Mill hypothesized that political participation might have certain benefits, including making us more open-minded and more concerned with one another’s welfare. The empirical evidence shows that he was mostly wrong. Voters tend to vote altruistically, it appears, but deliberation, joining or identifying as a member of a party, and other forms of participation tend to make us in mean and nasty assholes.
The final chapter of Against Democracy is a short note called “Civic Enemies”. Two excerpts from an early draft:
Politics tends to make us hate each other, even when it shouldn’t. We tend to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. We tend to view political debate not as reasonable disputes about how to best achieve our shared aims, but as a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
…The problem with politics is even deeper than that. It’s not merely that politics makes us see each other as enemies when it shouldn’t. Rather, politics tends to put us in genuinely adversarial relationships. It makes us genuine enemies with one another. The structure of democratic politics actually gives me reason to despise most of my politically active fellow citizens—even, I’ll argue, most of the citizens who share my political beliefs. On Election Day, as my neighbors vote, they become my enemies, and I become theirs.
On one common definition of “enemy,” an enemy is a person who hates me, who consciously wishes me ill and consciously works toward my harm. Only a minority people who participate in politics qualify as my enemies in this sense. As we saw in chapter two, most voters vote for what they perceive to be the national interest. They genuinely want to help, and sincerely believe they’re voting in ways that make things better, not worse, for their fellow citizens. Voters’ motives seem pure and good. A few of my fellow citizens want to use the political process to harm me or people like me. But most don’t think that way. They might dislike me for having views contrary to theirs, but they don’t vote in ways that they believe will hurt me.
However, there are two other senses in which politics makes us enemies. First, politics tends to make us what I will call “situational enemies”. Politics is a zero-sum game with winners and losers. It creates adversarial relationships in which we have grounds to oppose one another and undermine each others’ interests, though we have no intrinsic reason to dislike one another. Second, there’s a sense in which most of my fellow citizens do want to hurt me, even if they wouldn’t describe themselves as such. They want to do things that will in fact harm my children and me, even though they want to help. Political decisions are high-stakes, but in the real world, most people involved in politics fail to make these decisions with a proper degree of care and competence. They expose me to undue risk of harm. Just as I have grounds for hating a negligent drunk driver who puts my children and me in harm’s way, I have grounds for hating most of my fellow citizens whenever they engage in politics. Or so I will argue.
There are scenarios in which we become each other’s enemies, even though we have no intrinsic reason to dislike one another.
Consider philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature,” as described in The Leviathan. The state of nature is a hypothetical scenario in which human beings live outside of society and civilization. Hobbes argues that because people in the state of nature lack any mechanisms to enforce contracts or to keep predators in check, they would not trust each other. He argues that without even a basic level of mutual trust, the state of nature would become a war of all against all. Life under these conditions, he concludes, would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[i] In the state of nature, Hobbes thinks, we become each other’s enemies, though in better situations, we would be at peace, or even be friends.
Or, imagine you and I are both condemned criminals in ancient Rome. Neither one of us has done anything morally wrong. Instead, imagine we’ve been condemned for things that shouldn’t be crimes: you refused to worship Jupiter, while I helped slaves escape their masters. The barbaric Romans, ever thirsty for blood, make us fight to the death in a gladiatorial arena.
As we pick up our cudgels, we become enemies. Here, I have nothing inherently against you. Outside of the arena, I might even like you, or be your friend or partner. But inside the arena, we’re forced into conflict. It’s you or me. We want each other dead. You become (what we might call) my situational enemy: someone I have reason to oppose and attack, not because of who you are or what you’ve done, but simply because our situation pits us against each other.
The problem is each of these scenarios is that we’re trapped in an involuntary, high-stakes, zero-sum game. In economics, a zero-sum game is a situation or an interaction in which a person can win only if other people lose, and a person can win only to the degree that others lose.
For example, poker is a common zero-sum game. I can make only as much money as the other players at the table lose. But poker is far nicer zero-sum game than politics. Whenever I’ve played poker, I’ve played as a volunteer, not a conscript. I don’t resent the other players, even when I lose money, because I chose to gamble.
With political decisions, I’m a conscript, not a volunteer. While I can choose not to play poker, I can’t, say, choose not to fund the NSA or the invasion of Iraq or the bombing of Syria or the criminalization of pot. I don’t want whoever the current president is when you read this to be my boss, but I can’t just choose not to have him or her as my boss, at least, not without uprooting my family and fleeing the country at great personal expense.
In the next few sections, I argue that the following features of the democratic political decision-making process tend to make us situational enemies:
- Political decisions involve a constrained set of options. In politics, there are usually only a handful of viable choices.
- Political decisions are monopolistic: everyone has to accept the same decision.
- Political decisions are imposed involuntarily.
Because political decisions are monopolistic, constrained, and imposed through violence, the political decision-making process tends to be a system of conflict.
[I then explain 1-3 at some length and argue that politics often causes us to become “situational enemies”. Afterwards, I turn to asking what we should think about our fellow citizens in light of their incompetence:]
A Toast to the Death of the Incompetent King
There’s yet another way democracy makes us enemies. In previous chapters, we examined at great length much of the empirical research on the political brain. We discovered that most democratic citizens are Hobbits and Hooligans. Most Hobbits are potential Hooligans. Most voters are not merely ignorant, but misinformed and irrational. Ignorance and irrationality are resilient. People resist attempts to reach consensus or to learn more. They dig in their heels. Attempts to eradicate ignorance and irrational often makes these problems even worse. Political participation, including democratic deliberation, is more likely to corrupt and stultify us than to ennoble and enlighten us.
These Hobbits and Hooligans wield political power over me. It turns they have altruistic intentions when they wield this power. But, at the same time, they wield that power in a highly incompetent way. This, I argue, gives me some reason to hate them, to regard them as my enemies and I as theirs.
To see why, recall the story of King Carl the Incompetent from chapter six. Carl wants to make his subjects’ lives go better. But he doesn’t take proper care to know what he’s doing. He doesn’t have the information he needs, and he doesn’t reason in a reliable way about what little information he has.
Carl means well, but he’s dangerous. The following hold true of him:
- While he doesn’t desire to hurt his subjects under that description, he often desires to do things that will in fact hurt them.
- While he doesn’t desire to impose undue risk upon his subjects under that description, he often desires to act in ways that in fact impose undue risk.
- Carl has ample evidence that he is incompetent, but he doesn’t pay much attention to that evidence, nor does he process the evidence that he is incompetent in a rational way. Accordingly, he doesn’t take any steps to reduce his incompetence or protect his subjects from his incompetence.
In light of 1-3, Carl’s subjects have good reason to despise him. Almost every time Carl makes a decision, he imposes serious risk of harm upon his subjects. If the subjects are lucky, Carl will pick a decent or good policy. But even then, Carl doesn’t know what he’s doing. When he makes a good decision, it’s by accident. If the subjects are unlucky, Carl causes serious harm. He wields an incredible amount of power in an irresponsible way.
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Carl’s subjects raise a glass at the pub and wish for the king’s early death. They might feel a bit bad about that. After all, Carl genuinely means well. Still, the subjects are right to see him as a threat to their, and their children’s, well-being.
In modern democracies, rather than having a one-headed incompetent king, we have a many-headed incompetent king. In a democracy, the incompetent, irresponsible ruler isn’t some bearded fellow in a castle, but almost everyone else I see. If Carl’s irresponsible behavior gives his subjects grounds to hate him, I some have reason to hate my fellow citizens as well.