Tag Archives: deliberation

Beyond Police Demilitarization

First, there was Eric Garner. Moments after Garner had made his neighborhood safer by breaking up a fight, the police made it less safe by choking him to death. Less than a week after Garner’s death, police in Brooklyn dragged Denise Stewart naked out of her home after knocking on her door. The officers were responding to a call for a domestic disturbance. Yet they didn’t have an apartment number, so they decided to ruin someone’s life at random. The police then arrested her children and grandchildren. That way, the police were sure their existence caused pain across generations. Then came the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, on August 9th. Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend, survived the shooting. He reported that Officer Wilson began shooting after Brown questioned his demand that they not walk in the street. The people involved in each of these cases were African-American. Uncounted cases of unjustifiable homicides of African-Americans by police precede these three incidents. Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant are only a few of the names that prick the conscience of our nation.

Ferguson is now in a state of perpetual police riot. Now, we have no doubt that the criminal justice system in the United States is in a state of permanent psychosis. There is no other word for people who see threats that do not exist. Ferguson police react to peaceful protests with body armor, tear gas, and military-grade weapons. The Ferguson police have destroyed dignity, lives, and property with impunity. They have arrested journalists and even threatened to kill them on live television. Ferguson police conceal their identity because they know that their behavior is illegal. Police stormed a church where protesters had taken shelter to clean their eyes of the tear gas, and seized the antacid used to do so. Even the worst kings respected the sanctuary of churches!

The Ferguson police are a threat to public safety. The insanity may appear in individual police officers, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But the structure of social institutions is the source of the disease. read more »

Saturday in the Park: Spreading Out and Scaling Up

Sunday was the last day of the Participatory Budgeting Conference, so I checked out as I left the motel that morning.  I quickly discovered that walking to Loyola University, while previously a pleasant walk, was less so with my luggage.  So I took advantage of a passing bus to take me down the street.  The bus system of my own Richmond rates as one of the worst, so a convenient bus seemed like science fiction.

(That’s why it’s “Saturday in the Park”… cause I was in Chicago… never mind.)

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Saturday in the Park: Ping-Pong versus Potholes

It was indeed an early morning in Chicago as the terrible gray light of morning dragged me from my brief sleep.  The night before I had joined a fellow democracy-enthusiast for drinks.  After a night navigating Chicago, we settled in a bar that hovered between beards-and-denim on the hand and collared shirts on the other.  Sleep didn’t settle into my bones until mid-morning, so I knew Saturday was going to be tough.  At some point that afternoon, I sat in a big comfy chair and fell asleep, right there in the middle of the university campus.

(This music plays in Chicago all the time… in my head)

I had come to Chicago’s Loyola University for the Participatory Budgeting Conference, to engage other people in the field of citizens governing themselves, or at least their city’s capital budgets.  The day’s conference began with an opening plenary that included Joe Moore, the city councilor who brought participatory budgeting to the United States, and the academics, organizers, and activists behind PB Chicago. read more »

The Democratic Transformation of the State

Democracy is typically understood as meaning that the people as a whole have power or ownership over the state apparatus, the means of coercion.  In the short term, this is surely true; power must be wrested from the ruling class and remain in the hands of the whole people.  However, the transformation of the state cannot end there.  Democracy is not merely a form of government, but the form of our everyday experience.  We motivate each other to act by giving reasons to one another.  This is the purpose of all democratic assemblies.  Our lives are governed by discussion.  Rewards and punishments lurk in the background to make up for the failure of public reasoning.  Now they do not – reward and punishment are ever present in an out-of-control state and overwhelming corporate organizations.  The democratic transformation of state and society entails pushing back coercion and incentive and establishing, so far as is possible, a society governed by discussion, public reason, and moral suasion.

Democracy: Talking or Voting?

We generally conceive of democracy in terms of voting, either for public officials to govern us, or even directly, for the laws or policies that we prefer.  The majority rules by counting up a record of each citizen’s preference and acting upon those preferences receiving the most (a plurality) or over half (an actual or “absolute” majority).  This has been the dominant conception of democracy since Aristotle, who, in Book Six (Part II) of his Politics, wrote that “democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just”.  (Note that in Book Four, he claims that in a democracy the free rule, even if they are the minority.)

In the history of philosophy, I think only Rousseau conceived of democracy in terms other than majority rule, and in that case he did not consider himself to be describing democracy.  He believed that the law made by popular assembly was the only basis for a rightful state, even a monarchy.  Furthermore, he was more inclined towards an “elective aristocracy” than what he considered to be democracy (a city something like Athens).  In Rousseau’s vision, popular assemblies were expressing the general will of the people.  Do not confuse this with “the will of all”, which is the summed preferences of every citizen, as voting is supposed to reveal.  The general will is something more like the objective public good of the community.  The general will may be identified by a single citizen, which thought spreads through the assembled community.  Voting and majority rule only affirms the general will.

In other words, the general will is assessed not by counting up preferences, but by discussion.  The role of discussion has been the overlooked aspect of democracy, and only corrected in the last half-century.  In philosophy, Jurgen Habermas developed the concept of communicative action from the philosophical schools of pragmatism and hermeneutics.  “Communicative action” refers to the fact that language has a coordinating function.  If I tell you that there’s a bucket by the well, the well will be one of the places you look for a bucket if you want a bucket.  In our everyday life (which Habermas calls “the lifeworld” for short), we coordinate our actions through communicating with one another, specifically by ‘discourse’, the act of reason-giving.  Psychology confirms this: we are motivated to act by the reasons that others give, at least when we can identify with them.  (One study shows that we may even act when the reasons are ridiculous, such as when an experimental plant asks to use the copier ahead of someone else, “because I need to make copies”.)

In political science, attention has been given to the effects of deliberation on the preferences of deliberating individuals.  Voting is premised on the idea that we bring stable and consistent preferences to the voting booth that are all our own.  Research on deliberation (for example, from James Fishkin) has shown that people’s political and social beliefs and preferences are altered by the process of having to give reasons for their claims.

Discourse and deliberation are necessary to democracy – people assemble for a reason.  Ideally, the democratic state would reproduce the Habermasian lifeworld of coordination through public reasoning.  However, we just don’t know how to structure such a society.  This is why we have what Habermas calls “system” – institutions providing roles, assignments of rights and duties, and rewards and punishments.  These are non-discursive methods of organizing behavior.  Voting is a part of ‘system’; it is a means to deciding specific action on the basis of the majority perception of where the current dialogue is.

So we find that what is fundamental to democracy is talking to one another, and voting is simply a convenient mechanism among others for promoting that.  The aim of the democrat is to promote, as far as our knowledge of society is capable, the organization of society as a forum for public reasoning.

“Shall Rome Stand Under One Man’s Awe?” (Part I)

“The Death of Julius Caesar” by Jean-Leon Gerome

Election time!  And that means the two political parties had their conventions for nominating their presidential candidates this past month.  These conventions are feasts of public reason and policy deliberation.  Just kidding!  They were pure political spectacle, the television equivalent of speeches from balconies.  Instead of public deliberation among party delegates to formulate policy for the Executive Branch, party officials mobilize delegates for their own purposes.  Party oligarchy was especially blatant this year.  At the Republican National Convention, Ron Paul delegates were shut out.  Democratic officials inserted language about God and Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the Democratic National Convention, over the noisy objections of the delegates.

Of course, these events were overshadowed by Clint Eastwood arguing with an empty chair that apparently swears at him and Bill Clinton’s speech.  That everyone seemed to treat Bill Clinton as an elder statesman was odd, because during his presidency he was treated as a sort of sex-clown who implemented Reaganite policies while being called a ‘socialist’.

Speakers avoided discussing anything much of substance at the DNC, with a party platform devoid of what excited people from 2008.  This shouldn’t be surprising, considering Obama’s record of failure in the past four years.  Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen suspected of terrorism on the basis of his radical Islamic beliefs, without a trial, in an extrajudicial execution that is usually seen as abhorrent if it were undertaken by another nation’s executive.  Obama also didn’t close down Guantanamo Bay, or end torture, and signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 requires the military to hold people in detention, including American citizens, accused of supporting terrorism.  But Democrats will yell at you if you bring it up.  Criticizing Obama at this time would be ‘inappropriate’, as centrists will scold.

So how did Mr. Hope-and-Change turn into Mr. Flying-Robot-Murder – are those just his true colors?  Why do Democratic partisans defend Obama despite disapproving of his actions (if they do)?  And this doesn’t just go for Democrats; Republicans largely don’t seem to like Mitt Romney, who bought his candidacy, but partisans will stand up for him and are mobilized to vote for him.

If we look to explain political behavior as a matter of character and personal disposition, then we will always be confused.  These are not problems whose root is in personal character or national culture, but the social practices and institutions that organize us.  It is the “presidential system”, in which the entire nation is mobilized to elect a single person to an independent executive branch, which fosters the accumulation of executive power and the power-worship of partisans.  Moving beyond personality politics and reigning in the out-of-control executive have the same solution of replacing the presidency with a more democratic option. read more »