway, I need to think about this.

          • Murc says:

            I feel like the unspoken implications of this is that people are saying we have to be willing to risk the death of Americans.

            Which is entirely legitimate, because the way this is formulated DOES imply that, strongly.

            I don’t feel that it necessarily does mean that; for me, the logic is ‘the drones make it easier for us to kill by removing consequences that typically act as a check on it.’ The fact that those consequences are Americans risking death isn’t irrelevant, but neither is it the central thrust.

        • John says:

          This is perhaps true, although it seems more like a priori reasoning than anything with empirical evidence to support it.

          That being said, I’m not sure that it can be the basis for a moral argument against the use of drones, just because it’s so oblique – we can’t use this technology which saves lives because it might make us more likely to fight wars in the aggregate.

          Isn’t the proper solution to this moral problem to oppose wars that are morally unjustified, rather than to oppose a tactic that might make it theoretically more likely that we will fight wars that are morally unjustified?

          • Colin Day says:

            How does drone technology save lives? It saves lives relative to having boots on the ground, but is that the proper basis for comparison?

            • It saves the lives of American pilots.

              Theoretically. According to the people who make the anti-drone argument. They claim that it removes American “skin in the game,” because we don’t have to worry about pilots being killed or captured.

              You know, all of those pilots who would have been killed or captured flying missions against al Qaeda hiding places with no meaningful anti-air capacity.

              • Keeping this in mind, the only time the use of UAVs would save the lives of American pilots, and thus theoretically make it easier to go to war, would be in situations in which air strikes were being conducted against targets with significant anti-air capacity.

                Since the dawn of the UAV, the only example of their use in such a situation has been the Libya operation, and the vast majority of the sorties flown in that war were flown by piloted aircraft.

              • DocAmazing says:

                al Qaeda hiding places with no meaningful anti-air capacity

                You can take down armored helicopters with RPG-7s, as the Mujaheddin demonstrated; additionally, most of the Stingers we gave said Mujaheddin went missing. There’s lots of anti-aircraft capability around.

                Unless, of course, you’re a non-combatant.

                • UAVs don’t replace armored helicopters; they replace piloted fighters like F-16s – which have carried out numerous strikes in Pakistan using the same Hellfire missiles that the UAVS carry, in both Pakistan and (probably) Yemen.

                  And without ever being taken down by their able-to-hit-a-helicopter air defenses.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  Ah–never heard of Stingers, then?

                • Never heard of one taking down an American aircraft, despite the thousands of sorties flown by them over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.

                  Keep digging.

              • Colin Day says:

                Allow me to clarify. I should have included pilots as “boot on the ground” in the sense that they would face some risk.

                Why do we need to conduct such missions at all, whether by pilots or UAVs??

                • Define “such missions.”

                  UAVs, just like piloted aircraft, are used in many different types of missions. They do everything from the most traditional close air support missions in main-force wars to the Awlaki strike.

            • John says:

              My point is that the debate should be “Should we be using military force in this situation?” not “Should we be using drones in this situation?” If it’s acceptable to use military force, I don’t really see why it would be unacceptable to use drones. If it is not acceptable to use military force, then we shouldn’t be engaging in any kind of military activity, whether drones or not.

    • djw says:

      The thing about our current situation is that voting cannot, in any way, constrain our security state’s tendency to kill lots of random people in AfPak, and so forth.

      Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could be. The point your making here doesn’t cut against my point, it is my point. Democracy at its very best allows is a tool that mitigates against some forms of violent state brutality. But some portion of that brutality is beyond democracy’s reach. At this time, most of American foreign policy falls in the latter category. That’s tragic, but there’s no sense in adopting a voting strategy that pretends otherwise.

      • most of American foreign policy falls in the latter category

        That’s nonsense. Leave Iraq or stay in Iraq. End the Afghan War on a timetable or fight in indefinitely. Start an Iran War or don’t. These issues represent a vastly larger sphere of American foreign policy than the war against al Qaeda, and they are very subject to the outcome of the next election.

        • I guess the Iraq thing isn’t subject to the next election, but it certainly was subject to the last one.

        • djw says:

          Fair point. Overstated on my part. Remains true w/r/t non-conventional war FP, I think.

          • Oh, I think there’s a big difference between the parties on “unconventional warfare.”

            Along with attacking Iran, remaining in Afghanistan indefinitely, and whatever else Risk-board foreign policy Mittens implements, Romney would most likely scale the war against al Qaeda way back.

            After all, he’s surrounded himself with the Bush team. He’s said it’s not worth moving heaven and earth to get bin Laden, just like Bush said he didn’t think about bin Laden very much. We’d almost certainly be looking at the same negligent indolence towards al Qaeda that characterized the first nine, and the last seventy-five, months of George Bush’s tenure.

            We’d be right back to a President who hardly ever orders drone strikes, allowing al Qaeda to return to its summer 2001 strength, as George W. Bush did.

            So, to anyone who thinks that Droney the Drone Drone really is the bigget issue in American foreign policy, you should go right ahead and vote Romney. You almost certainly match up better with him, and his party, on that issue than with Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

            • dilan esper says:

              And this is my central objection to Scott and djw. Many leftists disagree and FAVOR indolence towards Al Qaeda. You just gave them a reason to vote for Romney.

              This is not just some argument about tactics. Some people just want properly justified wars; others want an end to US imperialism and murders. They don’t agree on substance.

              • They do agree on substance, 90% of the time.

                That’s what’s so frustrating about this argument, the absurdity of which I was highlighting.

                Droney the Drone Drone represents a minute fraction of the military action the United States has engaged in over the past decade. For anyone to treat this minute sliver of a fraction of an issue as significant enough to decide their voting behavior, while ignoring the entire rest of American military policy, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, an Iran War, et al., is not, in fact, an honest disagreement on substance. It is the agonizingly careful picking of the rarest of cherries, while ignoring almost all of the meaningful actions and choices that such a person purports to believe in.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                You just gave them a reason to vote for Romney.

                Yes, the imaginary subset of progressives who don’t want any action taken against Al Qaeda and prefers an invasion of Iran and the arbitrary detention and torturing of more random brown people will have a reason to vote for Romney. For any actually existing progressive, however, this would be ludicrously irrational.

                • dilan esper says:

                  You miss the point. There is a real subset of leftists (not necessarily progressives) who reject all military force, and liberals like Joe don’t realize it when they assume that everyone on the left supports confronting Al Qaeda. Because you guys actually don’t realize that a lot of leftists seriously reject liberalism, you don’t understand why they don’t accept a “duty” to vote for your candidates.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  I do realize that there are a tiny minority of pacifists. But it would still be completely irrational for a pacifist to be indifferent about the choice between Obama and Romney because the latter will do far more harm.

                • liberals like Joe don’t realize it when they assume that everyone on the left supports confronting Al Qaeda.

                  No, dilan, I’m quite aware there are people naive enough to think this way.

                  My point is that, even by such people’s standards, it is vastly preferable for Obama to win.

                  Even if you don’t see a qualitative difference between fighting al Qaeda and invading Iraq, the quantitative difference between the two is so vast as to make it utterly delusional, or irresponsible, for such a person to not favor Obama – by their own set of pacifist values.

  15. Ahem says:

    I just wanted to say that this post was right on. I am also looking forward to reading the linked articles while waiting for this beef brisket to finish cooking.

  16. Erik Loomis says:

    Am I the only one here who only read the first 140 characters?

  17. Colin Day says:

    But what if things have to get worse before they can get better? The quicker we let Republicans destroy the country, the earlier we can get to work rebuilding it?

  18. Batard says:

    I think his attitude is similar to what has historically been called Christian Anarchism. Maybe he’s not Christian but it’s still the same position that a Christian Anarchist would take. Look it up and decide for yourself if this analogy is appropriate.

  19. dino says:

    “I don’t think they have a duty to vote, no. You have only a very general duty to promote the common good and to make yourself a net benefit rather than net burden on others as a whole. This can be discharged any number of ways. Civic virtue doesn’t require you specifically to vote, either. See chapter 1 and 2 of The Ethics of Voting for more.” Jason Brennan

  20. scott says:

    Wow. The state is just this thing out there killing lots of brown people like it always does, and democracy is the world’s best “technology” for kinda sorta restraining it sometimes and fighting domination (whose?). Agency, causation, accountability and responsibility are entirely left out of this vague, fluffy, word salad vision. In this democracy “technology” (where do you get parts for it?), though, aren’t the citizens by voting supposed to be signaling the kind of state they want or don’t want, or whether they approve or dispprove of what the state is doing? Isn’t this democracy technology (does Apple provide updates?) supposed to be about voters holding the state accountable for the things it does? And if the thing the state is doing is important enough and bad enough to you, are you really a bad person for thinking you don’t want to vote for it?

    This debate is pretty circular. CF, GG, Henry Farrell, and others think that there are deal breakers for them and for everyone in supporting a party because they have some bright moral lines they can’t cross. You don’t have those moral lines because every issue for you contributes or subtracts some discrete util value to The Greater Good. It’s straight thoroughgoing utilitarianism all the way down against an application of the categorical imperative. (Hey, if Obama decides in the second term that he doesn’t like Social Security any more, would that be a bright line or a deal breaker? Or would you still support the Dems because the GOP’s position is no more Social Security plus higher taxation on poor people?) I started observing this weird little debate thinking, ok, the point is that CF’s deal breakers and bright lines aren’t theirs, and that’s what this is about. I was kind of astonished to realize, though, that you guys actually think that even having bright lines or deal breakers is A Bad Thing and that people who have them are Bad People.

    • Steve LaBonne says:

      Context is your friend. It could well be a good thing in a parliamentary system with some kind of weighted voting or proportional representation. In a first past the post system rigged so that only two parties can compete, when one of the parties has become a genuinely fascist outfit that presents a clear and present danger to every bit of progress attained in the 20th Century, it’s an unaffordable moral luxury until and unless the other party really is practically as bad. We’re nowhere near that point with the Democrats, grievous though their faults are.

    • chris says:

      aren’t the citizens by voting supposed to be signaling the kind of state they want or don’t want, or whether they approve or dispprove of what the state is doing?

      The majority of Americans want their government to kill terrorists and they aren’t particularly (read: at all, so as you’d notice) concerned about the collateral damage. You cannot hope to outvote them on this point in the near term.

      You do know these things, right?

      The ability of an individual to influence the course of a democracy is limited by *all the other individuals*.

    • Isn’t this democracy technology (does Apple provide updates?) supposed to be about voters holding the state accountable for the things it does?

      The instrument isn’t precise enough for you to cast a vote in favor of the auto bailout and Lisa Jackson’s coal regulations, but against the war against al Qaeda and the pace of the Afghan withdrawal.

      You only get “hold the state accountable” in the aggregate. If you cast a vote against Obama’s al Qaeda policy, you are also casting a vote against the ACA regulations on pre-existing condition bans, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc.

      • Further, the meaning that your non-vote for Obama will have in our political system will be nothing if he wins, but will be defined by Romney if Obama loses.

        “My friends, the American people have spoken, and it is clear that that the wish to see a more state-centered health care system, the end of air strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban targets, a bolder use of executive power to advance the rights of same-sex couples, and much stricter regulation of hydraulic fracking,” says a victorious Mitt Romney in absolutely none of the alternate universes in which he reaches 270 electoral votes this November.

  21. david mizner says:

    It’s silly to think Obama’s failures-crimes on national security, or any president’s, can be measured solely by the number of people, or innocents, he’s killed. I agree that his record in this area is not extraordinarily awful, but merely to begin to discuss it, you’d have to point out that he’s largely legitimized George Bush’s War of Terror, persecuted whistle blowers with unprecedented aggressiveness, started and expanded secret, dirty wars in various countries (of which drones are small part), and passed laws and claimed authority that will lead to atrocities and assorted other problems (indefinite detention, the kill list, and the illegal involvement in the intervention Libya, to name just three).

  22. drs says:

    Bijan: “Plus, it presumes that the main parties couldn’t effectively adapt.”

    AFAIK, in most countries that have a good form of PR, there are more than two parties that get in — often many more. If we had PR for the House, I don’t think they could adapt to the exclusion of other parties; I’d expect the bigger states to be electing Greens and Libertarians and whatnot. Small states, Senate, and Presidential races would limit the impact, but we might well end up with no one-party majority in the House.

    Approval voting for the Senate and Presidency, I don’t know exactly what the impact would be. Approval voting simulations point to fairly centrist results. OTOH, people who prefer a minor party would be able to safely vote for it as well as for the preferred front-runner, which would probably nurture such parties.

    AIUI, places that have runoff elections do tend to have ore than two parties; 3 seems favored theoretically. This is unlike IRV, for complicated reasons. This suggests voting system does make a difference.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      If we had PR for the House, I don’t think they could adapt to the exclusion of other parties; I’d expect the bigger states to be electing Greens and Libertarians and whatnot. Small states, Senate, and Presidential races would limit the impact, but we might well end up with no one-party majority in the House.

      Well, we have a few oddball senators (Sanders) but I’m not clear that we’d get such strong multi-parties given our history and existing structures (even House races are fairly expensive). I guess it’s possible.

      Approval voting simulations point to fairly centrist results.

      I’d love some pointers to papers on this, if you have references handy!

      AIUI, places that have runoff elections do tend to have ore than two parties; 3 seems favored theoretically. This is unlike IRV, for complicated reasons. This suggests voting system does make a difference.

      Fair enough. But would it make a substantive difference? More than factioning inside the democrats? For example, it seems highly unlikely that a strongly against force projection and action party would emerge and be strong enough to do anything. Or even an anti-torture party.

      • drs says:

        Greens and Libertarians get about 1% of the vote even though they’re totally useless at the moment. In Florida, California, or Texas, 3% or less, statewide, would get you a House seat. I think a lot of people would happily vote for them under those conditions.

        I don’t have papers, but http://zesty.ca/voting/sim/ has stability simulations (under its assumptions, approval basically looks like Condorcet in practice). And rangevoting.org has lots of pages on various schemes, from a pro-score voting bias, along with Bayesian Regret simulations, and links to papers though you have to hunt them down.

        “But would it make a substantive difference? More than factioning inside the democrats? For example, it seems highly unlikely that a strongly against force projection and action party would emerge and be strong enough to do anything. Or even an anti-torture party.”

        I think having explicit factions makes a difference, yes; human psychology latches onto labels, teams develop their own inertia. And a party getting say 20% of the approval vote might be a lot harder to ignore than one getting 1%. I don’t think anyone expects Greens to start winning the day after approval voting got created (outside of a few liberal House districts, maybe) but it would change the electoral landscape.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          At this point I don’t have anything but my raw skepticism. I believe there are models where things work out, but I just don’t know how far they are from reality..

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Here’s a paper:

            The Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government has announced its intention to hold a referendum on the possible introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV) for future elections to the House of Commons. This paper uses survey data from the 2010 British Election Study to simulate what the effects on the seat distribution in the House of Commons would have been if AV had operated in May 2010. The results suggest an outcome for the three main parties of Conservatives 284, Labour 248 and Liberal Democrats 89. This outcome would have radically changed the arithmetic of post-election coalition building, with the Liberal Democrats being able to form a majority coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives.

            Interesting!

      • Jameson Quinn says:

        For all possibilities under approval, see Brams, Steven J., and M. Remzi Sanver. “Critical Strategies Under Approval Voting: Who Gets Ruled in and Ruled Out.” Electoral Studies 25, no. 2 (June 2006): 287–305. Centrism is one of several possibilities.

        For lab experiments on approval, which generally confirm the centrist tendency if parties/candidates aren’t dynamic, see Laslier, Jean-François. “Laboratory Experiments on Approval Voting.” In Handbook on Approval Voting, edited by Jean-François Laslier and M. Remzi Sanver, 339–356. Studies in Choice and Welfare. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2010. http://www.springerlink.com/content/r363433291457864/abstract/.

        For real-world experience with approval, which doesn’t tell us too much because it’s mostly in non-partisan elections (ie, professional societies), see Brams, Steven, and Peter Fishburn. “Going from Theory to Practice: The Mixed Success of Approval Voting.” Social Choice and Welfare 25, no. 2 (2005): 457–474. The centrist tendency is if anything weakly confirmed.

        But it’s my contention that the important effect of approval would not be in one-time results (although avoiding the 2000 fiasco is not to be sneezed at), but in its effect on party dynamics. I’m currently applying to doctorate programs to study this question, so in 5 or 6 years you can read my thesis :).

        Oh, also: you could implement approval for US pres through the same interstate compact end run as the national popular vote people are using. Thus it is a state-by-state fight, and it requires no changes federally.

        • Jameson Quinn says:

          I should probably expand on the difference between one-time tendencies and party dynamics. They’re usually precisely opposite. Look at plurality: as a one-shot system with honest voters, it is about the most extremist system there is. I mean, after all, there’s the Godwin example. But since voters naturally react against that, in the long run it’s all Duverger and the Median Voter Theorem.

          Approval is nowhere near as centrist a one-shot system as plurality is extremist. (For instance, Condorcet is clearly more centrist, and Borda yet more so.) So the long term kickback should be a lot less. But insofar as Approval is mildly centrist as a one-shot, it should be mildly extremist in its long-term effect on party dynamics. Which in my mind is a healthy combination. Certainly much, much healthier than plurality.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          I’m currently applying to doctorate programs to study this question, so in 5 or 6 years you can read my thesis :).

          I look forward to it. Thanks for the links.

          • Jameson Quinn says:

            My email is firstname dot lastname at gmail, if you want me to sign you up for my newsletter. (Not really… I mean, if you want me to send you my draft papers on this stuff as they exist.) Goes for anyone else reading too.

  23. drs says:

    “Doesn’t current voting theory basically say that people don’t vote (most) issues? Are there any presidential prediction models that are issue sensitive?

    Don’t party identification and economics play a far greater roll? I don’t see how alternative voting systems help in that context.”

    Er, I’d expect such models to be rooted in the status quo; change the status quo, change the model. More concretely, when you only have a choice between two parties, you *can’t* vote on most issues; you only have one bit (information theory bit) of influence. Which for most voters is probably used for “is the economy getting better or should the other guy get a crack at it again?” A greater number of significant parties = more potential choice = possibly different behavior.

  24. Bijan Parsia says:

    Which for most voters is probably used for “is the economy getting better or should the other guy get a crack at it again?” A greater number of significant parties = more potential choice = possibly different behavior.

    But aren’t most voters low information and rather unsophisticated? This is predicating rather more sophisticated voters than seems to be the case in the US.

    • drs says:

      (a) I’m not so peesimistic about voters
      (b) choosing from 4 parties means 2 bits of information, still well within the grasp of even casual voters, I think. Green, Democratic, Republican, Libertarian. Liberal + war or no war, “free market” + war or no war. For example.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        I’m just going from my impression of the literature about how voters decide what to vote for.

        I agree that 4 choices is manageable, in some sense, but I’m not clear how it will actually play out and how much will change due to different voting mechanisms. Examples might help.

  25. Bijan Parsia says:

    Well, the threading is going to get difficult here, but I’ll try to respond as best I can to Bijan and Murc. My basic idea is that political activity is subject to different kinds of criteria than the normal ones we find in moral theory.

    Sure. But multiple normative systems can apply to the same action. For example, something can be legal but immoral, moral but illegal, obligatory (morally) but forbidden (legally). It can be beautiful but morally wrong, etc.

    It’s very hard to find areas of actions which are not in principle subject to moral evaluation. The evaluation may be just that the act is permissible and, indeed, has no substantive moral effect (how I time my next breath, for example).

    In some ways, I take my point to be basically Aristotlean (or perhaps Machiavellian): there’s a difference between being a good citizen and being a good person.

    That’s fine, but that could mean that being a good citizen (in some context) makes you a worse (morally speaking) person. Which is the point of asking about (moral) guilt.

    And a sub-point is that the failure to recognize this leads us to pointless debates (personally, I get tired of “ethics of voting” threads, but obviously not tired enough to not participate!).

    I think the problem with these threads is that they often they are rather repetitive and overfocused. This is why I love this post and have been trying to conceptualize the effect of votes on moral psychology.

    If I may say so, I think the heart of Bijan’s objection is that there is no neat distinction here.

    I’m ok with there being a neat distinction. But a distinction doesn’t preclude interaction.

    I think the claim is that I have caricatured moral theory in order to create a false binary between politics and morality: moral action is not as “private” as my comments might imply.

    So, either the moral value of an action is private (i.e., subjective and you’re a kind of relativist) or we shouldn’t try to assess the moral value of other people’s acts (either for epistemological reasons (i.e., we’re likely to be wrong) or for moral reasons (i.e., such determinations are forbidden). We might be allowed to try to assess but be forbidden to voice our assessments.

    I don’t find much of that attractive in a moral theory. I’m not a relativist for most moral values. I believe that many actions are reasonable (if fallibly) assessable. And I believe vocalizing those assessments is often valuable. When speculating about what to do rather than what was done, I don’t see any barrier to discussion.

    And I suppose I could be convinced of this (I’ll have to think on it further). Still, while it may be true that for a lot of people voting may have aspects that djw and Scott don’t mention, I am also inclined to say that this is a problem.

    I am trying to identify it as a problem, but a different problem than, e.g., narcissism or even ignorance. I’m sure there’s plenty of that, but my own experience suggests that there may be other forces at play.

    I just think we are better off politically if we adopt the kind of orientation I’m groping for as opposed to an orientation toward justifying an action in a more traditionally moral sense (assuming I can spell out what I mean by morality in a more acceptable way).

    I’m not sure why. I think Floridian Nader voters should feel guilty about their vote esp. if it helps motivate them to vote better in the future.

    In any case, I’d like to be accurate about the moral values of voting.

    • gmack says:

      So, either the moral value of an action is private (i.e., subjective and you’re a kind of relativist) or we shouldn’t try to assess the moral value of other people’s acts (either for epistemological reasons (i.e., we’re likely to be wrong) or for moral reasons (i.e., such determinations are forbidden). We might be allowed to try to assess but be forbidden to voice our assessments.

      Thanks for your responses. You’re making miss doing philosophy talk, at least maybe a little. I do want to respond to the claim above. I don’t think this is my position vis-a-vis moral evaluation. I don’t think of myself as a relativist, and I am certainly not opposed to assessing the moral value of people’s actions. I would only say that these kinds of moral valuations tend to obscure important issues that a more political orientation helps to illuminate. In other words, my objection is not to moral evaluation as such, but to the ways in which those questions and orientations foreclose other questions and concerns that I think are more productive.

      I realize this is pretty vague right now. I am trying to think of a good example to try to illustrate what I have in mind (perhaps the Nader example?), but as I’m off to bed, I’ll have to do it later.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        I would only say that these kinds of moral valuations tend to obscure important issues that a more political orientation helps to illuminate. In other words, my objection is not to moral evaluation as such, but to the ways in which those questions and orientations foreclose other questions and concerns that I think are more productive.

        I think that’s reasonable and not too far off my view. This is why I’m currently more interested in the moral psychology, rather than the moral argument. I had a comment in a recent thread (who know where) where I mentioned how the saliency of a particular horror might prove overwhelming and this might make it very difficult to make the lesser evil choice or to understand why someone would without thinking them morally broken. In politics as well as morality, you can find yourself in repugnant situations.

        If you discard some of the other aspects of voting for djw’s vision, then you probably will have an easier time supporting candidates with glaring flaws. But you may risk other things.

  26. Heron says:

    …But that would involve indulging the fiction that that deadly power is something they can separate themselves from in a meaningful sense…

    I’d actually say you’re closer to Kant’s thinking on politics than Farrell is on this. Pretty much everyone remembers the “categorical imperative”, but most folks forget that the majority of Kant’s work was dedicated to exploring morality between States and between citizens and the State. Important to the second point is that Kant lived under the “Enlightened” tyranny of Fredrick the Great, and was something of a court-sponsored philosopher to boot. As Kant saw it, the citizen of a just state (a just state being a constitutional democracy led by a unitary head of state in his view)had two major responsibilities to the State; first, to add the weight of their moral arguments to policy making so as to bring the State as close as possible to rightness, and second to give the State, as an invention of the popular will, obedience. So when one “tunes out”, one is abandoning one’s duty-as-citizen to help create a moral state.

    I’d go further though and say that, even in a Categorical sense, Farrell’s argument isn’t particularly Kantian, and for two reasons. First, due to identity; a citizen, as a member of the State, is complicit in the actions of the State, which is a creation of the popular will. Tuning out is thus a self-negating, contradictory action, and part of Kant’s argument about Categorical imperatives is that they must be logical, by which he meant internally consistent and non-contradictory. The second reason is similar, but slightly more theoretical. A true Categorical Imperative can be universalized; it ought to be applicable to all people at all times. Applying that to this situation would again lead to a self-negating premise; if Farrell’s proposed imperative against involvement in government you disagree with was universalized then either no one would vote, robbing the State of all legitimacy and, according to the thinking of Kant’s time, plunging its its people into a condition state of Hobbesian “natural law” where every person turned their hand against each other for gain, or only the people who disagree with you by approving of the state would participate, leaving the “right” you stand for abandoned and the evil you sought to oppose rampant. Both outcomes are rather clearly derelictions of duty from a Kantian perspective, and thus amoral.

  27. Steven says:

    If all you do is vote, you can’t criticise people who don’t vote.

  28. the bell curve in action says:

    Nice trick: (1) look at centrally-controlled authoritarian parties rigged and protected from competition to force public endorsement of state violence, and call it democracy. (2) Characterize this so-called democracy not with the standard statist line, as the only possibility, but as the “single greatest technology -” even though that great technology is here used to undermine the legal requirements of CCPR Article 25(b) and prevent the free expression of the will of the electors. (3) Therefore, it’s dishonorable and unreasonable not to waste your energy on this unlawful system that is futile by design. You MUST give this criminal state your vote. Q.E.D.! The state will of course treat your vote as consent of the governed for whatever state violence it chooses. This is just a rehash of the traditional statist line that attributes electoral futility to individual failings. It really doesn’t take much to make you party dupes revert to your incoherent moral slogans from 5th-grade civics. This is ethical bullshit to divert attention from the practical matter of what works and What does Not.

    • Cody says:

      So basically, you’re not voting for Obama this year which is basically voting for Romney.

      But you want to be able to say whatever Romney does isn’t your fault, yet remain a U.S. Citizen who effectively voted for Romney because you don’t want to vote for Obama.

      Thanks for voting for Romney!

  29. Cody says:

    +1

    I really like your article. It gives clear reasoning of your viewpoint on voting, and I agree with the premise that you vote “to constraint the violence of the State”.

    I’ll point out though that arguments about constraining the “State” are going to get co-opted into making the “State” smaller in the fashion of tea-partiers.

  30. droneyou says:

    Where is this democracy of which you speak?

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