Around the world, the institutions of liberal democratic systems are waging a rear-guard action against sustained attacks from populist and extremist movements. These trends are not new, but can be traced to events in the recent past, as well as broader historical developments. In this session, participants will learn why political scientists are so concerned about these trends, and what ordinary citizens can do to improve democratic accountability in Canada.
This post is inspired by a short conversation I had months ago about climate change. It went something like this:
Hello passerby, do you want to learn more about sustainability?
Passerby: why yes, I am very interested in that topic. I always keep a clean house, I compost so I don’t waste food, I ride my bike as much as possible, and I use organic products, so I am definitely living sustainably.
Me: that’s interesting and very commendable! Have you thought about how you can contribute to the cause?
Passerby: well, I feel like I’m doing everything I should, and if everybody lived the way I do, we’d all be better off, but I can’t tell other people how to live. Besides, all that stuff about climate change just doesn’t seem to be based on fact.
Since ‘the great hunkerdown’ began, I’ve been thinking about this point of view alot. I see similar, if more extreme, ideas being circulated in the media. There’s an invisible line drawn between ‘my world’ and ‘what I’m responsible for’ and ‘the world of others’ and ‘what they are responsible for’. An individualistic approach to problems is our reflexive reaction in the Anglo settler countries of the developed industrialized world. Individualistic liberalism dictates that the line of ethical responsibility for others is determined by each person, as they make free decisions based on their own values and interests.
There’s something to be said for the power of this idea and its influence on liberal culture. After all, it is liberalism which first originated the modern language of rights and constructed a political space for imagining an ethic of agency which has been highly effective, at least within its own parameters.
It is appropriate to imagine that collective problems can be solved by individual action, indeed it is difficult to imagine how any progress can be made absent people ‘buying in’ to it, for example by changing their own consumption patterns.
Those countries around the world that ignored individual freedoms in favour of panicked enforced lockdowns in response to the pandemic will likely pay a high price in legitimacy, which will be costly in the end. Those countries that have enjoined their populations to ‘do the right thing’ have implicitly drawn on people’s genuine fears of their own contagion rather than a commitment to civic duty.
In the developed world, we should all pay deep respect and homage to the Italians for their sacrifice in helping us to learn that we were vulnerable. However, those countries that have relied almost exclusively on fears, without any reference to civic duty, have fared even worse than Italy, because in a liberal culture the absence of a sense of civic duty means that individual freedoms end up trumping everything else. Now more than ever, the paradoxical nature of individual freedom, based on a confident sense of security and separateness, is being laid bare.
It is liberalism which first originated the modern language of rights and constructed a political space for imagining an ethic of agency which has been highly effective, at least within its own parameters.
The gaps and limits of liberalism are being made visible, even obvious, as the logic becomes extended to its absurdities and extremes. Why not me first? Why care about others, isn’t that their job? My house is in order, I am healthy, I am reducing my footprint, I’m doing the right thing, I’m not the threat, why do I have to pay a price?
A really clear gap of liberal culture as it lives today, is its lack of any distributional ethics. Liberal thinking is essentially blind to the question of how security, or any other value, should be distributed. Since the only value worth distributing is individual freedom, and the only way to measure it is by each persons’ values and preferences, there is little to no room for considering exactly how equitable social distribution might actually work to enhance individual freedoms. The idea that each person’s freedom will be enhanced when decisions are made equitably, with the collective interest in mind, is alien and foreign.
The passerby who cares deeply about the cleanliness of her own household, and believes she alone deserves the benefit of her efforts, is blind to the myriad ways in which her choices are supported by the collective decisions of the past (and the present) that have made those choices possible. Indeed, the entire institutional structure of individual choices enjoyed today by those who most strongly defend their ‘freedoms’ has been made possible by the collective decisions of societies in the past (not by individuals). Ultimately, in history, it is only collective action that lasts, since the length of individual lifetimes is too short for leaders to see their ideas become permanently embedded. Thatcher had it exactly wrong: it’s not that there is no such thing as society, in the end there is only society.
Ultimately, in history, it is only collective action that lasts, since the length of individual lifetimes is too short for leaders to see their ideas become permanently embedded. Thatcher had it exactly wrong: it’s not that there is no such thing as society, in the end there is only society.
The cracks in this edifice are showing. The maldistribution of security, including the inequitable distribution of (in)vulnerability, is becoming glaringly obvious. The invisible line between ‘immunity’ and ‘vulnerability’ is being revealed for what it is: a collective construction. Immunity/vulnerability is a paradox. Immunity is always dependent, derivative of the vulnerability of and to others. The confidence in individual choice that liberalism empowers is at its core a function of the maldistribution of social vulnerability. Immunity can never be ‘just for me’ if it is to be a real thing and not an illusion or myth.
My protest to be mask-free is predicated on the existence of modern medical knowledge, nurses, doctors, and ventilators which can catch me if I fall. My resolve to open my business profitably is predicated on the willingness of customers to take risks AMA (against medical advice). All of this means that I have to be very strident to convince enough of the community to my side if I’m going to make a go of it.
My sense of safety in my own home, my ‘home immunity’ is predicated on the risks and vulnerability of service workers, first responders, grocery clerks, truck drivers, payroll clerks, meat plant workers, sewage workers, and an army of government employees. My insistence that I am only responsible for my own house is predicated on the edifice of social protections that society has established collectively. This edifice includes the effort and sacrifice of climate activists who may eventually contribute to finding a collective solution to the threat of climate change without my help.
If and when solutions are found, as a liberal focused on the ethics of individualism, I would have no qualms in making a claim for the immunity created by the vaccine for myself and my household. Similarly, I would have no qualms about defending my right to enjoy the benefits of a livable planet, including my freedom, as long as someone else pays the price. The question is, would anybody care enough about me to listen?
As 2018 comes to an end and the world looks to an increasingly uncertain future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the importance of compassion in public life. On the one hand, it seems it should not be necessary to remind ourselves of the need for compassion, while on the other hand, there has never been a time when it is more vital to think about it.
When I speak of compassion I consider it to be similar to the emotion of empathy, which means the ability to identify closely with the feelings of another. However, empathy is an emotion, while compassion is emotion plus action. Empathy is personal, individual, and private. When one experiences empathy, it is not necessarily expressed. Many of us feel empathy for the plight of refugees, but few of us take any action based on those feelings. Compassion is both an expression and an action, something that is a unique responsibility of the powerful. It is the world’s 1% who, due to their elite position, have the most abilityto exercise compassion. Consequently, the world’s 1% (and if you live in a relatively wealthy developed country, you are part of this elite) uniquely bear the moral responsibility to exercise compassion. The exercise and practice of compassion as an action is much rarer than the feeling of empathy, partly because wealth and inequality suppress the expression of compassion. As the world becomes wealthier and more unequal, generosity declines.
Even more unusual is the embedding of compassion into the practices of a society, in other words, through its laws and institutions. Are institutions capable of compassion? Indeed they must be, because if social structures can be violent and oppressive, then it stands to reason that the opposite must also be possible: institutions and laws can be written in compassionate ways, with compassionate ends. It is the public exercise of compassion with which I am most concerned with, because it raises the potential for people to write compassionate institutions and laws. Compassionate laws are necessary because, as suggested, individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.
Compassionate laws make it possible for persons to express and act on their feelings of empathy, because they can see that those feelings are socially elevated. The Dali Lama talks about something similar in the Education of the Heart. Compassionate law can help to educate and give permission for people to act on their empathy. To say that law can be compassionate goes beyond a ‘minimalist’ vision of law – that law is only there to level the playing field and justice means equal treatment under the law. Even if law were able to do this leveling, an element of compassion is also essential to the achievement of equal treatment, since law must be attentive to justice. In this sense, human rights law is essentially compassionate in its purpose. Based on observation of the current state of law in the US, it is clearly not able to even achieve the minimal goal of equal treatment or fairness. The gap between law and justice can be reduced with adequate attention to the need for compassionate law.
The kind of compassion I’m thinking about should also be distinguished from altruism, although compassion relies on altruism, they are not identical. Altruism, which is a kind of selflessness, or non-self interested attitude of generosity and giving, is a vital component of compassion, because altruistic motives reduce the temptation to use demonstrations of compassion for self-promotion. Compassionate law is one very effective way to express altruism. Indeed, compassionate law resists self-interested motives by moving altruism from the private to the public sphere and thereby removing the personal motives that might affect compassionate and just outcomes.
The enactment of compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.
Recently, some thinking on giving and charity has been diverted from these concepts of compassion by a concern with effectiveness. Rather than asking how can giving be more compassionate, the question becomes: how can giving be most effective? As one proponent argues: “Instead of doing charity in a way that makes people feel good, effective altruists rely on rigorous, evidence-based analysis to decide how to donate money, where to donate, and which careers are most ethical.” I would argue that this is a diversion. Effective altruists argue using a utilitarian measure: what is good for the most number of people must be the best and most effective form of giving. Using this algorithm, how might one decide between funding one individual’s education and funding a food program for thousands? Probably many more people can be helped with the food program, but over the course of a lifetime what effect might a highly educated individual have, especially if they were able to achieve a position in which they could institute more compassionate laws? The effort to reduce giving to an algorithm sacrifices the element of compassion and arguably undermines the goal of achieving more effective giving. It’s not that effective altruism is wrong, it just kind of misses the point. What is really changed, even if a larger number of people are helped by a given action? There is a risk in reinforcing the status quo and ensuring that giving will continue to be necessary far into the future, violating the goal of achieving truly altruistic giving.
Compassionate laws are necessary because individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.
The enactment of compassionate law can, over time and with much learning, come closer to achieving lasting and effective results because it builds-in the principle of altruism by removing self-promotion from the equation. In addition, compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities. The human tendency to self-aggrandizement and acquisitiveness is worsened by inequality. Inequality erodes people’s ability to be altruistic and even their ability to empathize. Compassion is needed in a highly unequal world because it is effective, and it is effective because it is authoritative and self-reflexive. The exercise of compassion invites reflection upon one’s own position and relatively good fortune. The proponents of effective altruism are right that relying on natural generosity and emotion is insufficient to make for effective giving, but they are wrong to abandon the idea of compassion, which is needed now more than at any other time of history. This season of giving, consider ways that you might contribute to the establishment of compassionate law, or if this is too ambitious, think about how you can help others express and act on their feelings of empathy, working together with others. For starters, you might consider sharing this post!
Although often painted as problematic for rational decision making, emotion is a human trait that must be accounted for in analyses of real-world decision making processes.
Sometimes I find that classroom conversations from years ago have new relevance in the present period. I recall a classroom debate in the York University International Relations Core Course during my PhD program, over the strategic basis of nuclear deterrence. After reviewing the various claims and counter claims about the cold logic of mutually assured destruction, and inspired at least in part by Carol Cohn’s groundbreaking work “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals”,* I found myself questioning the rationalist foundations of nuclear strategy. “But (I said with all of the confidence of youth), don’t nuclear scientists and strategic game theorists care about their families and their fates? How can they be so dispassionate about contemplating total annihilation? How can they go to work and talk about clean bombs and counter value targeting (a euphemism for attacking cities) and then go home and hug and kiss their kids?” The reason, I was told, is that they do what they do BECAUSE they care….they are dispassionate because that is how they, and we all, end up alive. Their caring is what motivates their clear thinking.
This answer still strikes me as unsatisfying in many ways. What precisely does it mean to ‘care’ in strategic decision making? ‘Caring’ is an emotional response. Although often painted as problematic for rational decision making, emotion is a human trait that must be accounted for in analyses of real-world decision making processes.
There are many examples of ’emotions gone wrong’ in world politics. George W. Bush’s strong desire to attack Iraq in 2003 was in part a personal and emotional reaction to how he perceived his father had been threatened by Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. The first attack on Iraq in 1991 was itself in part motivated by shock at widely-reported atrocities by Iraqi forces after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. These reports later turned out to be false, but the outraged reaction fed into the public’s willingness to support a new narrative of Iraq, and Hussein in particular, as a savage and villainous leader.
Before launching his invasion of Kuwait, Hussein had been considered a strategic ally, despite his use of chemical weapons against Iran and his own people. In a famous meeting between American diplomat April Glaspie and Saddam Hussein on the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Glaspie said that the US had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait”. This, perhaps inadvertently, suggested a green light for Iraq to invade, a miscommunication with consequences still being felt years later.
“It is striking that people often preserve their images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary” ~Robert Jervis
Analysts have approached the subject of emotion in decision making from a variety of different angles. To the extent that emotions result in misread signals and a tendency to rash action, these are viewed as highly problematic for peace, stability, and prosperity in world politics.
During the high stakes and high tensions of Cold War diplomacy, governments sought advice from experts who could help them better understand how emotions could impair rational decision making. One of those experts was Robert Jervis, whose master work Perception and Misperception in International Politicswas first published in 1976.
Among the many insights in Jervis’s enduring work, the idea that cognitive dissonance, or an inability to cope with the tension between real experiences and beliefs, motivates people to misread the signals and intentions of others. As Jervis stated: “It is striking that people often preserve their images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary (143).” So true.
Jervis’s work was part of a larger conversation between realists and their critics over whether decision making could be truly rational. Realists and others argued that decision making could and should be prudent, deliberative, objective, and rigorous, if it was to be effective. Critics, like Jervis, argued that ‘pure’ rationality was elusive, and at any rate not necessarily desirable since even the most ‘rational’ decisions can create irrational and suboptimal outcomes. The Prisoners’ Dilemma is the prime example of how ‘rational’ decision making can create less desirable outcomes than those that might come about with more trust, empathy, and communication between leaders.
Major policy decisions and international diplomacy now appear to be made virtually on the fly, with little deliberation, on the spur of emotional reaction that appears to have little pattern or reason. Emotion has moved to the centre of decision making, moving from the margins to be a primary driver of governance at elite and popular levels. Virtually no one sees ‘governing from the gut’ as a positive development, given the volatility of, for example, relations between the US and a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea.
Is there an upside to recognizing the role of emotions in decision making? As well as being volatile, emotions can also lead people to identify and empathize with others, an important human capacity that leads to movements for peace, development assistance, and generosity during humanitarian disasters or suffering. Just as hatred for Hussein led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, empathy and caring led hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks to protest that war in the largest demonstrations in history. As I pointed out in class, caring is key and should be central to understanding motivations.
As well as being volatile, emotions can also lead people to identify and empathize with others, an important human capacity that leads to movements for peace, development assistance, and generosity during humanitarian disasters or suffering.
There is a marked erosion of empathy in the world today, whether caused by donor fatigue, news fatigue, or a rise in the general level of fear and threat. Anxiety ‘crowds out’ empathy. In this context, the realist/rationalist effort to banish emotion from decision making, in both practical and theoretical terms, seems misguided. What is needed is a reframing of the role of emotion.
Emotional reactions exist, but so do emotional connections. Empathy is needed to ‘temper’ tempers. In an ‘age of anger’ it is healthier to recognize, name and acknowledge the role of emotions in human decisions than it is to pursue an impossible goal of pure, cold, and clinical rationality. Deliberation, democracy and debate, whether on social media, in the Oval Office, or between negotiators, should be based on a mutual recognition of emotions as part of the discussion.
The point is not to exclude emotions from world politics in favour of an ideal of detached rationalism. The point is to avoid confusing emotional expressions with strategic decisionmaking. To return to the original discussion about nuclear strategy, it is the caring that creates the strategy, the desire for self-preservation that motivates rational thinking.
The world’s history of miscommunication, misunderstanding and unintentional effects do not bode well. The key ingredients of nuclear deterrence are capability and credibility, and Trump is sorely lacking in the latter. In the game of war, confusions of intent are, and have been, deadly: from 1914 to 2003, and up to today. To the extent that rationalist theory urges clear eyed thinking and deliberation, it can contribute to keeping cooler heads. But even rationalists should not seek to banish all emotion, since a lack of caring leads to less human decisions that ultimately may end up threatening all of us.
*I highly recommend Cohn’s piece, if only for her great lyrical analysis of gendered language in defense strategy, with terms like “vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted
versus spasm attacks” (page 693).
Both the Left and the right have adopted the terminology of the Deep State to describe those hidden structures and relationships that permeate a state’s administrative apparatus and represent a set of semi-permanent structures that sit below the political level. On both sides, the so-called Deep State has come to represent a fundamentally anti-democratic and secretive force operating out of public view and without accountability or transparency. The argument from the left is that the revolving doors of Wall Street, the military and the bureaucracy have created a club of common interests that works towards favourable policies for the wealthy, including low taxes, de-regulation, militarism and regressive social and economic policies that penalize the poor. For the right, the deep state has become a force for endless bloat, overspending, over-regulation and failed global liberal projects of democratization and cosmopolitanism. In particular, the right has focused on the Obama administration’s expansion of healthcare services as a wedge to entrench even more state bureaucracies.
The polarized state of politics in the US means that there is a tendency on both sides to overstate the power, significance and uniformity of the Deep State. In political science the term ‘deep state’ as it is presently used does not have technical or analytical meaning. However, political scientists sometimes made a distinction between 1. the state administrative apparatus; 2. the government, which changes frequently in response to democratic cycles; and 3. the semi-political institutions that are termed a ‘regime’, which melds the political and bureaucratic elements. These three elements (the bureaucracy, the government, and the regime) form a larger, and much more permanent organization termed ‘the state’ which encompasses and supersedes all of these components by embodying a single legal entity from which the authority of all of the other parts flows. The separation of institutional powers among the branches of government, and among the various bureaucracies, is permanently enshrined in the Constitution in order to prevent the abuse of power by any one of these components, all underpinned by the permanence of the rule of law.
The polarized state of politics in the US means that there is a tendency on both sides to overstate the power, significance and uniformity of the deep state.
The fact is, the directly ‘democratic’ components of the state are relatively shallow, since the temporary election of a government on top of a large permanent experienced bureaucratic apparatus cannot, of necessity, institute revolutionary changes in the short term which it is allotted. This transience of the government is by design. Changes are always contingent on the maintenance of popular support., because any program of policies and institutions must be vetted by the people periodically. The permanence of the administration and the transience of government are complementary forces which maintain stability by the periodic checks and balances provided by democratic elections, which provide sufficient flexibility for the state to maintain relevance and responsiveness to the needs and wishes of the people. This is one key way in which a democratic state is distinguished from an authoritarian one, since in an authoritarian state like Pakistan or Turkey (as it is becoming) the Deep State acts wholly independently of the electoral process and has much greater power as a result.
Clearly, something has gone wrong with this careful balance. As Eisenhower knew well, the ‘military-industrial complex’ was not made of and by the state, nor did it arise from state action, but was the main threat to the state. When Eisenhower warned at the conclusion of his term about the creeping power of the ‘military-industrial complex’, he was referring to the entrenchment of relationships among the component parts that had become a semi-permanent structure of interests antithetical to democracy. Similarly, Mike Lofgren refers to the Deep State not as “a secret, conspiratorial cabal” but rather as “hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.” As he says “it is not a tight-knit group, and has no clear objective. Rather, it is a sprawling network, stretching across the government and into the private sector.” This complex is composed of a loose network of relationships among ruling elites from the commercial, financial, military, scientific and governmental sectors. In other words, it is both public and private in origin and nature.
So, what is going on? First of all, the transfer of power from one government to the next has fundamentally broken down, not only because of excessive partisanship, but also due to social divisions of interest within the ruling elites, whose ability to maintain a common interest has been compromised.
Second, this set of alliances threatens the state writ large, because it can potentially affect the more permanent institutions without reference to the vetting of the periodic democratic checks of elections. The problem with these relationships is not that they are secret (they aren’t) nor that they are hostile to social, political and economic progress (because they have been and can be progressive) but because they have failed in their most important function: to create and maintain legitimacy. Until recently, this admittedly problematic arrangement could be relied upon to organize and underpin (or at least, not obstruct) peaceful and orderly transitions of government that, if not democratic, at least could be said to command the legitimate support of sufficient numbers of the public to maintain the authority of the state itself.
Finally (and you can probably see where I’m going here) the system has been broken by an inability of the ruling elites to agree on the fundamental direction of the state. The state itself is not broken, nor is the Constitution, nor (yet) is the democratic mechanism for transferring power between regimes.
What could once be a strategy for election, must now be a strategy of grasping for the broken pieces of the state that have been set adrift and unclaimed.
What is broken is the legitimacy of the state, its ability to rally support and meet demands, the most basic functions of statehood. The problem is not that the Deep State is a monolithic and autonomous shadowy force acting against the democratic will, the biggest problem is that the state is being broken apart into its component parts due to the inability of the ruling elite to maintain legitimacy and enable a peaceful transition of power.
What could once be done in public must now increasingly be done behind closed doors. What could once be said openly must now be cloaked in distraction and lies. What could once be a strategy for election, must now be a strategy of grasping for the broken pieces of the state that have been set adrift and unclaimed. The real threat is to the state, in its larger, wider meaning as a social, political and legal community of common interests and values.