We’ve heard a lot lately about how the Obama campaign profited immensely from the assistance of some very smart and sophisticated behavioral and social scientists.  Sasha Issenberg is a very enthusiastic guide to the various techniques that arguably helped the Democrats to their impressive victory on Election Day.

This is just the newest version of a very old problem, where one or both sides seek victory, not by means of good arguments, but rather by the techniques of persuasion and motivation that are, in effect, neutral with respect to the quality—let alone the justice or truth—of the arguments.

Now, the case for “democracy” has always relied on some version of one or both of the following grounds. Either just government rests on the consent of the governed, which assumes that the governed are the best judges of what’s good for them as individuals, or there’s more wisdom in a deliberative group than in any individual. The latter argument—advanced problematically by Aristotle in the Politics —relies upon each of us knowing what we know and what we don’t and upon our willingness to listen to others when we lack knowledge ourselves. (I might add that the argument relies upon another assumption that Aristotle doesn’t make explicit—that in those areas where we lack knowledge, we’re capable at least of recognizing and rejecting bad arguments. This, of course, is an enormously problematical assumption, even more so in an age when moral obtuseness is preached as a kind of virtue.)

In other words, the case for democracy has always rested upon a certain kind of respect for the judgments of the people—either regarding their own good or regarding the common good.

When it is merely transactional—vote for me and you’ll get this goodie—electioneering at least presumes a certain kind of consumer sovereignty, that those to whom the appeal is made recognize the goodie as a genuine good, even if (perhaps) it is procured at the expense of the common good. Yes, there may be a kind of deception involved here, permitting people to grasp short-term gains at their expense of the greater or long-term good. This was the respectable basis of the “good government” argument against urban machine politics.

What distinguishes our current sophisticated electioneering techniques from those of the past is the subtlety—that is, the hiddenness—of the ways in which they seek to manipulate voters, not to mention the theoretical ground on which they rest. The two aforementioned defenses of democracy presume a certain rationality on the part of the voters or deliberators. In the case of liberal consent theory, the rationality is, to be sure, instrumental, but there is still a respect for the capacity of the “ordinary husbandman” to judge for himself regarding his own affairs. The new science does not and cannot give any pride of place to reason. It can’t claim or purport to judge the ends for which it is being used.

This evaluation of the ends or the arguments is the province of political philosophy, and it is there that we must turn to assess the outcome of the election. We know who won. We have to ask in this—as, I might add, in every—case whether the victory was deserved. Asking whether both sides played by the rules is only the beginning of the inquiry. (I assume that such breaches as existed this time were unlikely to have affected the outcome, though—obviously—the closer the election, the more difference a little cheating can make.)

To the degree that the winners and losers are both discussing techniques (and I have to confess that I find the discussion fascinating), they are missing the point. Once again, we have to ask who deserved to win, a question that can’t be answered simply by pointing to the results of the election. Self-government (as opposed to manipulation by those whom C.S. Lewis would call “conditioners”) depends upon our persisting in this inquiry.

In a way, the people have spoken, but the manner in which they were caused to speak means that this cannot be the last word. The conversation continues at, one hopes, a more meaningful level.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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