Feb 23, 2011

This is What Democracy Looks Like?

In my home state of Wisconsin (where, unfortunately, I haven't lived for years), protests have been going on for some time now, long enough for a great deal of interesting and exasperating, sage and foolish, things to be said.  There's been enough time for dramas to play themselves out -- or at least their first acts -- time enough for loads of "new" information -- typically information nobody had paid attention to until it became polemical bargaining chips -- to come to light, for the "nation" to take notice and chime in  -- typically in very onesided, evidence-ignoring, partisan ways, even time enough for some protesters in Egypt to mistake what is going on in Madison for anything remotely resembling the revolution working itself out in the Muslim Mideast, and time enough for the protesters in America to seize on the comparison as one more rhetorical tool.

I didn't have a dog in this particular fight, not being a Wisconsin taxpayer, not having voted for or against the current democratically elected Wisconsin political regime, not having a child in Wisconsin schools -- and neither did the majority of my academic friends and colleagues who almost immediately upon hearing a few (far too few) points of the case, immediately sided with the teachers union and against the governor, willing to conflate all sorts of issues with each other, pass on misinformation mixed in with genuine information, take stands that quite understandably feel good but may not be all that well supported when one thinks matters through -- and call what is taking place "democracy".  But, now it has catapulted onto the national stage, impressed itself upon the national consciousness, provided to great a temptation for politician and pundit not to all to hastily weigh in with their opinions, their spin, their takes.  The Wisconsin issue has become a rallying point, and a precedent to imitate, for Left and Right.  So now it's everybody's issue, fair game, and I do feel not only permitted, but in some sense required to make a few points that in my view are being overlooked

Let me lay my cards plain and flat on the table. I think many of the players in this -- notice I don't say "either side," because I don't accept the way many of the actors are framing the conflict -- have behaved in bad ways.  I think there are some -- the ordinary, non-union, working taxpayers, and their kids who are supposed to be in school, getting taught their subjects, by the high quality teachers taxes are supposed to be paying for -- who are so far blameless in this mess.

I also think -- and this is my most primary concern -- that the term "democracy" has been stretched very thin, if not outright abused, during this controversy.  Here again, as with many other issues, ancient philosophers actually have much of direct relevance to tell us in the present -- reminders of what risks being lost no matter which "side" ultimately wins in Wisconsin (or Indiana, or California, or. . . . )  I suspect that those who don't care for what I say when they find it doesn't support their side will be tempted to write this off as mere abstraction, as antiquarian ivory-towerism -- they just don't realize that there's good reasons we're still teaching Plato and Aristotle (among others) -- they deal with perennial issues, and in some cases, call attention to ever-recurring dangers

I don't support the teachers unions, nor for that matter am I particularly impressed with the job many K-12 teachers do or  with claims that their jobs ought to be protected against the demands of performance -- as a college professor who teaches among other subjects Critical Thinking, I teach and have long taught the living products of K-12 education, and find myself having to spend inordinate amounts of time either doing remedial teaching of basic concepts and skills or actually having to untrain unfortunate students of poor mental habits acquired in their earlier "education." 
There's plenty more approbation to strew around, though. The Wisconsin Democrat legislators who fled the state in order to deliberately undermine the legislative process -- setting an example now followed by Indiana Democrats -- have behaved shamefully, in ways that were their opponents to do, they would outright condemn.  The doctors who, writing what can only be fake notes excusing totally new patients from work, making a sham of their profession and its canons and right procedures to support their compatriots in politics, have done something, in my view, even worse.  The Republican Governor and Legislators, who appear to have packed all sorts of unrelated and perhaps more troubling items into the controversial Budget Repair bill are clearly not playing entirely above the board. Dispatching State Police to apprehend wayward lawmakers certainly sets a somewhat dangerous precedent.  There seems to be -- though I'm loath to comment much on this until I've investigated it further --  an unsavory, or at least unseemly close connection between Koch Industries and the current Wisconsin Republican regime.

Perhaps if the controversy continues long enough for me to clear other topics I have lined up and revisit it, I'll reveal in more detail the jaundiced light in which I see each of these groups.  Right now, however, what I'd like to focus on is this conception of "democracy" that is getting invoked, most egregiously in my book by the protesters and their supporters.  It's a term that, like many others in politics, has multiple meanings and a long history.  In fact, as Plato pointed out more than two millenia ago (living in democratic Athens, in a culture where the greatness and the abysses of democracy could be witnessed and studied firsthand in multiple experiments across city-states), one key feature of democracy is that it contains all the other regimes within it.

It is the poikilos politeia, the motley regime.  In our time, certainly in fledgling democracies like those which could come to power in the Mideast, this still raises legitimate worries of clearly non-democratic parties using the freedom and the process of democracy to subvert it and replace it with another sort of regime.  What is peculiar to healthy or at least longstanding  liberal democratic regimes (like our own and those of many of the other Western nations) is that they incorporate not only rivals to democracy (thankfully on the fringes) but also multiple interpretations of democracy itself, parties which imperfectly and usually fairly incoherently embody some of the values of democracy.

Plato also points out that many people think that one hallmark of the democratic regime is that everyone gets to say what is one their mind, what they think, no matter the circumstances (though remember Socrates' example -- saying, or just asking, some things often enough will get you in trouble with the many).  The basic idea of the democratic regime is that anyone can live the life they please, can say their piece, can vote, and can take office if they convince others of the rightness, or at least usefulness, of their ideas and plans.

And, here, we glimpse the beginnings of an inner tension in democracy.  The unionized teachers protesting to protect their interests and their means of preserving them (their "rights" under state law in place for several decades) when pressed, claim that they are doing something that is in some way democracy.  In fact, one of my FB friends, a Wisconsin teacher bragged about having told someone who asked him the rather reasonable question, "Why aren't you in school teaching your students," the rather grandiose line -- which I suspect was already by that time just a common trope he picked up -- "I'm teaching them what democracy looks like."

Well, yes . . . in one sense of the term.  He and his fellow protesters were showing students that in a democracy, if one does not like a law about to be passed, one can gather and demonstrate, one can say all sorts of things, some true, some false, about one's opponents, and unless one engages in real criminality or transgresses unjust laws (as for example civil rights protesters did in the south several generations ago), one will get away with it, and may even pressure the elected representatives to change their mind.  Yes, democracy in that sense.  Of course, this was democracy in one sense being deliberately directed against democracy in another sense -- one perhaps closer to the core meaning -- i.e., that decisions are made by vote, and those who are voted into offices actually do get to decide for the people who elected them, both for those whose party won the election and those whose party lost.

Another key, core, irreplaceable aspect of democracy is that when the polity holds elections, the citizens actually abide by them.  If they don't like how the election turned out, if they oppose what the majority elected by the majority decide, legislate, enact, it is incumbent on them to vote them out when they can -- in fact, that is what those who voted the Republicans in did.  When the Democrats are voted in, and enact laws to strengthen unions -- favoring their political allies --  presumably that is in line with democracy.  It is equally in line when the Republicans are voted in and start curbing the strength of their political opponents.  You see, another key value of democracy inherent in the idea of voting and abiding by the process of voting is fairness -- what goes for one group goes equally for another.  When groups, as they will always be tempted to do, go to far in according themselves what they do not grant to their opponents, they are already undermining democracy, even if they declare what they are doing to be democratic.

Plato, as those who have read him know, was no friend off democracy, considering it a regime likely to give way to tyranny of one form or another.  Aristotle was much more conscious of democracy's good points and  potentials, and he also articulated additional problems it would face.  He discussed two different kinds of democratic regimes, one which he called constitutional government, and the other which he called democracy and regarded as a corruption of the latter, quite literally a "stepping-away-from" (parekbasis) democracy of the better sort.  What is characteristic of both is that the people or the many rule, as opposed to one, or the rich, or the genuinely better people (a real aristocracy -- pretty rare, in his view).  The majority rule, but the critical question for Aristotle is whose benefit they rule for.  If it is for the community as a whole, if they look to the common good, then it is the good, well-functioning sort of democracy.  If the many rule for their own benefit that is a corruption.  Common good, or power politics and the spoils system, that the choice.

Aristotle says a great many things about democracy and politics, but I think three are particularly relevant here.  First, he does think that democracy becomes something like a tyranny when the laws (and by this he means not only the written laws, but customs, norms, assumptions needed to assure and embodying the common good) are no longer supreme but the will of the people ruling are.  It loses legitimacy, and creates occasions in which classes of people use the system to obtain benefits for themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens.  Second, Aristotle thinks that in any political community in which the laws are often changed, disregarded, or applied inconsistently the citizens will gradually lose respect for those laws -- including the unwritten ones, for instance the assumption of fair play and consistency in our democratic society.  Third, he notes that there are very few people who are not likely to be tempted to tilt the system in their favor when opportunities present themselves, and to find specious justifications for doing so.  The rich will do that in their favor, as will the more popular party as well.  The only ones who won't do so are the genuinely virtuous, those who actually can be counted on to look to and enact the common good, who are, in his estimation, pretty rare.

Everything I've culled from Plato and Aristotle here applies well to this Wisconsin predicament.  Neither the protesting union members nor the Republican governor and legislators have much plausible claim to be working for the common good.  Robert Reich is more right than he can possibly admit when he claims that one faction is carrying out self-serving opponent-bashing power politics under a moral mask -- both are.  Since so much has been said about the governor, his actions, his plans, his character, his connections, I don't think I need add anything here.

The teachers who aren't teaching but protesting are teaching their students a lesson about democracy, but not that the teacher's union embodies it.  The lesson is that when your interest are threatened by the elected representatives of the citizenry, you undermine the process by whatever means you can, you enlist allies and play on people's sympathies, and you set yourselves up as moral paragons -- not a lesson which conduces to respect for general principles of fair play underpinning functioning democracies (and yes, precisely the same strategies those same Democrats decry in Tea Party activists and demonstrators). They're also teaching their clients, the tax-paying parents, and the rest of those watching, lessons as well, about unionized teachers' willingness to work for what they deem to be the common good even if it seems in conflict with what their clients see and articulate as the common good.

As a teacher of Critical Thinking, an additional worry arises for me about these teachers, so absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause, or at least adamantly sticking to their story:  when it comes to any sort of controversial issues, how can such partisans possibly be good pedagogues for our young people?  How can they possibly treat the side that they do not agree with fairly, objectively, rationally, so as to present students with a range of options?  How can they model respect for opposing views or the process of unbiased inquiry?   How can they possibly accord any real value to other people's points of view, and not convey to their students the message  (an inevitably authoritarian one): we know best, we can't possibly be wrong, we are the voice of the people and the epitome of the common good, our opponents are worthless, stupid, wrong, vile? 


Legislators who leave the state to sideline the democratic process of debate because they know they are likely to lose the vote, doctors who on the spot write what can only be unwarranted excuses to those whose politics they agree with -- these are much more troubling in my view.  They also convey the lesson that when it suits one's interests or one's politics, it is all right to bend or even break the rules.  Why respect the rules then?  Kant -- who I typically disagree with -- is at least right on this: when one decides that it is all right to make an exception to common rules one expects others to honor in one's own case, there is a sort of contradiction, incoherence, one corrosive to the very morality these legislators and doctors will want to see remaining in place in their community.