There are big lessons in every election

moonFrom the opening vignette of the old Open Ocean exhibit at the Royal BC Museum. “Why, we know less about [democracy] than we do about the moon!”

In an article at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum claims that there are no big lessons to be drawn from the 2016 election and that the Democrats made no big mistakes. His argument for this claim is weak, disjointed, and hypocritical. But rather than focusing on the defects of his argument for this claim, I’d like to make a few comments about why the claim must be false.

Democracy as we know it hasn’t been around for very long. If your conception of “democracy as we know it” involves an effective universal franchise, it’s arguably been around for only a few decades even in most of the oldest democracies. Because democracy is complicated and it hasn’t been around for very long, we’re still very ignorant about it; there just hasn’t been enough time for enough study and experience of democracy to really get a handle on it. During the brief lifespan of modern democracy, elections have been relatively rare events compared to other events that define democratic regimes, such as contacts between citizens and representatives, politically oriented public assemblies, and meetings of representative bodies. And although democracy isn’t just about elections, democracy is structured around elections. Given the rarity of elections — especially the rarity of elections relative to their importance to democracy —and the brief period they’ve been available for study, every election has the potential to contribute enormously to our store of knowledge about democracy. There are big lessons to learn from every election.

Perhaps what Drum means, then, is that none of the lessons there are to be learned from the election have any special significance for the Democrats. If, prior to the campaign, the Democrats had already possessed all of the general knowledge to be gained from learning those lessons, they would be no less warranted in running their campaign just the way they did without possessing this knowledge. Furthermore, if the Democrats had everything there was to learn from this election wiped from their minds prior to the next election, they would not be at any significant disadvantage. But this seems tantamount to claiming that the Democrats ran the best of all possible campaigns. If true, this would itself be a staggeringly important item of knowledge. Knowledge of how to run the best of all possible campaigns campaign — even the knowledge that there could be such a thing! — would change politics profoundly. Arguably such knowledge would seriously damage the legitimacy of democratic outcomes, as the proliferation of nearly perfect campaigns would make outcomes solely dependent on chance. So the claim that the Democrats have no big lessons to learn from 2016 can only be true if everyone has a very, very big lesson to learn in 2016. And to me, the content of this lesson is completely implausible.

A final comment. Drum opens his piece with a complaint about the number of “hot takes” on the election. I sympathize with his complaint but not his solution, which is merely to curl off another one for the pile. It seems to me that he’s caught in a bit of a professional bubble in which hot takes — not the social sciences, or professional political expertise, or the experience of activists and partisans, or the distributed practical intelligence of a democratic citizenry — provide the mode by which the lessons of political events are to be learned. Hot takes are disposable by their nature; therefore, any lessons to be learned from the election are also disposable. But the conclusion only follows from the most intellectually parochial of assumptions.


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