An Essay About Political Philosophy, in response to various news items

In short, I am heartbroken that Elizabeth Warren won’t be my party’s nominee—not so much because she is so wonderful, but because of what it says about us. But what do we do about that? How should we respond? The answer, I think, doesn’t have anything to do with whether we choose Senator Sanders or Vice-President Biden as the standard-bearer for the general election. It has to do with the way we think about the Presidency, and about democracy.

It’s a mistake to think of the point of the primary system being to ascertain who is the best possible person to hold the job of President of the United States.

First of all, that person doesn’t exist—different people want different things from the President, and that will not and should not change. Nobody will be the perfect President for everyone, and the closest thing to that is a dictator who can prevent any criticism.

It’s also a mistake to think of the point of the primary system being to ascertain who is the best possible person to hold the job of the Party’s nominee for President of the United States.

That’s trickier—I personally don’t believe that it’s possible to know in advance which candidate would maximize the chances for victory in the general election. Even if it were possible, there are other things to consider, such as the long-term health of the Party, the short-term downballot effects of the nominee, and of course the candidate’s potential in the actual job of President. If Candidate A has a 73% chance of victory but inferior governing skills and Candidate B has a 71% chance of victory and superior governing skills, I will choose Candidate B—but replace those numbers with 49% and 47% and I will choose Candidate A. It’s much worse, of course, because those numbers are guesses, but even if it were possible to make really good confident guesses, it would still be more complicated than picking the highest probability.

So what is the point of the primary system?

I think the point is to come up with a bunch of candidates who are acceptable enough to wide groups of people, likely enough to win the general election, and then bind those candidates as tightly as possible to the future of the Party (as argued about during the primary process). To attempt to ensure that whoever the eventual nominee is, if elected they will largely do those things that the Party wants them to do, and that when new situations come up that require new actions that couldn’t be committed to in advance, those actions will be taken in consultation with other people in the Party and on the principles that the Party has outlined—the Party being the coalition of people and organizations that want to work together toward that future and on those principles. And then to choose one of those acceptable-enough candidates, because in the end there has to be one name on the ballot.

The question that this goes back to, of course, is: what is the point of democracy? Why not let the philosopher-kings rule? Surely it would be more efficient to train hereditary monarchs to govern capably than to keep finding, electing and replacing new office-holders all the time?

My answer: the point of democracy is to create a people capable of participatory self-government, and committed to equality and liberty. This will always be aspirational—it can’t be done once and then relied on, but in every generation we need to create a new generation that is capable of governing themselves, and is committed to equality and liberty. Maybe even more capable and more committed than the old generation! We can hope. But the point is the people, not the government. The choosing, not the chosen. Always.

The real aspiration, though, isn’t just the machinery of government, legislators and bureaucrats, executives and agency heads. The real aspiration is self-government, equality and liberty in our actual lives, in our workplaces and schools and homes, in the grand public works and the small private exchanges, in our characters, in ourselves. To be capable of self-government (not alone, but together) in everything.

We will never be there, but neither can we give up. The response to an electorate that is ignorant, brutal and indifferent is not the easy misanthropy of clean hands, but the long struggle against feudalism, fascism and fanaticism and for an electorate that is less ignorant, less brutal, less indifferent.

Presidents don’t lead that struggle, unless first they are led to it.

It’s difficult to avoid thinking of the primary system as a search for a Savior. Certainly, the candidates present themselves as potential saviors, and whoever eventually holds the office of President has as much power as anyone in the whole world to do good or ill. It matters who has that power, and it matters what they do with it. And in some sense, it’s a relief to think of government as happening at the Presidential level—after all, nobody can blame me for the current state of things; I didn’t vote for him—or my guy won and everything’s fine—but that’s pretty much the opposite of self-government. Which makes it the opposite of democracy, really. Democracy isn’t about just handing the power to the right person; it’s about using the power ourselves.

We need a President; the framers eventually and reluctantly concluded that we need a single figure to be at the head of the table. They didn’t give him a title, or a job description, or very many responsibilities or resources. Over time, we’ve let the Congress—we’ve let ourselves—give the President more and more power, and put more and more faith in the hope of finding the right President to yield it. If that’s what we want, then of course it’s frustrating to think of the system as a road to good enough. But we don’t have to think about it that way.

We could be thinking about what we want to do as a people (as a Party, as a region, as an agglomeration of tribes and loyalties, as part of humanity and a global ecosystem) and think about what sort of President can be pushed in that direction, whether headed that way already or not. We could be thinking about which candidates we want to complain to, or complain about; which ones we feel better about constantly pressuring throughout their term in office. If leadership is mostly, as the saying goes, figuring out which way the parade is going and jumping out in front of it, we could be worrying more about the parade route and less about the Grand Marshall. And then we might find that a good enough President is exactly what we need.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “An Essay About Political Philosophy, in response to various news items

  1. irilyth

    I recently heard an episode of This Day In Esoteric Poltiical History (, which seemed to me to be somewhat opposed to an idea that I think you’ve supported in the past, namely that it should be the business of each Party to decide who that Party’s nominee will be. I’d be curious to hear your take, if you like listening to 20-minute podasts! (Or less, if you like listening at 1.5x speed. :^ )

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      I do not, in fact, listen to podcasts, but I was able to find the fellow’s article in The Atlantic, which made the usual argument against party primaries and in favor of non-partisan “top-four” or “top-two” primaries. My understanding is that political scientists are, at this point, largely divided between those who say that the nonpartisan primaries have no effect at all on “polarization” and those who say it has a small effect, but as far as I know, it’s absolutely clear from the data that voters—who already know surprisingly little about the people they are voting for—know much less about the candidates and their policy positions in nonpartisan elections than in partisan elections.

      And a fair case in point is this last California Senate Primary—did any of the candidates choose to campaign for votes from the other Party’s supporters? Was it some sort of triumph for inclusiveness, compromise, or the reduction of polarization? No, it was just a mess.

      And Mr. Troiano fails to acknowledge or address any actual benefit to political parties. Very few people do recognize any benefit, which is frustrating to me. But the fact is that we live in communities, and we work in communities, and we govern ourselves in communities, and there is an enormous benefit to people who wish to participate in self-government to have functional political parties (by which I mean, practical coordination among overlapping groups with similar-enough policy preferences, priorities and principles) not only in furthering any particular set of goals but in sharing resources and knowledge, gaining perspective and understanding, and in improving our own and each other’s ability to govern well.

      Now, having said that, I do think that Mr. Troiano does identify that it’s a problem when legislators are consistently more paranoid about being primaried by extremists within their Party than about being beaten in a general election. But he doesn’t seem to understand that the problem is not a symmetrical problem of the left and right, but a practical problem of a theoretically Conservative Party which has fallen prey to the perverse incentives of the Radical-Right marketplace—and even more than that, a cultural problem of a very large minority of people in this country who deny the legitimacy of people they disagree with having any participation in government.


  2. irilyth

    If I had to guess, I’d guess that people these days see even less value in political parties than they used to, as it seems like for at least one of the two major US parties, their only unifying principle is that they HATE the other party. :^(

    (Of course, there are probably a fair number of people who are totally fine with that, just like there are tons of people who are totally fine with being Red Sox fans and hating Yankees fans for no reason other than the labels. I don’t actually know whether “political parties are just about tribalism these days” is seen as a good thing or a bad thing. *I* don’t think it’s a good thing.)


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