Karl Jaspers On The ‘Phantom’ Public

In Man In The Modern Age (Routledge, New York, 1959), Karl Jaspers writes:

The term ‘masses’ is ambiguous….If we use the word ‘masses’ as a synonym for the ‘public,’ this denotes a group of persons mentally interlinked by their common reception of certain opinions, but a group vague in its limits and its stratification, though at times a typical historical product….The ‘public’ is a phantom, the phantom of an opinion supposed to exist in a vast number of persons who have no effective interrelation and though the opinion is not effectively present in the units. Such an opinion is spoken of as ‘public opinion,’ a fiction which is appealed to by individuals and by groups as supporting their special views. It is impalpable, illusory, transient: ”tis here, ’tis there, ’tis gone; a nullity which can nevertheless for a moment endow the multitude with power to uplift and enjoy.

These are useful–and wise–words to remember during an election season in which voters will constantly be bombarded with invocations of ‘the American people’ and ‘some say.’ The former apparently have a clearly articulated consistent opinion on every single subject under the sun whereas the latter can be reliably expected to express some intuition useful for making a rhetorical point. Candidates will employ these terms to establish their case, while forgetting that it is the results of the election that will establish–with some measure of uncertainty–of what ‘the American people’ want and what ‘some’ will ‘say’ about its predilections. There are many American peoples; they have many opinions; composites of these views are hard to determine and articulate. Even the supposedly clearly articulated group this election season–‘Trump supporters,’ ‘Clintonistas,’ ‘Berners,’ ‘Republicans,’ ‘Democrats,’ take your pick–showcases diversity in many dimensions, making facile generalizations a particularly risky business. (It may also suggest some clues to why polling goes wrong–as it did during the Michigan Democratic primary, which had Bernie Sanders losing all the way up to the day of the actual voting.)

This diversity that is found in an entity all too often supposed to be monolithic perhaps serves as adequate warning against the kind of reckless invocations of the ‘public’ and the ‘masses’ that we will see this election season. So is there no such thing as a ‘public opinion’? What are polls–the ones that tell us that forty-five percent of those polled on topic X would like to see resolution Y–informing us of then? They do, with some measure of accuracy, register and report a visible and palpable uniformity of a kind–but we would do well to remember that to poke the surface of that apparent uniformity is all too likely to introduce turbulence in a previously quiescent state. Changing the manner of phrasing the question or the time of its asking, for instance, as referendums find out all the time, can radically change the results of the poll.

Somewhere out there is the ‘public,’ the masses. No shadow is harder to identify even as it is leaned on and invoked with reckless abandon.


Bernie Sanders’ Campaign And The First-Past-The-Post System

It is a truism in electoral democracies that the electoral system–the particular methodology used to convert the individual choices of voters into a composite social choice–is a key determinant of electoral outcomes. Does the system allow you to rank all candidates by order of preference or does it ask you to only pick one candidate, your favorite? Can you assign numerical weights to the candidates or only a simple rank? And so on. The American first-past-the-post system ensures that the candidates with the most votes–not necessarily a majority of the polled votes–wins. In the presidential elections–thanks to the electoral college–this means that a candidate can be elected president without securing a numerical majority of the so-called popular vote. It also means that particular states and electoral districts–the so-called ‘swing’ or ‘battleground’ states–acquire a disproportionate importance in the presidential elections.  This is why New York, which is expected to resolutely continue voting Democratic in the presidential election is steadfastly ignored on the campaign trail, while Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania received dozens of visits.

Thus, the supposed electability or unelectability of a particular candidate is not so much a matter of nationwide determination of that issue as much as it is a question of electability in particular states and particular electoral districts. In the past some analyses have suggested that a US presidential election can be swung, nationwide, by the polling results from as few as less than two dozen districts, scattered over a half a dozen states. In 2008 and 2012, part of the reason for the success of the Barack Obama campaign was a comprehensive statistical analysis of voting patterns and poll results that led to the campaign focusing its effort in precisely those states and those districts whose results would result in large numbers of electoral college votes going Obama’s way. (During the 2008 campaign, I spent a day knocking on doors in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was a swing district in a swing state; Obama won there, a crucial factor in his final win in Pennsylvania and his eventual victory.)

All of which is to say that the greatest strength of the Bernie Sanders campaign remains his energetic and enthusiastic supporter base. They are willing and prepared to do the hard yards–in the all-important zones of decision. Though Sanders has been criminally ignored by the media in comparison to the other candidates, a win or two in the primaries will force greater coverage of his campaign and in all probability increase his fundraising revenues. Those monies will play a crucial role in sustaining the passion of those who ‘feel the Bern.’ And the smarts acquired during the Obama campaign are theirs to draw upon as well.  Sanders’ greatest challenge lies in the Democratic primaries, in beating a candidate deemed ‘inevitable’; if he wins, the prospect of a Trump or Cruz presidency will galvanize his support–and its fringes–even more.  There is also the small matter of the fact that Sanders’ so-called ‘socialism’ has its own populist appeal, which will bring some Reagan Democrat-like voters back to the fold.

When the primaries are over, and the Democratic nomination is settled, some states will vote Democratic as they always have; some will vote Republican as they always do. The remaining states and their electoral districts will become the focus of the two parties’ campaigns; and the winner will be the one who has the hardest working campaign workers, concentrating and doubling down on their work in the places that ‘matter.’ Sanders’ campaign has an edge, in this regard, over every other candidate. Even Trump. I do not doubt that Hillary Clinton were she to be nominated, would command an enthusiastic campaign force; it is just that the talk of Sanders unelectability simply do not take the considerations raised above into account while talking about his chances.

Contra Paul Starr, Presidential Elections Are Not Just About Electing Presidents

Paul Starr kicks off the latest production from the ‘Bernie Sanders is not a real candidate, merely a symbolic one’ brigade with the following assertions:

I have a strange idea about presidential primaries and elections: The purpose is to elect a president. And I have a strange thought about primary voters: They have a choice between sending the country a message and sending it a president.

With that opening spoonful of snark out of the way, Starr moves on to full-bore patronizing:

The desire of many Democrats to send a message is understandable. As the co-editor of a liberal magazine, The American Prospect, I know that impulse. There’s a lot of anger and frustration among Democrats about entrenched institutions resistant to change.


When Bernie Sanders calls for mobilizing millions of people to bring about a revolution, a lot of progressives cheer him on.


As appealing as Sanders may be, he is not credible as president.

And then, Starr is off and running with the usual shtick: Sanders’ plans won’t fly; he is too old; he calls himself a socialist. Got it. What would Starr like Bernie and his supporters to do? My guess is: just stop running, retire to the sidelines, make way for the Clinton cavalcade, don’t pee on that parade. Whatever you do, don’t vote for the candidate you would like to see elected, vote for the one ‘political analysts’ have decided–for you–is the ‘best’ candidate.

Starr is, I believe, a sociologist. The view of elections he offers here is curiously attenuated and impoverished for someone who claims the empirical study of society as his vocation. It is balanced, ironically enough, by an over-inflated sense of his ability to perceive the motives of those expressing their preference for Sanders (through the polls that indicate many Democrats prefer him over Hillary Clinton.)  Contra Starr, elections send messages all the time; in particular, by electing a particular candidate, voters inform the nation this is the person they want leading them. The electoral process–especially in its modern incarnation–allows for many signals to be sent as it proceeds: through the various polls that are conducted, voters inform their counterparts in other parts of the nation what their political inclinations are. For instance, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, if they vote for Sanders, might be informing other Sanders supporters that they have, so to speak, ‘got their back.’  These polls can be understood as a co-ordination mechanism; voters over the nation decide on their electoral strategy by reading the results of the poll and of the early primary votes. (I have, er, written a paper on precisely this topic.) If Sanders loses heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire perhaps support for him will falter, as Sanders supporters elsewhere realize their energies might be misspent.

Precisely because of this dynamic process of information exchange–through polls and primary elections–electoral dynamics can change. Indeed, the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are proof positive of this phenomenon: they both attracted more supporters as the election season wore on, as voters decided they could back a candidate who seemed to command support in other precincts of the nation. Moreover, the electoral process, as it progresses, may bring–precisely as a result of the enduring contest between two candidates–more information about the candidates to light, thus allowing voters to make a more informed choice.

In light of these considerations, it is bizarre that an academic analyst would suggest that this process be short-circuited because their analytical crystal ball has forecast an inevitable win for one of the candidates. Given what Starr writes, it is entirely plausible he would want to claim that the entire primary process be called off and Clinton be anointed the winning candidate.

Why have polls and elections–information elicitation processes, when oracles can do all the work for you?

The Incompatibiity Of Democracy And The Modern Nation-State

A few days ago, I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

Sometimes, over the course of a semester’s worth of reading and discussing material with one’s students, you can feel a sort of collective convergence on some substantive theses. This semester, my Political Philosophy class and I were in agreement on this one: democracy is incompatible with the modern nation-state.

I was asked for clarification. Here it is–very briefly.

The modern nation-state requires, for its adequate functioning and for the enforcement and policing of its sovereignty, structures that work to undermine democratic principles. Most prominently, the nation-state employs hierarchical bureaucracies–civil services, administrative agencies, ministries of ‘external affairs’ etc–to implement its legislative policies; it sustains standing armies and paramilitary forces like the police, which maintain territorial integrity and can be used to quell internal disturbance if needed; it colludes with corporations in a political economy to create and sustain the value required for its economic viability. The first factor results in a machinery that very quickly acquires a life of its own; elected leaders are plugged into this beast as replaceable components. The second and third factors combine to generate variants of the military-industrial complex.

The version of democracy most often found in the modern nation-state is electoral democracy: ‘representatives of the people’ are elected by popular franchise. This species of democracy notoriously generates political parties whose platforms artificially impose homogeneity of political viewpoint on a heterogeneous membership and the career politician dedicated primarily to re-election. The people turn out every few years to dutifully vote, and then retreat to their overworked schedules to take care of their daily imperatives.

The nation-state is a vast political beast that requires management. Elites and ‘specialists’ step in; oligarchies and plutocracies are formed. Once in power, the vast machinery of the state, the force of its police and armies, the economic might of the military-industrial complex, and various corporate structures act to conserve their power. Wealth and power accumulates at the political summit; political and economic inequality increase. This situation is further entrenched by ideological dominance enforced by either state or corporate media (and educational systems dedicated to producing workers for the industrial complex.)

There is centralized power; there are vast distances–of all kinds–separating the rulers from the ruled; there are enemies–real and imaginary–beyond national boundaries; there is competition–between nations–for valuable natural resources that must be guarded jealously; monies must be raised to keep the machinery of the nation-state running. One democratic imperative after another is sacrificed in order to accommodate the nation-state’s needs. Democracy–rule by citizens–all too easily drops out of this picture.

None of this critique is new. It is not particularly sophisticated either. The functioning of the nation-state is fairly transparent and does not require excessively close attention for its further details to be revealed. The environments most favorable to participatory and deliberative democracy are not to be found here. Perhaps elsewhere, in smaller, less hierarchical, more decentralized, less economically unequal spaces. But not here.

Saba Naqvi on A Supposed Crisis of Indian Secularism

Saba Naqvi has offered an interesting critique of Indian secularism; in it, she writes of the need to:
[C]onfront the great crisis of Indian secularism, that is now so hollowed out that it makes it easy for communal forces to grow….Indian secularism is not about some utterance of the soul as a Jawaharlal Nehru may have once imagined it. It appears to be mostly about electoral management by secular parties that involves first seeing Muslims as a herd and then trying to keep that herd together.

And goes on:

Beyond that, there is nothing much that the Indian secular state has given the Muslim community except perhaps to ensure that they live for eternity in the museum that displays our secularism. That museum is full of stereotypes, most notably that of the clerics as representative of the community, those men with long beards, and women in burqa. Despite being so all-pervasive, the stereotypes are so flat they at times look like caricatures.

Since Inde­pendence, sec­ular parties in India have approached the Muslim community through clerics and in the process given them legitimacy. The maulanas, in turn, have used the cover of “secularism” to keep retrograde personal laws in place and thereby their own relevance intact till presumably they land in paradise. They rarely talk of jobs, employment, modernity. The result now is that having been given “secularism” to eat and a vote to brandish, the Muslims of India have been left in their ghettos with many “sole spokesmen” of the community. It is these clerics who promise the deliverance of that herd during election time. Their projection of their own clout is often a fraudulent exercise.
Naqvi’s observations are acute but I do not know if I agree with her diagnosis. To wit, it is not clear to me if the situation at hand indicates a crisis of secularism–the Indian one in particular, which seeks to cater to all religions equally as opposed to finding a rigid separation between church and state–as much as it it is an indicator that bad things happen when the pandering almost invariably associated with electoral democracies meets organized religion, or a community in which the pronouncements of clergy are taken seriously as a guide to social action. Political parties approaching communities (read: voting blocs) through clerics alone do not give the clergy legitimacy; that standing is dependent on the social structures within which the priestly order finds a space within which to exert power. I wonder if Naqvi is putting the cart before the horse here.
On an intemperate side note: Many are the times when I wonder if organized religion–with its almost inevitable machinery of interpretive authorities, doctrinal mavens, and holy men–is, everywhere, all the time, a pernicious burden on society. Perhaps Diderot had it right: Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Gary Wills has written what seems like an excellent book about how the Catholic religion could and should get rid of its priests; it’s a model worth emulating elsewhere. (I am well aware that Islam is not similar to Catholicism in this matter.)