Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Communitarianism at bay

Conor Friedersdorf is a rising young journalist who blogs at The Atlantic online. As far as I can tell, he is a pretty calm dude, not given to ranting or emotional outbursts. In that light, I was taken aback by the following question addressed last month to Obama supporters:

“How would you have reacted in 2008 if any Republican ran promising to do the following?

"(1) Codify indefinite detention into law; (2) draw up a secret kill list of people, including American citizens, to assassinate without due process; (3) proceed with warrantless spying on American citizens; (4) prosecute Bush-era whistle-blowers for violating state secrets; (5) reinterpret the War Powers Resolution such that entering a war of choice without a Congressional declaration is permissible; (6) enter and prosecute such a war; (7) institutionalize naked scanners and intrusive full body pat-downs in major American airports; (8) oversee a planned expansion of TSA so that its agents are already beginning to patrol American highways, train stations, and bus depots; (9) wage an undeclared drone war on numerous Muslim countries that delegates to the CIA the final call about some strikes that put civilians in jeopardy; (10) invoke the state-secrets privilege to dismiss lawsuits brought by civil-liberties organizations on dubious technicalities rather than litigating them on the merits; (11) preside over federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries; (12) attempt to negotiate an extension of American troops in Iraq beyond 2011 (an effort that thankfully failed); (13) reauthorize the Patriot Act; (14) and select an economic team mostly made up of former and future financial executives from Wall Street firms that played major roles in the financial crisis.”

It seems that whoever you vote for, you get the same policies. As far as I can remember, this problem goes back at least to 1964 when we were told that a vote for Barry Goldwater would lead to an escalation of the Vietnam War, while a vote for Lyndon Johnson would not. Johnson won the election, overwhelmingly--and proceeded to increase the American military commitment in Southeast Asia.

The sense that everything is rigged serves to undercut an article of faith among the Good Government crowd, and that is the precept that an “informed citizenry” is essential to the maintenance of democracy. Such maintenance calls for active participation at various levels--attending meetings, writing letters, buttonholing colleagues--not just voting.

Well, this year I am going to follow a practice that one is not suppose to talk about: I am not going to vote because I can’t see how it will make much of a difference in matters that are important to me.

Historians have shown that the tradition of political activism and responsibility has a distinguished pedigree, going back to the Civic Humanism advocated by Leonardo Bruni and other Florentine thinkers of the early Renaissance. The American Founders were the inheritors of this legacy. More recently it has taken the form of communitarianism, which appeals to a sense of group altruism.

Today, this tradition seems pretty frayed.

A case in point is discontent with serving on juries. Here is a somewhat self-serving defense of this aspect of communitarianism (an involuntary one) by an anonymous lawyer:

"I got to serve on two juries - one civil, one criminal - when I was 21 years old. Loved every second of it. I subsequently became a trial attorney and love talking in front of juries - the smarter and more interested the better. The system is far from perfect. There are problems in presentation, payment and the like, it’s long, and it’s boring. And there are legitimate reasons to avoid it - illness, disability, and child care chief among them. But the reality is that at the end of the day, most people want to avoid it because it’s inconvenient - it disrupts our schedules, it requires some extra time and some extra work. Sort of like voting; something a large number of people like to avoid as well because, well, you know, it doesn't mean anything and it's inconvenient.

"They should be ashamed. Americans live a life of advantage in what has been one of the wealthiest countries in the world. People fight and die and protest for rights such as a jury trial. Yet many look their noses down at the right as if it were a used Kleenex. Give something back to your country, your community. Go. Participate."

Well, we don't have much choice, do we?



Blogger Burk said...

The same policies? Don't ask don't tell?

I think you are factually incorrect about the "same policies" line, and thus incorrect about not voting. It is those who didn't vote who brought us Bush II.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

You are right about DADT, Burk. But I am not sure that outweighs the outrages Friedersdorf has cited.

Your second point is more dubious. How do we know that that those who abstained would have cast their vote against Bush? One can also blame Ralph Nader.

My general sense is that the Permanent Government may give way on this or that issue--but only as a tactical move to assure their continuing control of the reigns of power.

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Thomas Kraemer said...

In my mind, your decision not to vote is a victory for the anti-gay theocrats and plutocrats who have taken over the Republican Party. It is well known that the political strategy of the 1 percent has been to exploit, for financial and political gain, the religious war between prosperity theology and traditional Christianity. Combined, the one percent and the prosperity theocrats are probably only 25 percent of all voters and so the only way they can win is with a ruse, such as convincing voters their vote doesn't matter and deceptively marketing trickle down tax cuts as good for the economy and therefore good for the majority.

When Clinton tossed gay people under the bus, and Obama's evolving opinion on gay marriage would allow gay couples to sit only in the back of the bus, I became depressed enough to also think voting doesn't matter. While this may still be true in some sense, I do not want to hand an easy victory to the plutocrats and theocrats. Therefore, I am struggling to decide how my vote could be used productively even if I disagree with all of the candidates and the likely winner.

In hindsight, I am unhappy with my "strategic" vote for George Bush and company. I am still looking for a better idea this year.

9:57 AM  

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