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June 2015

Magnanimous in Victory, Gracious in Defeat

Violence isn’t a proper response to losing an election, and using the law to coerce one’s political enemies isn’t a proper response to winning one.

 

The day after the Conservatives claimed victory in the UK’s General Election, there was a small but violent protest against the result along Whitehall and outside Number 10. Smoke bombs were let off, bottles thrown, war memorials vandalised: common themes at a London protest. No arson or trucks overturned, of course – that seems to be a French affectation.

That’s not how you democracy, people.

The signal achievement of democracies – functioning ones, at least – is that their publics accept the result, even – especially – when it goes against them. People are magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. “It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part,” as generations of sportspeople have been taught in schools throughout the British Commonwealth.

I’m sure Americans have an equivalent saying – I just don’t know what it is.

After learning of the protest, I wondered if I’ve always kept to this sporting and democratic standard. Not always in sport, I must admit. But it was failing to uphold the standard and being punished for it that taught me a lesson. I’ve not forgotten the sting of being sent off during a field hockey game for making a two-fingered “up yours” gesture at the umpire. I was 14 at the time, and it didn’t matter that the umpire was in error.

I can say I’ve always maintained standards of magnanimity and grace when it comes to democracy. Maybe this is easier to do as a classical liberal. In Australia, the party I support is unlikely to win government, and I’m under no illusions about victory or defeat. 

It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.

I’ve encountered – among politically literate people, at whom this piece is directed – two large groupings I’m prepared to stereotype, on the basis of both polling data and the scope of legislation they commonly propose, as “not good at democracy.”

The first group is comprised of religious conservatives, and the failure – from the perspective of someone who lives in a country that doesn’t have many religious conservatives – is glaring when one looks across the pond. Routinely, religious conservatives who demand the right to impose their views on others using the coercive powers of the state claim persecution when others respond in kind.  They then don’t grasp why even people who may otherwise be sympathetic to their claims are disinclined to do anything. Says Jacob T. Levy at Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

[S]ome particular cake baker shouldn’t lose his religious liberty because the movement that’s defending him now makes hypocritical arguments. But it does mean that the violin I hear playing when conservatives complain about the supposedly totalizing and compromise-rejecting agenda of same-sex-marriage supporters is very very small indeed.

That’s not how you democracy, people

The second group is comprised of what I am going to call “social justice warriors,” although I recognise the phrase is shorthand, too American, and like all shorthand probably not representative of the political progressives who behaved abominably both before and after the UK General Election. Last month, I used the phrase “online outrage brigade” in a piece for the Guardian on a related issue. It may be a bit closer.

Before I left the UK in September last year, I was a (conflicted) member of the Conservative Party. My position was thus very different from the one I occupy in Australia.

It was as a member of the Conservative Party that I reacted to Cameron’s win. This meant, when discussing the election result, I had to explain “Shy Tories” to readers at Reason. Pollster after pundit after commentator has been forced to recount how, thanks in large part to the silliness of a minority of the UK electorate – and particularly among the politically engaged – many Conservative voters lied about their voting intentions, because they were ashamed to admit they were Tories. They even lied during the Exit Poll, after they’d cast their ballots (although not quite as spectacularly). It’s hard to lie about something after the fact, so this level of obfuscation remains impressive. Even the betting markets were some way off, giving the lie to the old saw that people tell the truth when they have skin in the game.

More than one writer has drawn an analogy with masturbating, or secretly watching porn. Voting Conservative, it would seem, became the political equivalent of doing something messy while sequestered in the polling booth, clutching a stubby pencil.

That’s not how you democracy, people.

When the gulf between words and deeds is this big come election-time, politics is in danger of coming entirely unmoored from reality.

Rejecting free and fair election results is dangerously close to demanding the dissolution of the people and the election of another, something Bertolt Brecht described in a society that not only lacked elections – the old DDR – but where the regime also had fixed ideas about how people ought to behave. This characteristic ties the two cases together: religious conservatives and their fixed ideas about appropriate sexual behaviour, and social justice warriors and their fixed idea that anyone who disagrees with them is suffering from some sort of false consciousness.

I keep both groups in mind when I argue that giving the state greater powers to do one’s moral bidding is dangerous. Yes, you may currently have your hands on the levers of power, as well as be in the position to manufacture more levers, but in a democracy, you will lose an election at some point. And then those opposed to you get their hands on (a) the levers you used against them, as well as on (b) all the new levers you’ve made.

Those levers are laws, by the way.

However, while we no longer kill our opponents over political or religious differences, the desire to bend the state to one’s moral will still manifests as a desire to regulate and control. And sometimes, that desire is borne of vengeance: “well, see how you like it, then.”

I’ve come to call this phenomenon “vengeance regulation.” Even worse, I’ve watched as groups with opposed moral visions use my profession to exact their regulatory revenge.

Confronted by nuisance abortion regulations about doorway widths or clinic administration? No problem, lobby the legislature to tighten up charity regulations, whipping your religious opponents’ fundraising capacity out from under them. Sick of homophobic bigotry pouring out of the churches? Use anti-discrimination law to shut down their adoption agencies. Fed up with wealthy people able to hide behind corporate structures while engaging in commercial activity you find immoral? Use publicly available company registers to locate shareholders and then pay them paint-strewn, vandalizing “home visits.” That last one invited a counter-regulation: it is now possible, in the UK, to get a non-disclosure ruling making some records at Companies House private.

It seems the trait both American religious conservatives and British social justice warriors have in common is a tendency to moralise politics. Rather than seeing politics as concerned with “the dull compulsion of the economic,” capable of being re-imagined in response to the discovery that a much-desired policy simply does not work, it is transformed into something of existential importance. This means opposing views can be written off as “evil,” held only by persons armed with malicious intent.

Jonathan Haidt argues that this kind of political moralising is inevitable, and I suspect he’s right, at least statistically. However, human progress (in every sense – scientific, economic, and social) would not have been possible were it not for the fact that a significant minority of people have shown themselves able – particularly since the Enlightenment – to recognise their moral intuitions and then put them to one side when confronted with evidence or arguments that undermine or contradict the moral intuitions in question.

Surely it’s not too much to ask of the politically literate to learn the difference between leaping to conclusions, missing, and breaking one’s neck, and pausing, researching, and understanding why one’s interlocutor disagrees about a given policy, refuses to believe in the same god, rejects a particular moral claim, or votes for a different political party. This is called behaving like an adult. While there may be deep moral intuitions behind tossing one’s toys out of the pram, most people learn to stop doing so, usually when they are small children.

It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.