Election season is here already, and that means it’s time to face up to our capitalist democracy.
Yes, it lacks aristocratic polish and scholarly erudition. And it does seem to exalt affability over competence, affluence over virtue, and eloquence over honesty, but it is, after all, the system we’ve got, and making the best of it means seeing it for what it is. When it comes to casting an informed, thoughtful ballot, the specialist must do more than protest that the candidate is, in fact, dead wrong in his assessment of issues pertaining to the specialist’s field. It does the idealist even less good to stop at crying up the candidate’s impurity. Nor does the rhetorician serve his personal (or the public) good by merely lamenting the vacuity of campaign rhetoric. We must all look deeper than our own particular instances of umbrage, if we are to judge the candidates properly.
Elections are numbers games, and that means that statistical laws come into play with all their heartless unconcern for our individual perceptions of truth and falsehood, of honor and perfidy. And capitalist democracy, is, if anything, more extreme in its disregard for the views of any single voter or contributor.
If we want to make the best of the system we have, we must be honest with ourselves in our assessment of it. We have to know it for what it is, not for what we want it to be, and act accordingly. When a candidate makes an empty promise, an impossible vow, a hazy (or ludicrous) prediction, we must be careful to avoid any unwarranted jerks of the knee.
We must be careful to determine whether A) this latest outrage to our moral or intellectual sensibilities is the result of calculation – the candidate’s rational assessment of the demands of the democratic system or B) evidence that the candidate is as stupid, ignorant, and dishonest as we fear. On the one hand, the world is filled with stupid, ignorant, and dishonest people. Some of them surely are candidates. More are voters. Who among us, after all, treads a spotless path? Anyone with half a brain knows that idiots are abroad, ourselves too often among them.
Thus, when candidates who seem to be intelligent, informed, and reasonably virtuous speak in ways that cause us to overturn our coffee-tables, or hurl encyclopedias at our television screens in the hopes that some truth will pass through to the other side, we would be stupid indeed not to wonder whether the offending remark was deliberate.
And for every coffee table we violently overthrow, how many do we unwittingly and unjustifiably leave rooted to earth? Every man is an expert in his own field or in his most cherished hobbies, but we cannot but admit harboring unsounded depths of ignorance in areas where we have little interest or experience. It seems reasonable enough to suppose that we ourselves have been manipulated by just the sort of rhetoric we condemn, whenever it has passed beyond the confined straits of our vocational or personal competence.
For this reason it has become obvious to everyone that democracies rise and fall not on the personal qualities of their leaders, but on the overall competence (or incompetence) of the electorate. Universal, life-long education is the only answer, but even a relatively enlightened electorate can never quell the indignance of the erudite when the candidate inevitably trespasses, knowingly or unknowingly, on some hallowed, obscure truth, blindingly obvious to him and utterly unknown to the vast majority of men. The laws of large numbers are inexorable. One cannot have expertise without dooming oneself to this particular set of democratic slings and arrows.
That being the case, we may as well leave our coffee tables and reference books where they are, snuff the glow of righteous indignation, and set about evaluating the political context of the candidate’s speech. We could even make a checklist: 1) Does the candidate believe what he has just said? 2) If so, is his ignorance warranted? 3) Can any educated person truly be expected to know what we would like him to know? 4) Is the candidate lying? 5) Is the lie likely to be “justifiable” in his eyes? These questions may be uncomfortable, but our candidate, if he is as calculating as political success demands he (or his handlers) be, must necessarily have considered them himself.
We too, then, must accept the possibility of his careful assessment of public ignorance in crafting his speeches. We must ask questions more probing than the more-felt-than-thought, “How could he say such a thing?!” Or rather we must ask, thinking as well as feeling, “Can he say such thing, and get away with it?” Then we must muster all our honesty and ask ourselves, “What would be the political consequences if he had said what I wanted him to say? What votes would that amount to? What dollars?”
None of this is to say that we should not demand as much moral and intellectual accountability as we can possibly exact (if not more, on principle) from our political representatives. The higher our standards for ourselves and one another, the better off we all must be. A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. Nevertheless, we must take his potential calculations into our own, or, in our outrage, risk misjudging him, and with him, our vote.