Sunday, February 10, 2008

Is the Political Process in a Liberal Democracy Necessarily Conflictual?

By way of an answer to this question, here's something I wrote in a previous comment thread some while back. I was just thinking on this topic again recently and thought it worthwhile to bring out again here:

Democratic politics is competitive, not conflictual. It is based upon the pluralism of competing interests working towards compromise. Hardly anyone is ever completely satisfied with the outcomes of a pluralistic and competitive democratic process, but all should be able to live with what the outcome produces. A politics of "conflict" implies a winner-loser scenario where to the victor go the spoils and to the guillotine go the losers. A democratic politics of competition implies a winner-loser scenario where the loser has to buy the beer, but where we all still get the pleasure of drinking the beer together when the game is over and washing away whatever animosities or grudges the competition might have produced.


Anonymous said...

hmmm...yes, a pluralistic democracy should be one in which all interests are represented...competitively, not conflictually, although that sounds idealistic even as i write it.

that brings me to another point i've been wanting to bring up again. you've almost got me, jimmy. the more i read your blog, the more convinced i am that i can vote for barack. (i certainly prefer him over hillary). but i still have some issues with the death penalty thing. that, for me, is conflict. it is a HUGE issue for me and something i've been working to end for most of my adult life.

so my question is this: how can i walk away from the voting booth with a clean conscience after voting for a candidate that's pro-death penalty? and when my daughter reads about this election in her history book in a decade, how will i feel telling her i voted for a pro-death penalty president? (notice my optimism there...)

Huck said...

Well, in the end, there's no good way to get around this issue. What I, as an anti-death penalty advocate myself, have to do is to weigh the full range of issues and to decide what will best fit my hopes in a candidate. I have never met the perfect candidate who represents all of my hopes and positions, and I am sure that I never will. Because of that, I feel that my obligations as a citizen are to try to place leaders in positions of power that will seek to approach my ideal while always recognizing that my choice will inevitably fall short somewhere, somehow. The death penalty position of Obama is one of those compromises that I am willing to make. But I don't make it lightly. Let me explain how I rationalize casting a vote for Obama in spite of his position. First, Obama may be pro death penalty, but he claims to be so only in cases of heinous crimes committed by individuals whose culpability is without doubt. That's a pretty high threshhold, and one that I suspect would hardly ever be met, even by the measure of Obama. So, in a way, one might think of Obama's position as akin to that of the Catholic Church's position, which is not to declare an absolute opposition to the death penalty on principle, but to recognize that the conditions that would justify it are, for all intents and purposes, impossible to realize. In other words, Obama seems to me to be for the death penalty in instances that are 99.99999999% never likely to meet the threshhold warranting it. Then there's Obama's legislative record, which indicates that, when the rubber meets the road, Obama tends to fall out on the anti-death penalty side of the equation, in spite of his rhetorical position in support of it in extreme conditions. I think Obama would look at the cases of people on death row and would find practically all of them to be troubling cases juridically that would never rise to the threshhold that he might thing warrants the death penalty.

Better to have in office someone who says he supports the death penalty under extreme conditions that are almost impossible to meet, and yet never authorizes an execution or permits one to take place, than one who opposes the death penalty, but washes his hands of it when it happens or who changes his mind about it later.

I believe Obama would nominate judges who would fall out against the practice and who would rule accordingly. And in the calculus of weighing the choice for a candidate that will never be perfect, that is enough for me.

Eric said...


Conflict is part and parcel of any competition. You can't seperate the two. If there is no coflict, why expend any effort to compete over anything?

The real question (and I think this is what you are getting at) is what is the price for losing? What is at stake? Are the stakes really so high that the losers are justified in having serious animosity towards the winners?

I think you grossly underestimate the ante when you say that the loser just has to buy the beer for the winner. Rhetorically, I think the stakes are about half way between "buying the beer" and "giving us your first born child".

Eric said...

PS I posted a response on my site to your question about gun ownership. I had set the comments up to be able to moderate them last week, but didn't realize that meant they would be held until I approved them... fixed it now.

Huck said...

Hi, Eric - I did see your original answer and I thought I submitted another reply to it. Did it not transmit? If not, I'll try to go back and reconstruct my thoughts again. But thanks for alerting me to your reply.

Huck said...

Also, Eric - On the subject of conflict and competition, I disagree with you that one is part and parcel of the other. Have you ever heard of a friendly competition? I presume so. Have you ever heard of a friendly conflict? Not usually. I guess, depending on how you define competition, it may sometimes be conflictual, too. But it isn't necessarily so. And competition can have degrees of fierceness and outcomes as well, without crossing the line into conflict.

I stick with my point and maintain that in the most common uses of the terminologies of conflict and competition, contestation within a liberal democracy better fits the latter term and not the former. As political contestation approaches conflict, the less liberal and less democratic it is. Note that I didn't say that all politics is competitive and not conflictual, but just that politics within a liberal democracy is.

Eric said...

I guess we are using different definitions. To me, a conflict is simply a dispute. All competition, even friendly competition, has some sort of dispute at its root. A friend who challenges you to a footrace to the end of the block is disputing the idea that you are faster than him. Even if it is lighthearted, the incompatibility of two opposing views (he is faster / you are faster) is what drives the competition. If a stranger walks up to you on the street and demands that you give him all your money, the conflict is really the same as when your friend challenged you to a footrace (your money belongs to him / your money belongs to you), the difference is that you have more vested in the outcome.

I don't think that is an uncommon way to define "conflict". I could be wrong.

When one group of people feel their lives would be better if the government did one thing, and another group of people feel their lives would be better if the government did the exact opposite, they are in conflict.

You seem to be defining conflict as a state of animosity that is just short of physical confrontation. I think people can often be in conflict without approaching this point. Sometimes they can't. America isn't in as much internal conflict as we were in the 60's, but I do think we face more internal political conflict than we did in the 80's and 90's.

The danger lies when we have too many people in conflict with BOTH political parties. People who feel legitimately disenfranchised. You get enough people feeling disenfranchised, and that's when things could get ugly.

Huck said...

Eric - Yes, you are right that conflict is sometimes used much more lightly. The concept of something being "in conflict" with something else (i.e. I have a scheduling "conflict," or "conflicting" ideas) probably gets at what you're saying. But I see that usage of the terminology (which, I grant, is a common usage) isn't talking about conflict in an active sense, but in a passive sense. In other words, things exist in opposition to one another. And that constitutes conflict of a sort. However, when referring to active engagement of political contestation, which is the context in which I was contrasting the use of the terms, I think conflict has more the meaning that I am ascribing to it. In the realm of political culture, when we talk about conflict, we generally mean some kind of belligerency or armed hostilities. When we talk about competition in the realm of political culture, we generally don't imply this kind of belligerency. And we certainly don't call warfare a "competition" although we may call elections such. That's the distinction I am trying to make.

Eric said...

Huck, well put. By that definition, I'd certainly agree with you: democratic politics is not conflictual in the sense that the loser loses in the same way the loser of a military conflict loses (heh, try saying that 5 times real fast).

I do think, however, that given the wide gulf between the major competing political ideologies, oftentimes the losers of an election are punished worse then the rhetorical equivelant of having to buy the winners a round of beer.

That's a major reason why I could never support Obama in spite of the fact that I genuinely like him: I am in the category of people he would tap to pay for all the things he wants to do (and the benificiary of very little of it). I feel like he would punish me, and that the people who vote for him are essentially voting to steal from me. It IS sometimes very hard to keep that from spilling over into animosity and belligerancy.

I may disagree with the Republicans on many issues, but at the very least I know that, mostly, they agree with me that my family's income is already diverted to the "public good" to an unreasonable and incredibly high degree.