Skip to content

All posts by fusangite - 8. page

Strategic Voting and the Magical Worldview

I was going to post something completely different today about Vancouver municipal politics but I have been involved in a debate that has driven me to do another reprint post. Here is my pre-2011 Canadian election piece on the ways that magical thinking is producing millions of wasted votes in Canada.

One of the reasons that the four proportional representation referendum campaigns on which I have worked have failed has been the geekery of the electoral reform movement in Canada. We have consistently been so excited about explaining the cool, better system with which we will replace our current first-past-the-post that we have never really put FPTP on trial. As a result, most Canadians have only the vaguest idea of how their votes translate into political outcomes on and after election day. And while Canadians look down our noses at Americans when it comes to our superior knowledge of global institutions and phenomena, the abject negligence of our school curricula in explaining how our system of government functions should be anything but a source of national pride.

In place of any real understanding of how our votes produce political outcomes, Canadians have developed what, as a scholar of religion, I am tempted to term a magical understanding of how we make our political reality. I use the term “magical” in place of the somewhat less offensive “mythological,” advisedly. It is not just that Canadians believe a series of myths about their democracy; their views of how their votes work, in various ways, mirror what we might label magical understandings of the very operations of cause and effect. The magical nature of Canadian political thinking is often obscured through apparently neutral or unprovocative terminology and also by the ubiquity of certain habits of political speech rendering their unreason peculiarly normal. So, in the hopes of challenging some of these understandings, I’m going to make use of my expensive vocabulary of religious terms and analogies to highlight some of magical modes of thought I witness every day.

1.      Eschatological/Apocalyptic Voting: “Did you know nearly half of registered voters didn’t vote last time?” “People all over the country are waking up to what is really going on.” “It’s an election. Anything can happen! Remember Reform in 1993?” “With the Greens finally included in/arbitrarily barred from the debate, people are really going to sit up and take notice.”

These kinds of innocent phrases tend to precede what I characterize as eschatological voting.  Although things have been bleak up until now, the reasoning goes, we are on the verge of a sudden paradigm shift, after which time everybody is going to behave differently. Such thinking is common amongst new converts to small political parties or political movements that make claims of impending disaster if there is not a radical change in the course of things political. Often such thinking is accompanied by very real examples of rapid shifts in political opinion in the past, such as the Reform Party’s 1993 breakthrough.

But beneath the superficially plausible invocations of past events is a mode of thinking more commonly associated with doomsday cults like the Millerites of the nineteenth century who stood, by the thousands, clad in white robes, on roofs all over the American Midwest on the appointed day of Christ’s return. Many of the followers of the Baptist preacher, William Miller, were recent converts whose own sudden experiences of conversion they assumed were about to be shared by millions of their fellow Americans as judgment day drew nigh. Indeed, operating in a volatile, missionary environment, this experience was often affirmed by direct personal experiences of converting others.

Of course, any quantitative look at support for Millerism would have alerted Miller’s followers to the fact that their movement had some retention problems, much like contemporary Green parties. Of course, this was not a huge concern to the Millerites as these sudden conversions were but a minor sign of the impending eschaton, when Christ would return and all would be rectified in his millennial rule. Most signs were “wars and rumours of wars,” “disturbance of the elements” and other bad things that are almost always going on but can be easily narrated as massively escalating by people who have suddenly turned their attention to these things, as, subjectively, they have for these new converts.

Like the Millerites, eschatological voters expect a massive, apocalyptic reordering of society primarily based not on signs that things they like are happening but instead on signs that things that worry them are happening. The very fact that voter turnout has fallen to barely more than 50%, that the tar sands are generating massive pollution, that the Prime Minister brazenly endorses the forging of documents and the withholding of financial information from parliament, etc. are taken not as signs that people concerned about social justice, parliamentary ethics and environmental responsibility are on the defensive but instead that the rectifying political eschaton is imminent, that the millennium is just around the corner when millions of apathetic youth will show up at the polls and elect 200 Green, NDP or Canadian Action Party MPs. In religious discourse, this is called “pre-millennialism,” a theory of history in which our optimistic expectation of Christ’s return and the vanquishing of Babylon by the elect correlates not to positive, measurable signs but to an invisible reaction to ever-worsening signs.

This is very different from the rise of parties like Reform or the Bloc; signs that their popularity was rising was measurable in huge rallies and daily polling showing their popularity waxing every day of the campaign. Although they mobilized many eschatological voters around the impending break-up of Canada and the belief that the elections of the 1990s were make-or-break for the federation, their rise was confirmed by signs of their growing popularity and mobilization and not, as in the case of today’s non-parliamentary parties, increasing disorganization, demobilization and falling poll numbers.

Eschatological voting inverts conventional understandings of cause and effect: fringe personal experiences that cause one to join small groups are irrationally generalized to people not joining these groups; signs of defeat and loss are taken as signs of impending victory; the absence of evidence of a phenomenon is taken as indicative of its magnitude.

For the eschatological voter, casting a ballot is not about trying to figure out how to elect the best possible MP in their riding. Such considerations are not part of the calculation because literally ANYTHING could happen this time, given how fed-up people are. Voting is more like donning a white robe and reporting early to the roof to join in the rectifying eschaton that will inaugurate the millennial kingdom when the powerless shall be uplifted and comforted and wield power over their former oppressors.

2.      Homeric/Sympathetic Voting: “The more people who vote Green, the better environmental policies will be.” “The more people who vote for parties that elect no MPs, the more pressure there will be to bring in proportional representation.” “Every vote for this cause will make a difference.” These are some of the apparently benign catchphrases that underpin Homeric or sympathetic voting.

Karl Popper first identified this kind of thinking in his seminal essay on conspiracy thinking in which he observed that conspiracy theories are often premised on the idea that conspirators’ intentions are translated directly into real world outcomes, unmediated by any theory of causation. If the Rothschilds and other important families, for instance, are rich and powerful, one can reasonably conclude that most political and financial events must be what they intend to happen without ever having to consider the specific mechanisms by which these events might be brought about. In this way, vast global conspiracies can be understood by looking at major events, assuming them to be intentional and then assigning the intent to cause them to whatever powerful, semi-secret clique on which the conspiracy theory is based.

Popper was clever in tracing this kind of reasoning to the epics of Homer in which events in the world are understood to reflect the conflicts between the gods in the world above. Real world outcomes proceed directly from the resolution of competing divine intentions with minimal operational explanation. This is because such a worldview doesn’t really understand causation in a conventional way. Things don’t happen because they are caused by other things but because they correspond to a higher reality. Imagine reading Midsummer Night’s Dream minus the character of Puck. This might trouble many of us in that the causal link between the faerie kingdom and the duchy would vanish; without Puck, there would be no explanation of how events in the faerie realm caused events in the mortal world. A Homeric worldview is unconcerned with such links; it is simply self-evident that as the familial, social and political order of the faerie world is restored, an identical process will unfold in the mortal realm.

Many Canadians believe in Homeric democracy, that if twice as many people vote Green, the country will become twice as Green, irrespective of where the votes are cast or whether they result in the election of candidates. For them, national popular vote shares reflect a superior reality and the day-to-day events in parliament, business and society will naturally correspond with that higher reality through some kind of unseen sympathetic magic. The lessons of the post-Nader US wherein progressive politics have yet to recover from the disaster of the 2000 election have little effect because, fundamentally, the Homeric worldview arises from the inability to ask a crucial question: how do these particular votes cause a particular outcome?

3.      Microcosmic/Macrocosmic Voting: One of the biggest challenges I faced when campaigning for proportional representation was the widespread belief that it was already in force in Canada. The assumption on many voters’ parts was that the share of the seats in parliament did, in fact, correspond to the share of the vote a party received. If this didn’t happen, it was because not all electoral districts had the same population or too few young people came out to vote. Worse yet, this discrepancy was understood to be caused by strategic voting – if everybody who really planned to vote for a party actually did, the party’s share of the seats really would match their vote share because that’s the kind of outcome the voting system was designed to produce provided everyone showed up, was properly educated and voted based on their true intentions.

Although, as per the basic Homeric assumptions of many voters, the means by which a set of geographically-drawn electoral districts with variegated populations could produce such outcomes was never really an issue, I came to realize that this wasn’t simple Homeric reasoning. This kind of thinking was based on the idea that everybody’s votes were being dumped into a single pool and MPs were being doled-out to ridings based on their party’s national vote share. In essence, proportional representation was already in effect – our would be, if only districting panels and voters behaved properly.  Similar to Homeric voting, there was an appealing sense that in some way never explained, the correct voting behaviour in every riding was the same as in any other riding because, effectively, there are no ridings in this reality; just a big national pot into which all the votes go and out of which comes fairness and correct representation. For many magical thinkers in Canadian politics, there is an assumption that one’s local electoral district is a perfect microcosm of the nation’s politics and whatever would be the right move in a 308-member at-large district electing MPs by proportional representation is the right thing to do in one’s own single-member district.

Of course, the most pernicious magical thinking in this area goes one step further and is practiced most frequently by shills for the Liberal Party of Canada and comes from a rich tradition of microcosm-macrocosm reasoning from classical Aristotle to the Social Darwinists of the Gilded Age. Instead of conceiving of a 308-member at-large district centred in Ottawa, true microcosmic magic derives from the belief that every riding is a perfect microcosm of the nation’s politics. If the Liberals are in second place nationally behind the Conservatives, it only makes sense to vote Liberal if one is anti-Conservative because the politics of the nation are recapitulated in 308 identical microcosms from Labrador City to Prince Rupert.

Appearances are deceiving. Sure, your riding might have an NDP MP, no French-speakers, five Indian Reserves and no public transit but it if it is established fact, by virtue of the latest Nanos poll, that the Liberals are in second place; so you must switch your vote from NDP to Liberal, even if the Liberal candidate came third last time. To do otherwise, will allow Stephen Harper to win.

What makes this kind of thinking magical as opposed to merely wrong is that none of its practitioners imagine that local ridings don’t exist or really are identical. Instead, they appear unable to entertain the idea that the local manifestation of a phenomenon can be anything other than a perfect and identical microcosm of the whole phenomenon. Neolithic peoples worshipping idols at temples did not construct the whole presence and attention of the same divinity at some other temple as a problem any more than young children construct the presence of Santa Claus at all the other malls as an issue or medieval people objected to the presence of the same saint’s relics at multiple churches. The idol/church/Christmas display they were at functioned as a perfect microcosm in that it was identical with the macrocosmic reality, not a representative or conduit but the reality itself. Eaton Centre Santa isn’t a piece of a bigger Santa; he’s not one of many equally valid Santas; he certainly isn’t a distinctive unique Santa with his own personality. He is the one and only true and omnipresent Santa.

4.      Incarnational Voting: I am indebted to Mormon theologian James Faulconer for this final category of magical thinking about voting. In trying to perform the Herculean task of explaining how the narrative in the Book of Mormon is true, Faulconer compared the act of reading Mormon scripture to medieval Roman Catholic understandings of the Eucharist. The reasoning goes like this: the truth lies in the act itself not in things to which the act refers. In other words, the host doesn’t represent the body of Christ; it doesn’t refer to the Last Supper as an historical event; it IS the body of Christ during mass. In this model, the mass doesn’t represent Christ’s atoning sacrifice; it IS Christ’s atoning sacrifice while it is going on. In the same way, Faulconer argues, the Book of Mormon narrative need not represent events external to itself; it need not refer to anything; the story simply IS true while it is being read/told/enacted. Anthropologists have made similar cases to oral storytelling cultures in indigenous communities; legends are not really referring to what their listeners comprehend as past or future events; they simply ARE true during their enactment.

For many voters in Monday’s election, their vote will be an incarnational experience. Their placing an “X” next to the name of a candidate will not really refer to the candidate or comment on her. Furthermore, thanks to our dysfunctional voting system, the vote will probably not contribute to the election of that candidate. But for the Liberal voter in the Saguenay or Vancouver Island, for an NDP voter in Brampton, Mississauga or Calgary or for a Green voter pretty much anywhere, their vote will be vested with magical importance because, in the privacy of the polling booth, for a few brief moments as they perform the ritual of marking their “X,” they will be like a Catholic priest ritually incarnating a Green, NDP or Liberal government. Their vote need not refer to their local candidate or result in their candidate’s election because the vote’s significance will inhere in the ritual action itself, because during that ritual, the outcome described on the ballot will be fleetingly true.

Of all forms of magical voting, this is the most pernicious. Instead of being premised on false ideas about how a real world electoral outcome will result from the vote, the vote is, in and of itself, a sufficient, true and real electoral outcome. When per-vote financing was first introduced, Green Party candidates would attempt to claim that the transfer of $1.75 per year was an external electoral outcome that was precipitated by such an act. But that particular piece of rhetoric was ultimately abandoned because it cheapened the powerful experience of incarnating the government one truly desires through a ritualized performance.

Ultimately, the self-sufficient and transcendent character of thinking about one’s vote in this way actually points to a profound cynicism and pessimism. Just as the incarnational reading of and interaction with the Book of Mormon is designed to obscure the disenchantment of a constituency of believers who have stopped believing that it tells the story of ancient America, just as Eucharistic practice became the centre of Christianity only when hopes of Jesus’ imminent return were dashed, incarnational voting really just covers up despair. People have given up hope that we can really use our votes to make governments that can build the kind of society in which we want to live and so we console ourselves by making the ritualized act of voting the centre of our political culture instead of focusing on the outcomes our votes might produce.

“Ideology” is the Wrong Word: What We Can Learn About Modern Capitalism from the Ancient Mediterranean

Aberdeen University’s Steve Mason, a scholar of the ancient Mediterranean world, was kind enough, nearly a decade ago, to seek my feedback on a fascinating article he produced on the origins of the term “Judaism.” While the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean were well acquainted with the state of Judea and ideas of Jewishness, the term “Judaism,” it turns out, was a rare and peculiar term. “Ιουδαϊσμός” and “Iudaismus” were largely absent from pre-Christian scripture, having been introduced in the apocryphal second and fourth books of the Maccabees, written in the two centuries prior to the Christian era.

When the use of the term finally did take off, it was not in documents written by Jews, who did not begin making use of it until the fifth century, but instead in Christian writings. Saints Paul and Ignatius introduced the term early on and by the third century, it caught on as an important piece of terminology as Christians argued with each other about who they were and what they stood for.

Back then, however, other terms were used to refer to the customs and traditions of the Jews. Our modern sense of “-ism” (originating from the Greek “-ισμός” via the Latin “-ismus”), referring to an ideology or set of beliefs, like Marxism or liberalism, was not one of the possible meanings this suffix held. So much of Mason’s work in the article was to excavate what, exactly, this term meant when it began to appear in early Christian writing.

It turns out that the original “Judaism” of the Christian Bible, both in Maccabees and in New Testament writings, actually refers to something much less abstract. The original “Judaism,” against which Pauline Christians inveighed, referred to the process of turning into a Jew. The Judaizers, an important faction in early Christianity, responsible for the Gospel of Matthew, believed that circumcision and keeping kosher were essential Christian practices for converts of all ethnicities, be they Gauls, Greeks, Romans or Numidians. Judaism, until the fifth century, was not the ideology of Jewishness but instead the process of changing into a Jew.

Mason’s discovery has major theological implications for how Christians read their scripture. But I am not interested in talking about them here. Instead I want to momentarily reverse the linguistic transformation of Late Antiquity in which our current meaning attached to “-ism” and see what light the earlier one can shed on the modern age.

People claim that capitalism is set of teachings or ideology. But is that how people really experience it? Generally, when people speak about capitalist ideology, they do not use the term. Nobody talks about believing in capitalism. People will identify with particular schools of thought within capitalism, advocating variously for “liberalism,” “free enterprise,” “the free market,” “progressivism” or “objectivism,” or they will inveigh against “casino capitalism,” “crony capitalism,” or “state capitalism.” And yet we all agree that capitalism shapes our daily experience as modern Anglo-Americans. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the ways in which capitalism shapes our lives long ago transcended the merely ideological.

Could it be that capitalism is better understood in the ancient Greek sense, not as a set of teachings or principles, but as the experience of being transformed into capital itself? What if we understand capitalism not as something that people believe in but as something that is happening to us all? As current tort law attests, our bodies were turned into capital some time ago. And as the market extends further into the realm of the intangible, rendering our aesthetic preferences and ideological loyalties commodities to be extracted and traded via Facebook and the ubiquitous corporate “rewards” cards, as our very thoughts come to be commodified and financially commodified through intellectual property laws, capitalism has transformed from a mere ideology to a universal and inescapable experience of being transformed into capital itself.

No Demographic Apocalypse for Republicans

I read yet another article the other day reiterating some comforting falsehoods that opponents of the US Republican Party like to repeat to themselves.

The argument goes like this: non-white people just don’t vote Republican in large numbers. And because America keeps getting less white, little by little, the GOP will be destroyed by simple demographics. Democrats living in red states like Texas are especially enticed by this line of thought. It seems to offer some kind of permanent future victory that flies in the face of the country’s increasingly conservative turn over the past four decades. This analysis, if it can be called that, has a very serious flaw: it assumes that race is heritable, permanent and unchanging, a belief typically only held by racists. It is a theory that accepts the falsehoods on which American racism is based.

In reality, there is no fixity to what whiteness is in America. With the exception of the Republican lock on black voters from the 1850s to 1930s, the Democrats, since their inception under Andrew Jackson, have been the party of the non-white and the newly white. And it is this second category to which those predicting demographic Armageddon for the Republicans would do well to pay attention.

A century and a half ago, it was impossible to be Catholic and white at the same time in America. More recently, it was impossible for light-skinned people with black parents or grandparents, people like me, in other words, to be white. But this is no longer true.In the mid nineteenth century, the Irish started turning white; a couple of generations later, the Italians did the same, soon followed by the Poles and then other Slavs. The Japanese and Turks were briefly white in the early twentieth century but it didn’t stick. On the other hand, the Jews only turned white about ten years before I did.

Many Latin American immigrants to the US are white in their country of origin and, to their surprise, turn into non-white “Mexicans” after crossing the border, irrespective of their country of origin, people like Florida Tea Party senator Marco Rubio. How hard would it be for America’s ever-changing racial system to re-evaluate their whiteness? Not so hard, I would suggest. Or how about proud members of the Aryan race like Republican governors Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley?

It may be that the prominent place of Jindal, Rubio and Haley in today’s Republican Party is indicative not of the party branching out and seeking support from non-whites but of America’s colour line shifting again. Just as Catholic voters have gradually shifted towards the Republicans the whiter they have become and the longer they have been able to stay white, let us consider the possibility that the increasing number Hispanics and South Asians are emerging into leadership roles in the GOP is evidence of the whitening of subsets of these racialized communities. Similarly, the Republican-Likud bloc among Jewish Americans continues to grow at the expense of the Democrats, a process also intimately tied to the community’s increasing whiteness.

To believe that race has an inflexible and historically consistent relationship to ancestry, skin colour or physical features is to buy into the junk science of racists and to ignore four hundred years of race-making and unmaking in America. Democrats who imagine some kind of triumphant demographic eclipse of the Republican Party are missing the flexibility and dynamism of racism; if racial categories were inflexible, America’s racial hierarchies would have collapsed under their own weight long ago.

Gradually, over the coming decades, not only will Marco Rubio and millions of other Hispanic Americans who would be white in Latin America will turn into white Americans and so will all of their ancestors, just like Nikki Haley’s are about to. And then the Republican Party’s demographic problem will vanish again, just as it has so many times before in the past century and a half.

Political Geography of Community – Part 1: Why the Left’s Love Affair with Neighbourhood Empowerment Must End

The first election campaign on which I ever worked was Harry Rankin’s 1986 campaign to become mayor of Vancouver. Rankin, a bona fide socialist, prohibited from entering the US due to his communist sympathies, ran a polarizing, brutally honest campaign that talked about how renters, poor people and residents East Vancouver had been receiving a raw deal under both the NPA and the beta version of Vision Vancouver, TEAM (The Electors’ Action Movement).

Neither in that election nor as a city councilor did Rankin shy away from the geography of inequality in Vancouver – the Downtown Eastside was in desperate need of help; East Vancouver was underserviced. But he also didn’t do what successive generations on the Vancouver left have mistakenly done: worship neighbourhoods. Rankin, especially when I got to know him at a more personal level in the 1990s, was not just unmoved by the fruits of the 1970s New Left and its rhetoric, for instance, of neighbourhood empowerment; he was deeply suspicious.

In 1992, when I first entered Vancouver civic politics as a candidate, I ran against a very different COPE than the one for which I had worked in 1986. The party was running on the slogan “It’s About Neighbourhoods,” its implicit slogan in every campaign since. In the twenty years since, the party has increasingly become a caricature of the New Left ideas that Rankin disdained and “empowering neighbourhoods” has become its raison d’être.

So what, is wrong with empowering neighbourhoods? Doesn’t everybody love apple pie?

Empowering neighbourhoods does pay immediate dividends for the Left because that is the language that is used when low- and middle-income people mobilize against gentrification; it is also the language that is used when environmentalists mobilize against unsustainable development. Perhaps this is why it seems like a good idea to legitimate the concept that the people who live right near a potential site of development or change should have special rights to modify or stop it, beyond those enjoyed the rest of the city’s residents.

And self-styled progressives feel extra secure because neighbourhood activists can be relied-upon to show up and advocate for measures to maintain the current “character of their community,” whatever its current aesthetics and income mix are. But usually, when we think about those community struggles, we picture Mount Pleasant or Commercial Drive. Given our sensibilities, it seems only right to empower people in those neighbourhoods to defend their character.

But somebody needs to explain to me why the it is such a good idea for the residents of Shaughnessy, MacKenzie Heights, Dunbar, Kerrisdale, West Point Grey, Coal Harbour, Southwest Marine and Yaletown to be as empowered as possible to maintain the character of their communities. Why should the permanent exclusion of the poor from these neighbourhoods be reimagined as a civic good?

We think that reifying neighbourhoods as self-governing entities is a means of combatting the suburbanization of poverty but the reverse is true – because it means gentrification cannot be undone. And given that the main means by which neighbourhoods are “empowered” is by participating in processes designed for wealthy, white collar people with flexible work hours, any neighbourhood that gentrifies will be far more empowered to defend its new status than it was to preserve its previous character.

And that costs us, not just as the urban dominoes fall and we lose mixed income neighbourhoods one after another but in direct wealth transfers from the poor to the rich. When the time came to create a rapid transit line in the 1980s, they ran Skytrain through Rankin’s yard on Victoria Drive. Cedar Cottage simply did not have the wealth to be as empowered as it needed to be to defend its character.

More than $100 million could have been saved in construction costs had we run the Canada Line at grade or elevated up the Cambie Boulevard, and even more had we used the pre-existing rail line that runs along Arbutus Street. But the residents of Shaughnessy are very empowered. In fact, their neighbourhood is so empowered that they got the rest of us to pay to bury the Canada Line to maintain the ritzy character of both the Cambie Boulevard and the Arbutus corridor. Our increased transit fares and higher taxes are a direct result of our having raised conservative, classist neighbourhood parochialism to an unassailable civic good.

Most troublingly, the doctrine of neighbourhood empowerment is part of the Left’s larger problem of cowardice. Because we are too afraid to appear anti-development, anti-corporate or, worse yet, engaging in what FoxNews terms “the politics of envy” or “class warfare,” we hide behind the empty rhetoric of community empowerment. Because we are afraid to stand up and oppose the environmental and social disaster wrought by capitalism, we endorse essentially conservative NIMBY organizations because they are more likely to share our anti-development agenda in the short term.

But we do so at our peril. While we like to talk about neighbourhood difference in terms of lifestyle, sexual politics or religious and ethnic diversity, those are not the main things that inscribe neighbourhood boundaries on our city. The prime determinant of where people live is their wealth. When we empower neighbourhoods to defend their character, the main thing we are doing is empowering the wealthy to exclude the less wealthy from their immediate vicinity, to etch the widening gap between rich and poor more deeply into our city’s soil.

The Left needs to oppose bad development decisions, not because neighbours don’t like them but because they are bad for our city, because they magnify inequality and destroy the environment.

If we want people to share our beliefs, we first must develop the courage to tell them what they actually are.