Dear Mouffe, Stick To Theory
Mouffe believes that a Liberal Democracy creates a paradox that can be solved by keeping the democratic aspects of society, but getting rid of the political ones. In other words, he advocates for a direct democracy. He calls this “agonistic pluralism.” While I don’t think that a perfect form of “agonistic pluralism” is possible, let’s take it at face value at first before critiquing it. To answer the question of whether Mouffe’s “agonistic pluralism” solves the crisis of the Enlightenment, I turn to the first essay I wrote for this class, where I discuss the three-fold crisis of the Enlightenment.
- It sends a contradictory message: it demands the public to think freely for itself, but in thinking freely for themselves, the public is thereby submitting to authority and merely obeying the command to think for themselves.
- The Enlightenment claims its goal is to seek universal truth, something that — due to the inherent perceptual rather than static status of truth — is not possible.
Starting with the first one,
- Human beings naturally do not want to find Enlightenment; they would rather be directed by authority and be relieved of the burden to think for themselves.
I argue that a perfect “agonistic pluralism” solves two out of three of these problems.
The first crisis would mostly be solved. Citizens would not be required to think for themselves. They would have the opportunity to engage in the political conversation, and vote for policy issues individually. The second problem is solved as well. To give Mouffe credit, he does understand the problem with suggesting that truth is stationary and that we will find it eventually. Mouffe instead argues, like the great contrarian Hitchens, that disagreement is necessary to make progress. I’ll give the same analogy I gave in my first essay: the only way to pick something up is to use forces going in the opposite direction (two hands or two fingers coming together from opposite sides, for example). You can’t pick something up with all forces going in the same direction. Opposition and debate is the way to do it, not by moving only in the same direction, i.e. a universal truth. The third crisis is more problematic and is not solved with Mouffe’s theory. We as a people do not want to have “agonistic pluralism.” We would rather cede our power to higher authority, who will tell us what to do. It’s easier on us.
Now, onto critiquing the theory itself. Mouffe believes the best way to solve dilemmas in politics is to take our antagonistic political disagreement and turn them into agonistic disagreements, to form a kind of Civic Republicanism, to still have policy and politics but to get rid of the political by having citizens vote for policies directly. This is much easier said than done. There’s a reason Mouffe is a philosophical theorist. In practice, a system like the ancient Greeks had would not work well on the large scale of the United States. But there is a middle ground between representational politics and fighting out policy ideas in person: small government.
Governing the entire 300 million people of the United States under one set of rules is a task too difficult to undertake. It would be a much more efficient and personally-tailored government if more decisions were made on a smaller scale. But before I get into the idea of “small government,” it is necessary to define what the ideal political structure would look like and address how small government could play into ensuring this aspect of Democracy would remain intact. Thankfully, we have countless theorists who have already pointed out many critiques of the one already in place. Starting first with Rawls’ “justice as fairness,” the one main point that we should turn to from his piece is the “difference principle.” I agree with Rawls in suggesting that a liberal democracy is functioning so long as there is an opportunity for the person who is least well off to move forward and upward in class. So long as this is true, liberalism is not defunct. Scaling down the size of the government would give local citizens more of a say in policy that directly affects them, more than any other policy. San Francisco, under former mayor Gavin Newsom, implemented an education system in which the government provided citizens with student savings accounts to encourage saving up for college. The government even took the initiative of charging the account with an initial amount. Now that Newsome is the governor elect, he wants to implement this system on a larger state level. But the problem is that not everyone in the state needs this money, and not everyone would benefit from it. Sure, we can take Mouffe at his word and say that citizens themselves should vote for this plan, but there is no doubt it would pass. Who wouldn’t want free money from the state?
This leads me to the criticism of Mouffe’s Civic Republicanism idea. If we compare the idea to the one the ancient Greeks had, when they debated whether they would go to war, they were the ones who would actually go to war. Their decisions impacted their very actions. They lived for the state. Today, citizens do not live for the state. It is laughable to think that handing the reins of power directly to citizens would ensure the best outcome for the state. Citizens are naturally greedy and want what is best for themselves, without too much consideration of what is best for their neighbors. The same, of course, is true with politicians, especially representatives in the House who have to win reelection every two years and cannot afford to think long term. In one of my classes, we learned about George Bush’s attempt to reform social security as a case study for this phenomenon called “ congressional myopicism.” Seeing that the social security system was on track (and still is on track) for failure, Bush took it upon himself to suggest reforms. He was lambasted by both sides of the political aisle and nothing got done. Even though it is clear that social security is headed for failure, citizens are too greedy to do anything about it. They want their money now, and they aren’t worrying about the next generation of retirees. The most eye catching example to me was Rep. Ben Simmons saying Social Security would only be a problem in 2042. “I will be dead by then,” he said.
The next major critique of the current political system comes from Pateman in the “Sexual Contract.” Her criticism, that women did not have a say in the making of the social contract and the writing of the Constitution, and that this reality has seeped into modern times, is indeed valid. Pateman believes women were coerced into signing the contract, and therefore got the worse end of the deal. She’s right. But her solution to reinvent the wheel and start over from scratch is simply a cry for attention. It doesn’t make sense. We discussed this in part during class: giving women a seat at the table would not necessarily fix the inequalities they face. The problem stems not from the contract that is on paper, but rather from everything that is not written down. It’s a hearts and minds problem.
But yet another problem is that not every woman is on board with changing the way society is structured. The solution? Small government! Let the majority of women in a given area decide what they want their role to be. A nationwide, large-scale movement to demand women go to college and get jobs that require as much work as men for equal pay is not something every woman wants. Some women do indeed value their important role as the manager of the house, as the person who ensures tranquility in the house. In Judaism, this is referred to as “Shalom Ba’it,” peace of the house. As an ironic aside, in ultra orthodox households in Israel, women bring in the incomes for their families while their husbands study Torah all day. While women certainly have oppressive laws apply to them in these households, the super religious families actually rely on the woman to support the family monetarily. But anyway, as difficult as it is for us living in progressive California to believe, some women choose not to go to college and take care of their household instead.
A series I think everyone can agree represents a true “liberal democracy” is Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Indeed it shows that Frank Underwood, someone elected only by one congressional district, could potentially make his way to becoming president. But even more importantly, the dynamic between Underwood and his wife Claire is revealing of how women can bring themselves to the negotiating table and rewrite the sexual contract. In the beginning of the series, Claire understood her role was less publically significant, saying “behind every man is a woman with blood on her hands.” She eventually changed her mind and moves to the spotlight. This is true in part because of Kevin Spacey’s scandal, but even before the scandal came out she decided that she would run the show. Her numbers were higher and she was outscoring her husband on the public opinion polls. Claire decided she wanted to “not just be seen, I want to be significant.” She eventually takes the presidency from her husband.
None of liberal democracy dilemmas can truly be eradicated. The system we have is best to be fixed from the inside by decreasing the power of the national government and moving toward small-scale management. Making the jump to getting rid of all politicians may solve the political aspect of our democracy problems, but it would create others that I think would be more detrimental. That said, such a radical change would be a true revolution of ultimate ends and could appease Pateman. In that spirit, I’ll end with another House of Cards quote: “If you want compromise, become a politician. If you want change, become a revolutionary.”