risk, reward, and revolution in an object-oriented democracy

If you happen to go back and look at my posts from a decade ago (though why would you?), you’d find some very strongly-worded political commentary. Maybe it’s because I’m older or maybe it’s because social media is such a morass of political invective that it just doesn’t interest me anymore as a writer.  That doesn’t mean I don’t still have strong political views; I just don’t write about them. I suppose that decision is like a decision many people face today that gets discussed in terms of pragmatism, values, and feelings. Maybe I should be honest to the way I feel about my country, regardless of the facts or consequences. Maybe I need to vote my values recognizing that a pragmatic choice for a likely candidate I don’t especially like won’t get me what I want. Or maybe I need to be practical.

[A short aside on pragmatism. Everyone remembers the hanging chad Florida recount thing. People don’t really remember that in New Hampshire, Bush won by ~7,000 votes and ~22,000 people in the state voted for Nader. If 1/3 had voted for Gore instead, he’d have been President. You could say the protest vote almost worked if the point of the protest vote was to bring about radical national change. The Bush administration almost destroyed the United States with economic devastation, illegal wars, the abridging of human rights both at home and abroad, and so on. Trump is easily 10 times crazier than Bush. The only question I have is if far left voters think a Trump administration will stop short of causing a global depression through trade wars, a multi-continent military conflict among nuclear powers, and military occupation of American cities to put down protests. I’m not saying that a Trump presidency would necessarily be that awful, though I think it would be bad enough. I’m just wondering if the protest voters on the far left are hoping that the consequences of a Trump presidency would be so bad as to finally lead to a revolution.]

But I digress.

As I see it, the basic point of an object-oriented democracy is recognizing the way in which nonhuman actors produce political agency. I.e., we are made to act as candidates, voters, elected officials, and so on.  In Latour, it’s always about trials of strength, so some of those nonhumans can be fairly directly influenced by human action, like creating laws or forming committees and so on. Others, like climate change or markets, operate a different levels of complexity and power. We affect them, of course, but we can’t simply exert control of them in a trial of strength. So we gather human and nonhuman actors together for the purpose of producing knowledge, technologies, policies, laws, and practices that might have the strength to act. And here perhaps I diverge more into DeLanda than Latour: we participate in governments, markets, and similar assemblages that include humans but are not in themselves human or necessarily “for humans.” That is to say they don’t naturally exist for us, for our betterment, or to serve our interests. Figuring out how to thrive in these assemblages is what politics is about.

So here’s how “revolutionary” I get. We might reform the democratic process so that we have at least five viable political parties where no single party can acquire more than 1/3 of the popular vote. How would we do that? We’d probably have to just agree to dissolve the Democratic and Republican parties. Maybe that would be enough. We might cap an absolute limit on the amount of money any one political party can spend on candidates, preventing the formation of massive national parties. I’m not sure.

We need to reduce the power of the executive branch. I’m not sure if that would take rewriting the Constitution or if it is really more a matter of changing how we view the job ideologically. The point would be that the president would no longer set the direction for national policy, and I don’t believe there’s anything in the Constitution that would need to change for that to happen.

Here’s the tricky part. Rather than having a simply majority vote in the legislative branch, there would need to be consensus. Every political party with at least 10% of the representatives would need to agree to a proposal in order for it to pass. In other words, people would actually have to make concessions to one another; if you agree to this, I’ll agree to that. What a nightmare, right? Also, (just for the hell of it), we might say that every proposal would include some empirical measure for its promised outcomes (assessment for everyone!). Then we could really know if the efforts we were making were having their intended effects.

Or we could make it regional. We could divide the nation into five or six regions and say all the regions would have to agree to any national law.  That could be pretty crazy. Not as crazy as violent revolution in the hope something better comes out the other end but still pretty crazy.

We could just break up into a dozen or so separate nations with something like the EU to join us together.

To be clear: I’m only kidding about this stuff. I have no intention of defending such ideas. I don’t have confidence that the reformation of these kinds of political structures would result in justice, equity, or whatever other name one might call one’s ideological aims and values. My point is that we would require some significant structural changes to the legislative process to make the United States work differently, and even then who knows what would happen.

At the same time, none of that is an argument in favor of the status quo either. My only point is that this is the site of political change: the revision of the networks and assemblages by which capacities for political agency arise. Those revisions need not be partisan any more than the US Constitution is itself partisan for the way it describes the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.  Maybe, regardless of political leanings, we all just want to operate by a different set of rules.

  • As always, impressed with the nuance here. I have two thoughts. First, most good analysis agrees that the Dems failed to win an election, for many good reasons; a few thousand Greens in NH didn’t steal it. That’s like saying Britain stole New France; by what calculation did it belong to France?

    Plus, despite the “kidding,” you do seem to share a central aim of Green voters, which is to break up the duopoly. I get that you’re kidding when you say that we could all “just agree” to do that. I also agree that a lot of us, regardless of the presence or absence of party affiliation, want to change the rules. The in-party revolts, plurality independent registration, and growth of third, fourth, and fifth parties are all evidence of that.

    So perhaps voters peeling off from duopoly isn’t best seen as a pathetic or misguided “protest vote,” but instead as the working out in the world of “networks and assemblages” to achieve the new rules you want.

    • Thanks Marc. I’m sure you’re right about the 2000 election, and I didn’t mean to suggest that NH voters stole the election. That would suggest they did something wrong, which they didn’t. I only meant to indicate that third-party voters, even if they amounted to less than 5% of the vote as they did in 2000 (and probably will be more this year), can play a powerful role in the outcome. I’d hate to see something like the Brexit vote where people wake up the next day and say “I voted for it but I didn’t really think it would pass. I just wanted to express my displeasure with the status quo.” But that’s not how votes work.

      I would say that I do share many of the aims of the Green party. In fact, I would say my personal political values are closer to the Green party than any US political party I know of. I haven’t decided my vote for November, though living in NY I’m fairly sure where my electoral college votes will be headed. If Hillary can’t win in NY on the strength of voters who see her as the person they most want to be president then she has no shot nationally. The same thing is probably true for Trump in Georgia. Maybe we just need to get rid of the electoral college.

      I also don’t think any vote is pathetic or misguided, unless the voter completely misunderstands (or is ignorant of) the positions held by the person for whom she is voting. When one is voting for a candidate one knows will not win, one simply has to be confident s/he understands what the consequences of that choice might be in relation to the eventual winner and be content with that.

      I’ll have to think about whether or not third-party votes in presidential elections strike me as an effective way to reshape our democratic structures. Undoubtedly they get more media attention than such efforts would garner at other levels of government. I guess the problem right now is that winning even fairly small elections like for state assembly seems out of reach of the Green party.

      • Just a note to say I didn’t mean to impute any negative intentions on your part regarding NH or elsewhere. The negative stuff is intrinsic to the larger discourse on these issues, but not to your writing, as usual.