Category : Politics Essays
Liberalism as a political philosophy was an attempt to generate and give legitimacy to the dissolution of traditional feudal society and, in particular, as puts it, to challenge "the powers of 'despotic monarchies' and their claim to 'divine support.'" Developing in tandem with the idea of freemarket economics and nascent capitalism, it sought to carve out a distinct area of social life -- civil society -- that would be controlled by private, nonpolitical, personal, family, and economic relations independent of state authority or control. Partly a product of the Enlightenment and Reformation, it sought to uphold the values of freedom of choice, reason, and toleration. It gradually "became associated with the doctrine that individuals should be free to pursue their own preferences in religious, economic and political affairs-in fact, in everything that affected daily life." 1
Yet liberalism from the beginning had a dark and a light side, and a potentially radical edge. Thomas Hobbes, the first important liberal thinker, saw as basic within humans a raw, selfish, acquisitive nature that could descend easily into a "war of all against all" if they foolishly remained in this "state of nature." For Hobbes, the individual and not the group, estate, or
caste is the basic social unit. Perhaps reflecting the breakdown of feudal society, and certainly what he saw as the anarchy of the English civil war, Hobbes believed the best way individuals could rationally protect themselves from the Armageddon hidden within their own spirits would be to freely consent to a ruler -- a "Leviathan" -- to enter into a "social contract" in which they surrender to the sovereign their "natural rights" to pursue their own interests with abandon, who establishes rules and laws of conduct applicable to all. The authority of the ruler, however, comes from the consent of the governed and is vested in no other divine or worldly source. And since all are to be bound by this social contract, it is designed to serve the long-term interests in peace and security of all.
The light side of liberalism was developed most forcefully by John Locke. Like Hobbes, Locke also grounded governmental authority in the consent of the governed, based on a social contract between political authority and its subjects. Unlike Hobbes, however, Locke saw a primary threat to liberty from government oppression; and unlike Hobbes, who, in spite of his theory of consent, in effect would transfer sovereignty from the ruled to the ruler, Locke felt the people should remain sovereign.
In Locke's state of nature, people are free and equal, endowed with reason enabling them rationally to pursue their interests. Their natural liberty, however, is tempered by what he calls the "Law of Nature," basic principles of morality individuals are obliged to follow and have the right to enforce. Principal among natural rights is the right to "property," defined broadly as "life, liberty and estate" (including the right to dispose of one's labor as one sees fit), and narrowly as exclusive ownership of land and physical things. Because individual enforcement of natural law often proves inadequate, especially with regard to the regulation of "property," people enter into a social contract to create first a civil society, and then a state. The purpose of the state is to create the conditions under which people can pursue their private interests in civil society. Should the state act tyrannically, people have a right, indeed an obligation, to rebel. As Held suggests,
In relation to Hobbes's ideas, this was a most significant and radical view. For it helped inaugurate one of the most central tenets of modern European liberalism; that is, that the state exists to safeguard the rights and liberties of citizens who are ultimately the best judges of their own interests; and that accordingly the state must be restricted in scope and constrained in practice in order to ensure the maximum possible freedom of every citizen. 2
Where Hobbes sought to protect what liberty people could hope for in a very imperfect world through domination by a sovereign, Locke aimed to protect liberty by instituting, and then carefully restricting, the scope of government. It was Locke who more decisively influenced European political thought and American political development.
Liberalism also had a radical edge. For in its attack on the privileges and constraints of traditional authority, it substituted the individual for the group, caste, or estate as the basic unit of social intercourse. Coupled with Protestant ideas that individuals unmediated by the church were capable of understanding God's word, grounded in early Christian ideas about the equality of the rich and poor in the eyes of God, liberalism held within it an incipient notion of radical political equality. If all men had natural rights, all men deserved to have those rights protected by and from the state, and therefore, each man deserved to have his interests represented in the state.
The Uses of Apathy
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century democratic theory, they conclude, should be revised to accommodate twentieth-century facts, and this could be successfully accomplished without compromising democratic ideals. Indeed, these facts of modern democratic life are actually conducive to the survival of democracy, for how, they ask, could "a mass democracy work if all the people were deeply involved in politics?"
The apathetic segment of America probably has helped to hold the system together and cushioned the shock of disagreement, adjustment and change. But that is not to say that we can stand apathy without limit. 5
Having established, first, that modern democratic society could not stand the shock of widespread participation, and second, that we are now to look at the system as a whole for the balance of democratic attributes formerly sought by classical theory in the individual, Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee feel free to revise "classical" theories of democracy. From a democratic point of view, political apathy is functional and, indeed, essential to the functioning of a modern democratic polity. Their explanation of nonparticipation is tantamount to their explication of apathy, represented as follows:
X (a person) is apathetic with respect to Y (politics) if he or she is content with and/or uninterested in present political decisions or arrangements. X freely chooses not to vote or participate in electoral activity. 6
While this explanation of nonparticipation and the peculiar function it assigns the concept of apathy are gravely flawed, they do have one important virtue. Unlike those radical critics of American democracy who would explain away all nonparticipation as political alienation (and those who would explain away most participation simply as false consciousness), Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee's use of the concept maintains an essential link of responsibility between the nonparticipant and the act of not participating. Integral to the way apathy is used in ordinary language as well as within democratic discourse is precisely this function of helping locate responsibility for nonparticipation. By their account, freely choosing not to participate, apathetics are responsible for their own withdrawal. 7
The problems begin in their reordering of the moral point of the term within their broader revision of democratic theory. If the notion that in-
formed and involved people governing themselves, whether directly or through representatives, is basic to democracy, then claiming that political apathy or nonparticipation is a desirable attribute of modern democracy constitutes a redrawing of democratic theory with radical implications. Political apathy, a term that formerly served to warn about the malfunctioning of a democratic polity, is reconstituted as a virtue.
Under what circumstances is it legitimate to revise the critical grammar of any political language? Is their revision justified?
The connection they draw between responsibility and action is especially important within democratic discourse, where there is a prima facie case in favor of participation. All things being equal, widespread nonparticipation and political apathy are frowned upon, and the burden is on those who would insist that a polity with these characteristics is democratic to explain these facts in a way that justifies this claim. Berelson and his co-authors understand this, attempt to address it, and, I believe, fail.
Should one succeed in establishing that nonparticipation results from personal apathy, one can exclude as causes a disenfranchising political, educational, economic, or social system. One is then freer to argue that a nonparticipatory polity with extensive apathy is nevertheless a democratic polity. Instead, they seem to assume that America is a modern, industrialized, mass democracy par excellence, therefore its practices, however much they may deviate from the norms of "classical democratic theory," become the new standards for democracy. Viewed through the lens of "realistic theory," if these practices, including those that generate apathy, promote the stability of this democratic system, it follows they should be positively appraised and included in the repertoire of practices we consider democratic. Their argument is captured well by Carole Pateman:
high levels of participation and interest are required from a minority of citizens only and, moreover, the apathy and disinterest of the majority play a valuable role in maintaining the stability of the system as a whole. Thus we arrive at the argument that the amount of participation that actually obtains is just about the amount that is required for a stable system of democracy. 8
If the norms with which we judge contemporary affairs are drawn from the outer appearance of dominant practices, how are we to know if anything is amiss within or beneath these practices? By disposing of the critical dimension that had warned of threats to a particular political discourse's essential ideals, we at best lose some ability to analyze these practices from the point of view of that ideal, and at worst, through the back door, redefine that ideal in ways antithetical to a core element within its original intent:
the voters least admirable when measured against individual requirements contribute most when measured against the aggregate requirement for
flexibility. . . . They may be the least partisan or interested voters, but they perform a valuable function for the entire system. 9
Trapped by their view that the American polity is the functional equivalent of modern democracy itself, Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee in effect ask us to use the concept of apathy in the following peculiar way when explaining nonparticipation: "Giovanna didn't vote in the referendum because she is apathetic about the environment. Thank God for people like her, for without them our democracy couldn't stand the disruption of people making policy choices for themselves. If there were more people like her, our democracy would run even more smoothly."
Many arguments have been leveled at this thinking, particularly during the so-called pluralist-antipluralist debates of the 1960s and 1970s. Two are directly pertinent here. First, Berelson and his co-authors assume that participation has no intrinsic importance or developmental merit, and dismiss the value attached to participation historically by a diverse array of democratic theorists. Second, assuming that nonparticipation is motivated by indifference or contentment, in the above example they would see political apathy as adversely affecting neither her wants nor her capacities to understand and defend what is in her interest. Yet it is certainly reasonable to wonder whether what appears on the surface as her political apathy, once analyzed, instead turns out to be her rejection of a system that does not meet her needs. Over time, her political alienation might indeed take on the outward appearance of indifference and apathy. But by misdescribing rejection of political activity as apathy motivated by contentment, Berelson and his colleagues may also miss the deeper significance of what turns out to be, in fact, her principled political act, perversely changing it into a silent vote of approval.
Conceptual deficiencies further promote these problems. While there is a connection between apathy and contentment -- a content person over time may become lulled into apathy -- in order to remain content, one also has a need to maintain a sharply delineated conceptual distance between them. Consider that a politically content person may become lulled into apathy after deciding that withdrawing from political activity will not seriously jeopardize his or her future wants or needs, and thereby future contentment. But apathy indicates a letting down of the guard on these judgments, a weakening of will and discipline regarding them, making it more likely that contentment may be jeopardized in the future. Moreover, many of the criteria they suggest are hallmarks of modern democracy amount to little more than balancing opposing tendencies -- involvement and indifference, for example -- and certainly could be construed as qualities necessary for almost any successful political system.
Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee also write as if apathy can only be used
to describe a grouping of disparate individuals all of whom coincidentally share the characteristic of apathy -- that is, they are not really a group at all. Undoubtedly one sense of apathy relates to individual responsibility, but another begins to shift responsibility away from the person. It is clear what we mean when we say, "John is apathetic about the environment," but what if we say, "The poor are apathetic about the environment," or more generally talk about "the apathetic masses"? In the latter, the signal from language is that there may be something about being poor or in a mass that promotes this posture, shifting responsibility from the individual. While we might decide that the responsibility still lies with the group in question, we tacitly recognize that other factors, beyond the character of an individual, may play a role. Used exclusively with regard to individuals, the term loses a constituent critical component.
To the degree we use the term in vague reference to "politics" and not to specific issues or problem areas, we may also weaken its precision and critical vantage. To the extent apathy is issue specific, we then want to know why this issue motivates persons in this way, and hold open the possibility there also may exist a hidden range of other issues that would motivate interest and active participation. What is it about a class of people, poor people in Brooklyn, New York, and what is it about a specific issue constellation, perhaps the rain forests in Brazil, that might promote their apathy with reference to it?
and his co-authors also confuse the grammar of motivation (apathy) with that of action (nonparticipation). Although they suggest that participants are often indifferent, they virtually equate nonparticipation with apathy. Yet it is perfectly possible that refusal to vote in a referendum is based not in apathy but deep commitment.
In the end, the account of Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee has a clear ideological ring to it, one with the perverse political consequence of blaming our most disadvantaged citizens for their own disenfranchisement. Evidence has existed for some time that reveals a close connection between nonparticipation in political and organizational activity and low socioeconomic status, especially low educational levels. Indeed, in their 1944 work, The People's Choice, written with Hazel Gaudet, Lazarsfeld and Berelson report, "People on the lower SES levels are less likely to belong to any organizations than people on high . . . levels." 10 In Voting, the authors report that
Nonvoting is related to persistent social conditions having little to do with the candidates or the issues of the moment. For example, because Democrats are on the average less well educated and less involved with dominant groups in the society than Republicans, they vote less on election day. 11
Yet, the focus on apathy and indifference only obscures the importance of facts like these. For unless they are willing to suggest that our more disadvantaged citizens are pressured into these postures, dropping their view that
the primary cause of nonparticipation is individual apathy, they are asking us to make the counterintuitive assumption that people are content to withdraw from a political system that patently harms their interests. And even were they to focus more seriously on social conditions and the psychological attitudes they produce, they would still not really be giving a satisfactory explanation of nonvoting, because in the institutional and political context of virtually all European countries, socioeconomic class is not nearly as closely tied with nonvoting as it is here. 12 Should the disenfranchised read and take in explanations of their behavior focused on individual apathy, they will tend to blame themselves for their nonparticipation, and fail to analyze precisely those relations of political power that inhibit their own participation.
The Rationality of Apathy
tendency to reduce human interests to a calculus of costs and benefits is developed into an art form in the work of rational choice theory. If the goal of theory is to enhance our ability to predict political behavior, and this is the goal advocates of positivist social science postulate, then one needs a powerful model of human motivation to ground theory, with narrowly confined assumptions and clearly stipulated variables capable of spinning off powerful generalizations. This formidable challenge is taken up by rational choice.
The act of making a "rational choice, " presumed to be the way persons interact in the political world, is one in which the individual most efficiently gains value, preference, or taste goals from a given set of political choices by analyzing relative benefits and costs. Driven by individually rooted motivation to enhance or protect self-interested wants, in rational choice theory the autonomous egoistic individual is the fundamental macro-unit of analysis, while individual values, preferences, tastes, and the like are the micro-units. The choice is purely instrumental to keeping costs to a minimum and benefits to a maximum -- it has no value outside of this function. Even when groups are considered, it is clear that the logic of their collective action, their seeking of collective goods, and indeed their ability to form at all, is based on a collection of individual calculations of self-interest.
In basic form with regard to political participation, a rational choice (R) is equal to the probability that participating makes a difference (P), multiplied by the benefit the actor receives (B) should the activity be successful, minus the cost of participating (Q: R = PB -- C. 1
When Anthony Downs introduced the idea of the rational voter in his 1957 landmark, An Economic Theory of Democracy, he immediately presented the theory with an important internal problem. Since the probability that the act of voting in any election by any individual has virtually no chance to affect the outcome of an election, why would anyone vote?
Similarly, when in his 1965 pathbreaking The Logic of Collective Action tried to understand how groups form, he uncovered the "free-
Consider their passivity in this light. Rissarro, has achieved much of what he considers the "good things" in life, yet after his superficial declarations of satisfaction, the doubt shows. He views himself on the receiving end of the good things, a passive agent who is not the cause even of his own success: "I was just at the right place at the right time." Far from showing modesty, this comment reveals that he feels he doesn't belong in the world he now inhabits, an outsider intruding on the middle class, illegitimate in his new situation and undeserving of respect. He explains his achievements to himself as luck. To explain them as deserved success would be to respect himself, but he is not confident of his dignity. Yet he wants respect and so he continues to judge himself and others in a social situation that will serve to reconfirm his doubt.
Rissarro may be viewed from the outside simply as acquiescent, or analyzed from the academy as a one-dimensional man. Indeed, he views himself as passive. He may well be politically apathetic. What is distinctive, however, is that it is his active struggle for identity and respect that is crucial in turning the blame for his discontents, not on the role society, elites, class structure, or ideologies may play in limiting his happiness, but on himself. conclude,
The examples we have so far given of assertion of individual ability in families point to three general results of such assertion: the search for respect is thwarted; the individual feels personally responsible for the failure; the whole attempt accustoms him to think that to have individual respect you must have social inequality. 2
Acceptance of inequality limits the promise of democratic politics. And the binds that promote political apathy also restrict the freedom of democratic citizens. Passive acquiescence in this undemocratic fate is all the more insidious because it is made possible, and becomes more formidable, through the active participation of the passive person. Social critics, however, often overlook the power and responsibility this person has to free himself or herself from limits that are imposed on the self through the mediation of social structure by the self.
Women and Power
argues that women in our culture are encouraged to believe that they "do not need power" and "are most comfortable using our powers if
we believe we are using them in the service of others." 3 Therefore, women actually do possess a kind of power, one that empowers others through nurturing and caretaking roles. The location of power of this sort is often in the psychological, emotional, or intellectual realm rather than the political or economic. It is a complicated exercise: Because power in these roles is limited, and because they are roles that serve to empower others, women must be sensitive to changes in the relationship as the powers of the others grow in proportion to the success of the women's work. Miller writes, "Acting under those general beliefs, and typically not making any of this explicit, women have been effective in many ways." 4 Women, therefore, are powerful in ways undervalued by dominant definitions of what power should mean, uncomfortable themselves in seeing these as forms of power, and "do fear admitting that they want or need power." 5 Like Sennett and Cobb's study of working men, Miller's study reveals how women's active interpretive roles reshape dominant views of power but do so in a way that binds them to depoliticized roles.
For both the men and the women, there is one fundamental common bind. Society seems to teach that each individual is worthy of dignity and respect, that at the level of private emotions "all persons are created equal." In the real world, however, class, gender, and racial stratification promotes a type of emotional stratification. You are less likely to believe in your ability and self-worth not only because of role expectations drawn for you, but because of your own experiences of shaming, self-doubt, and self-disrespect as you try to advance your position based on the public philosophy of equal opportunity, the emotional damage hidden within meritocracy for all who fail (and probably many who succeed), and the specific emotional damage likely for those consigned to certain positions. Yet the hope remains that the person implicated in her or his own powerlessness has more power and responsibility to become freer than is often presumed by social critics.
There is a quiet ambiguity in Miller's work that, when listened to carefully, reveals a lot about power. Miller seems to suggest that the experiences of women have provided them with powers unsullied by male-dominated conceptions of power as control. These nurturing powers are pristine, selfless, generous, unique. Yet the women she describes seem to want something more. Is it simply for these powers to be recognized? Or is it that they want what should be coming to them -- that is, they want their share of power, as defined by men, power as control? Can women both be selfless and want more for themselves?
Miller's ambiguity is creative. Clearly, her sympathies lie with the idea that women have a unique perspective on power and should assert it as they come to recognize its worth. But one can't help think that the assertive aspect trades heavily on what she seems to consider to be power as usually conceived
by men, and, fortunately, she does not extinguish this tension in favor of her somewhat idealized version of the way women view power