Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Electing not to vote?

In The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), Carl Schmitt argues that, while the foundational principle of modern parliamentarism is “openness and discussion,” the situation of parliamentarism has become critical today since “the development of modern mass democracy has made argumentative public discussion an empty formality.” Parties no longer face each other discussing opinions, but they face each other “as social or economic power-groups calculating their mutual interests and opportunities for power, and they actually agree compromises and coalitions on this basis” (p. 6).

Further, public opinion is not won over through open discussion; instead, “the masses are won over through a propaganda apparatus whose maximum effect relies on an appeal to immediate interests and passions. Argument in the real sense that is characteristic for genuine discussion ceases. In its place there appears a conscious reckoning of interests and chances for power in the parties’ negotiations; in the treatment of the masses, posterlike, insistent suggestion or … the ‘symbol’ appears” (p. 6).

What about elections? Schmitt contrasts liberal parliamentary democracy with other forms of democracy, and he describes as “undemocratic” the liberal conception “that a people could only express its will when each citizen voted in deepest secrecy and complete isolation, that is, without leaving the sphere of the private and irresponsible…. Then every single vote was registered and an arithmetical majority was calculated” (p. 16).

What is lost in this liberal conception, he argues, is an understanding of “the people” as a public entity. “The unanimous opinion of one hundred million private persons is neither the will of the people nor public opinion”; nor is our modern “statistical apparatus” the only way of expressing such public opinion. Indeed: “The stronger the power of democratic feeling, the more certain is the awareness that democracy is something other than a registration system for secret ballots” (p. 16).

11 Comments:

kim fabricius said...

Schmitt is, of course, right. Eighty-five years on more right than ever. And I have read Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting (2008), a patchy collection of essays, though the contributions of John D. Roth and Andy Alexis-Baker are cogent. And talk of Obama as God's Cyrus scare me as much as John Haggie's idolatries. But then there is Sarah Palin ...

I am reminded of the rabbis who put God in the dock in Auschwitz - and found him guilty. After the verdict (so the story goes), there was a short silence - and then the chief rabbi said, "Right, time for prayers." Similarly, despite Schmitt and the arguments of the conscientious abstainers: "Right time to vote" - for the guy who doesn't have a flag on his lawn.

scott said...

I agree with Kim. Despite my utter agreement with criticisms of 'the system', I find it difficult to see how the arguments of those advoating a kind of moral abstinence are, in this time and place (or as Hauerwas might say, 'the time and place called "America"') offering Christians anything other than concern with their own purity.

Michael at catholicanarchy summed up my sentiments exactly in a recent post (http://catholicanarchy.org/?p=704).

Dave Belcher said...

I find myself really agreeing with Kim and Scott on this one....though I am not certain that Schmitt is so right...

For 10 years I chose not to participate in elections, in "democracy," and for the first time ever, I voted in the primaries (much of which is a development in the way in which I have come to view democracy from a theological standpoint -- and a good deal of reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cornel West). I have a good friend (also a very good theologian!) who in 2004 urged me quite strongly that the choice "not to vote" (especially on ostensibly "Christian" grounds) is only a thinly veiled liberalism, not a truly Christian option...and I really think he's right, especially in this instance.

And I should add that Schmitt's position vis-a-vis democracy (i.e., that undemocratic is the view "“that a people could only express its will when each citizen voted in deepest secrecy and complete isolation, that is, without leaving the sphere of the private and irresponsible"), is in fact also the premise of civic republicanism, of political liberalism: that the "power (or "right") to vote" is in a sense forfeited if it is not complemented by and does not grow out of political "responsibility" and participation, which is precisely what provides openness and discussion....in other words, this is just a more "pure" form of liberalism.

What bothers me especially about this is that it places us in what Yoder would call a "Constantinian" position -- that is, in a position to believe that we have the "freedom" or the "power" to set up the political situation in the most ideal, or fair manner possible....that is, to place ourselves in the position of the sovereign. Now, Yoder would also agree that the vote is not the way to ensure political responsibility (far from it!). What he does say, however, is that democracy as a "rule by the people" is the "least oppressive form of government." I think this is something that must be taken seriously, and must be something to consider when we make the decision whether or not to vote today...and in the future. ....God this deserves so much more. Gotta run. Peace.

James K.A. Smith said...

I should clarify that I really am a resident alien--a Canadian living in the United States--so I can't vote here. And I appreciate what motivates differences of opinion and practice on this score. But I would take issue with Scott's claim that those advocating this sort of abstinence from democracy are doing so out of concern for some kind of desire for "moral purity," as if this was a way to keep their hands "clean." I just don't think that must be the case, since one could imagine all kinds of reasons to not participate. Those reasons could relative to _this particular_ democratic system (i.e., a two-party system where even the "leftish" party is campaigning on tax cuts, etc.). Or one could imagine non-Christian schools of thought that also refuse to participate in the democratic system, not because they think it is "dirty" or "tainting," but because it is a ruse and fraud.

All that just to say that I don't think one can conclude that those who abstain from voting are thereby congratulating themselves on retaining some moral purity.

Jane said...

Thanks so much for this post on this day. Democracies are not only about structures: the way ballots get cast and counted; the forms of government that the voting is able to put in place; democracies are also about culture - a culture of debate or propaganda; of participation or stay at home for reality tv; a culture that together we might change things and make a difference or a culture where we just give up and get cynical.
And I'd say most of us are caught between all of these conflicting pulls.
In the end it seems ot me it's not necesarily about the actual voting it's about how much we are willing to contribute to the "espace publique" or public sphere. voting tends to be the way democracies measure that but perhaps the liveliness of our civil society should be.
Ah yes and now I have been out of th eUK I no longer have a vote in the land I hold a passport for but I can vote in France in local and European elections - and I tryx to exercise that hard fought for right.

Dave Belcher said...

Let me put it this way, since I was rushed before and exceedingly unclear -- as is usually the case.

I tend to find voting to be a completely useless tool...I really do, and always have (which is why I have never participated) -- on not simply theological but also philosophical and practical grounds. Nevertheless, I truly believe that this pertains to an aspect about democracy that requires and props up homogeneity...and what has changed for me is that Barack Obama is not that any longer. I will vote today because Obama has in fact proved Alain Badiou wrong -- voting will not in fact ensure that things will go on the same way, precisely because Obama is not the same...no, of course he's not a messiah, or Cyrus, or whatever...that's ridiculous. He's a man, and knows that. But, he has proven (at least to me!) that politics in America, democratic politics can in fact change.

I'm sure many of you will jump on that, and find me to be silly...oh well...do your worst.

Evan said...

Great thoughts from Schmitt, although I'd offer two responses (these are more about contemporary American politics than 1920's Germany, with which I'm less familiar)-

-The idea of secret and privately irresponsible voting is a legitimate concern to raise, but we also shouldn't forget the original point of such private decision-making. We should thank the Lord that political actions like this can be taken without coercion from the government or any other agent of power. While private vice is a thing to be criticized, I don't think this is any reason to speak as if the privacy itself is somehow contrary to public discourse or reasonable political life together.

-We also shouldn't forget that propaganda and other distortions of mass democracy do nothing- absolutely nothing- to prevent the personal choice for reasonable and public dialogue or open discussion. This blog post, if nothing else, is a testament to that. Again, I think the concerns of Schmitt are worth repeating, and it is certainly true that many of the "masses" are "won over" on the basis of unreasonable appeal to immediate interest and passions (or a parody of the same). But for you to talk about "public opinion" in such monolithic terms already admits and accepts the distortion of mass democracy that Schmitt warns against. The reality is in fact more nuanced than that, and less well summarized with simplistic diagnoses (which don't end up being much different than the propaganda)

John Hartley said...

From the Amazon link there are two reviews, the second of which is extremely helpful (in my opinion). I confess I haven't read Schmitt himself.

I think it was C S Lewis who said that democracy was the worst way to run human society, except for all the other ways that had been tried. Schmitt's differentiation of 'democracy' and 'parliamentarianism' is very interesting, but I think the crucial point is that those who critique the present system need to come up with something better. The "Synodical" model of everyone arguing it out face-to-face can't possibly work in gatherings of more than a few hundred, and the idea that everyone should have to vote in public obviously leaves voters vulnerable to coercion. Personally I believe that STV is better than first-past-the-post systems, because at least that way the supporters of minority parties are not left in the quandry of tactical voting.

I forget who it was who said that a people gets the government it deserves, but handwringing about the power of advertising is a very futile gesture.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Shane said...

USA! USA! USA!

Dave Belcher said...

Let me put it this way, since I was rushed before and exceedingly unclear -- as is usually the case.

I tend to find voting to be a completely useless tool...I really do, and always have (which is why I have never participated) -- on not simply theological but also philosophical and practical grounds. Nevertheless, I truly believe that this pertains to an aspect about democracy that requires and props up homogeneity...and what has changed for me is that Barack Obama is not that any longer. I will vote today because Obama has in fact proved Alain Badiou wrong -- voting will not in fact ensure that things will go on the same way, precisely because Obama is not the same...no, of course he's not a messiah, or Cyrus, or whatever...that's ridiculous. He's a man, and knows that. But, he has proven (at least to me!) that politics in America, democratic politics can in fact change.

I'm sure many of you will jump on that, and find me to be silly...oh well...do your worst.

James K.A. Smith said...

I should clarify that I really am a resident alien--a Canadian living in the United States--so I can't vote here. And I appreciate what motivates differences of opinion and practice on this score. But I would take issue with Scott's claim that those advocating this sort of abstinence from democracy are doing so out of concern for some kind of desire for "moral purity," as if this was a way to keep their hands "clean." I just don't think that must be the case, since one could imagine all kinds of reasons to not participate. Those reasons could relative to _this particular_ democratic system (i.e., a two-party system where even the "leftish" party is campaigning on tax cuts, etc.). Or one could imagine non-Christian schools of thought that also refuse to participate in the democratic system, not because they think it is "dirty" or "tainting," but because it is a ruse and fraud.

All that just to say that I don't think one can conclude that those who abstain from voting are thereby congratulating themselves on retaining some moral purity.

Post a Comment

New book

Archive

Contact

Although I'm not always able to reply to all emails, please feel free to contact me.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.

TOPO