By Chris King, Guest Columnist
Our system of government and citizenship requires some Procedural Unity. Procedural Unity exists when citizens agree that electoral outcomes are legitimate because a) they accept the procedure that produced them, and b) the procedure was properly conducted.
After the recent presidential election, however, some citizens have suggested that our system demands other kinds of unity. They have said that everyone has a duty to “give the president-elect a chance,” “to be optimistic,” or as the title of an article in a recent edition of The Miami Student suggests, “As shock subsides, support should follow.”
Consider these demands as calls for Substantive Unity — calls to support the president-elect in sentiment and attitude regardless of his words, his deeds and his proposed policies. Perhaps aspiring to Substantive Unity is good advice — but not for us. I’ll explain why.
First, calls for this kind of unity underestimate the bounds of what our system of government and citizenship permits. In our system, no one has a right to hold the office of the presidency unless authorized by a process in which eligible voters can cast their single vote in favor of a candidate. So the relation between a particular person and the office is contingent. It depends in part upon the results of that process.
It has never been the case that a president-elect has represented the wills of all eligible voters — nor is this required. First, a large percentage of eligible voters do not vote. Second, even if all eligible voters did vote, the outcome would simply be the product of the majority rule; and it has so far proven impossible to show how a majority can be identified with a General Will (i.e. a Substantive Unity). Substantive Disunity is built into the practice if not the idea of democracy.
But matters are even more complicated for us. In between the popular vote and the presidency stands another contingency — the Electoral College. As we know, the Electoral College does not always track the popular vote. This, of course, happened in 2016 as it did in 2000. When the College and the popular vote are not aligned, the outcome represents another kind of disunity. Indeed, the winner does not even represent a majority of voters.
Second, appeals to Substantive Unity normalize what should strike us in the present case as a highly exceptional circumstance. They fail to appreciate how politically disfiguring it is to have elected a person with such a troubling history and persona.
There has not been a president-elect in our lifetimes (maybe ever) who: has won an election after being accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault spanning a number of years; who has engaged in vicious personal and public disputes with women in particular; who has belittled former POWs (one of whom is a sitting Republican senator); hectored the (Muslim) family of a war hero killed in action; mocked public figures with Parkinson’s disease; made reprisals against reporters who challenge him; incited suspicion and violence against Muslims and Hispanics; threatened to kill not just terrorists but their families; who oversees business dealings that are in some cases fraudulent and in their political context opaque; and who has expressed admiration for Kleptocrats like the leader of Russia.
Space requires a shorter list of items than would be required by justice. A longer list would include the president-elect’s political pre-history — e.g. the so-called “birtherism movement” virtually admitted by the ‘elect’ himself to have been bull.
One interesting question about which there is no definitive answer yet is why a large minority voted for this person. One explanation refers to a long-standing literature in democratic theory about “voter ignorance.” Voter ignorance refers to the fact that voters in a democracy do not know much about politics and politically relevant facts. Thus, they are not well placed as individuals to decide between candidates much less about policy.
Yet, in the present case voter ignorance doesn’t seem to be the relevant phenomenon. The facts about the president-elect seem to stare voters in the face in the form of his own words and deeds. This is why it is not extraordinary that persons who might reasonably be characterized as “white nationalists,” “racist,” “misogynist,” et. al. voted for the candidate. But it is genuinely extraordinary that persons who could not be fairly characterized in these ways also did. The usual and reasonable guards these voters use to rule candidates in and out were set aside.
Another explanation, and the one of interest here, has to do with voters’ attitudes towards politics itself and how these attitudes have been exploited for a long time by politicians, including the president-elect by calling it “corrupt.” Common political activities can, in one sense, be characterized as deliberation, compromise, horse-trading, back-scratching, sucking up, et. al. While these activities can appear unseemly, they are not in themselves corrupt. That is, they are not necessarily instances of self-dealing.
Indeed, various kinds of “political” activities tend to restore equilibrium to a system that is not by design harmonious. But participation in these activities requires sentiments and attitudes, including the willingness to engage other citizens reasonably in fashioning laws and policies in the general interest.
The president-elect has not simply challenged “corrupt politics,” which is a saw about as old as politics itself. The president-elect has, in effect, gone some way to replace our otherwise stability-creating politics with a non-political approach to public and legal discourse — with hectoring, smears, threats (physical and legal), reprisals, scapegoating, innuendo, deep-pocketed propaganda and general thuggery. But these activities and the attitudes underlying them ignore the disunity and disagreements that serve as pre-conditions for politics.
Why, then, beware calls for Substantive Unity? Because they do essentially the same thing. They ignore the Substantive Disunity that is no trivial fact about our system of government and citizenship. Thus, they ignore the role of politics in stabilizing it.
There is no Substantive Unity (except in fantasy land), nor is it required by our system. Thus, there is no duty to acquiesce to the absurd demands or weird personae of officials, including a president. Lines of resistance have already started forming. Mayors in large cities have drawn some of these, and I expect others will follow.
Unification and optimism might be good advice — for sheep. Sheep have no politics. Being largely in agreement, they don’t need it.
CHRIS KING, Ph.D.
DEPT. OF PHILOSOPHY