detour into "propaganda" -- specifically, the kind of pro-enlightenment propaganda that helped to make most of us the people that we are. A system of relentlessly repeated messages that have helped our Enlightenment/modernist civilization to push upstream against the hard current of human nature -- an everpresent tide that keeps trying to drive us into the more typical social patterns that dominated nearly every other culture.
Especially rule by bullying, self-interested and coercive elites. And the incantatory lackeys - the wizards and priests and spin-doctors who used tools of romantic persuasion to rationalize aristo bullying as a good thing.
Which brings us back to today's politics. What I plan to do now is to intersperse recent comments with some material that I wrote about the issue of "minority veto"... back in different times. Specifically, I am disturbed by the recent spat over the US Senate filibuster rules. We have just seen one party - the party that used filibusters far more often, in the past, suddenly using their (highly debatable) recent razor-thin electoral victory as justification for promoting a new agenda, claiming that all they want is to simply allow "majority rule" to manifest in an efficient manner, giving the President's judicial nominees the "courtesy" of a simple up down vote. *
But can 50.1 percent legitimately over-rule the wishes of 49.9 percent who disagree? Pushing a radical agenda that at least 49% of the electorate actively despises?
Actually, majority rule has long been already tempered in much of American political life. Until recently, Congress seldom passed a law supported by just 51% of the people, while vigorously opposed by nearly half. We've already discussed how minority objections are traditionally palliated by negotiation, mollification, and tradeoffs. The power of opposing groups can be measured by multiplying their numbers by their fervor, so that small but intense lobbies may effectively veto measures desired only tepidly by much greater majorities.
(I wrote that paragraph, and the next one, before 2001. It now seems like another century. In any event, you can see how the filibuster was originally intended to fit this purpose... and how it would also have been abused, when the cloture rule was 66% instead of a mere 60%.)
This dance of factions can be frustrating, as when popular measures such as gun control are stymied by vigorous advocacy groups like the NRA. But on the whole, it is a better, more mature way of doing things than pure majority rule, or tyranny by 51%. Minority veto slows progress, but it also forces legislators to keep seeking that elusive, worthy goal -- consensus.
I could go on about how this applies to the whole notion of civil disobedience, which can be viewed as the legitimate resort of minorities whose passion matches their sense of disenfranchisement. Innovators like Thoreau, Ghandi and Martin Luther King emphasized that breaking the law should never be a first resort, and that the state has some right to imprison protestors who stage sit-down strikes or block traffic. Indeed, only half of the effectiveness of any act of civil disobedience arises from inconveniencing the obdurate majority. The other half comes from proudly and willingly accepting proportionate punishment, demonstrating sincerity, courage and commitment. Protestors who whine about serving a small amount of jail time, for protesting in some provocative manner, miss the whole point.
As do authorities who use disproportionate force. Very few cultures in history would have let Gandhi or King live long enough to try out their methodologies and begin the long process of rousing the conscience of a semi enlightened majority. Today, though, civilization appears to (at least for now) 'get it'. If you protest something with letters to the editor - or a posted irate blog - there are (supposed to be) no repercussions. If you picket, you get more attention, perhaps, but pay a deterrence penalty of lost time and possibly abuse from passersby. If you lie down in front of trucks, you may be fined. Even in the unenlightened fifties, when Rosa Parks sat in the wrong part of the bus, she went to jail, but wasn't shot. And like Rosa, if your protest succeeds, you may be rewarded later and lionized as a cultural hero for the second half of your life.
(As you can tell, I am cribbing a bit from a never-published essay that I wrote in more innocent times. For example, consider the next two paragraphs, that seemed applicable until just the last few years. On today's context, they illustrate just how badly things have become poisoned.)
Minority factions may not be able to get their assertive agenda passed. But almost any group can veto actions it dislikes, providing its size, multiplied by its vociferousness, reaches a certain level. Political rigor mortis is one possible result, which is fine for the sanctimonious on both sides, who don’t want action, only a continued state of warlike threat, in order to keep the adrenaline and endorphins flowing.
But this is adversarial gridlock is a serious problem for any group or ideology that’s serious about accomplishing action. It means that a 51% majority will do you no good at all if a strong 40% opposition is truly determined to block you. In order to succeed, proponents must divide the enemy by reaching some sort of compromise consensus with ‘moderates’ on the other side... something that is loathsome to the purist. More loathsome, perhaps, than inaction.
What has changed? One of our parties has become utterly radicalized. Under conditions like this, no amount of fervor or remonstration by 49% can avail if 51% have total control of all branches of governance. Individual mavericks like John McCain may speak up occasionally for compromise. But the proof is in the pudding. GOP party discipline is so perfect that, after four and half years, George W. Bush has yet to use a single veto.
We might as well have a European system of ideology-based parties. We are certainly moving away from the American principle of emphasizing the individual candidate/delegate over the party manifesto.
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All right, what about the executive branch? If Congress used to be a nexus for negotiation, the US political process seems to have chosen an almost military command structure for our executive. When a European country's cabinet votes, the Prime Minister generally obeys. When a president's cabinet votes, he ponders their advice and does as he likes.
Often an ideologue, riding into the White House by a slim margin, acts as if he's been anointed the mantle of history. Even when just forty percent are left out, in a landslide, should tens of millions be lightly dismissed? Of course, things are even worse when the electoral margin was razor-thin. We'll talk more about this next time..
I get into many specifics about the most recent election at: http://www.davidbrin.com/realculturewar1.html
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Summarizing this section. Those who push "majority rule" as something sacred are doing the same thing that prior generations of ideologues did, when promoting the divine right of kings - or minority rule by a privileged elite. They are pounding the pulpit for a pure platonic essence that also just happens to support the power needs of their aristocratic patrons.
Yes, majority rule was an improvement over earlier systems of governance. But western civilization has long-since become more sophisticated, developing methodologies of minority veto and negotiated consensus.
Those who would have us abandon all of the hard-won pragmatic progress and subtlety of modern democracy, in favor of a gross oversimplification, are not friends of democracy in any form.
Next: a modest suggestion for how to respect minority opinion in the presidency, during an era of increasing polarization...
Part 1: Why Majority Rule is a Deadly Ruse
Part 2: The Propaganda of Enlightenment
Part 3: The Myth of Majority Rule
Part 4: The L-R axis redux: More on the war of ideas
==And on another topic…
Finally, a few comments in the Star Wars thread. I agree SW has common elements with both Faust and classic Greek tragedy. Indeed. In Poetics Aristotle defines a tragedy as watching the inevitable suffering of a hero who is doomed by Fate, with no way out. This defines tragedy in the old style I've been calling nostalgist, fatalistic, or romantic...
...and because it's old, that does require us to approve. Yes, when I watch a good rendition of Oedipus, I cry in sympathy as he twists and turns, caught by the gods like a fish on a hook. But I ALSO want to leap on the stage with a pistol, put poor Oedie out of his misery, then use the rest of the bullets to hunt down the nasty "gods" who committed this crime against him .
That possibility - of average (or above average) folk holding capricious elites accountable - was inherent in the sappy-silly but wonderful "Xena" and "Hercules" series, a few years back. Though they were demigods, both characters chose to side with humanity. Average joes could matter. Both main characters dabbled with anger quite often, demonstrating mature choices, instead of automatically turning irreversibly evil.
And yes, you can have "tragedy" without assuming it's fated or ordained. There was never anything ordained about nuclear war. Hence, "On The Beach" and "Dr. Strangelove" were terrifyingly tragic tales precisely BECAUSE the destruction of all life was inherently avoidable. In modernist view, drama concerns the making of good-bad choices, not twisting in the wind because three old crones happened to spin your fate that way. (For more on these fabled creatures, see my short story, "The Loom of Thessaly"!)
Oh, one more thing: someone said "films don't deal with contrition". Really? Spielberg's magnificent "Schindler's List" teaches precisely the opposite moral lesson than SWIII ROTS. Think about it. Enough. Back to this culture of ours and trying to make it work. The gritty hard work of pragmatic modern problem solvers, negotiating in good faith to make things better.