Coalition building with the disenfranchised

I’ve been thinking about all of the groups that will be affected by the U.S. elections this fall. The basic unit of account for these elections is the vote. Yet so many groups of people that care about the outcome can never be counted in that way.

Citizens under the age of 18; permanent and temporary resident aliens; potential visitors and immigrants; felons; citizens of trading partners, allies, enemies; unborn future generations!

It must be very tough to build a voting coalition of the franchised to win an election. What on earth are we supposed to make of the real or hypothetical interests of disenfranchised stakeholders? Surely the answer can’t just be that the disenfranchisement can be taken as irrelevance—tough luck and out of vote, out of mind?

We have come to expect that coalition-building will favor the interests of older, richer citizens, since they vote in greater numbers (notwithstanding the chicken and egg problem we have there). The young and the structurally disenfranchised are already behind the eight ball, then, before we even open the other cans of worms, the inescapably voiceless.

And yet we do see, sometimes and someways, electoral coalitions that consider some interests of disenfranchised stakeholders. I find that amazing. I can’t help but root for a platform that includes concern for the interests of the ultimate powerless, those without even a vote to throw into the wind. It’s an expression of something beautiful and unlikely.

The most basic one, I suppose, is the old “won’t somebody please think of the children”, and sure, it’s a bit parochial and an easy thing to make fun of, but there might be some method to the madness.

Hold up. One of the knottiest questions I remember from my salad days learning about environmental economics is: when you’re thinking about how to make use of natural resources, how much weight should you put on the interests of future generations?

No matter which way you turn there are traps. Maybe you say “the same or more weight as today’s generation”. So you’re committing to either zero use of resources today, because there are infinite future generations who need to use them. Unless you assume unbounded technological innovation that will let you perpetually squeeze more and more out of less and less. Or you assume that at some future point there will be no future generations. OK, so you say “less weight than today’s generation”. You monster! But how much less weight? Where do you draw the line?

Stupid tradeoffs, ruining everything since forever.

And that’s just “think of the children”! It’s supposed to be the easy one to sell! So, I mean, where do you begin to square these circles in any meaningful way? How many stakeholders can you bring into the tent before it bursts at the seams? It’s not just The Children. The stakeholders spill out everywhere in time and space. Forgotten communities, immigrants, refugees, impoverished laborers in other countries…

Any social system is bound to have stakeholders that don’t have a formal voice. On one reading this is just a supersized version of an externality problem, path-dependent branches winding across time and space to vanishing points we can’t even conceive of. Externalities are quite straightforward in theory: if a private decision has social effects, maybe find a way to have the decision-maker experience some reflection of the social effects.

But what hope is there when the repercussions affect so inconceivably many?

I think the least we can do, then, is to cultivate an empathetic, other-regarding conception of the Public to arm us in our political thinking. I don’t think this is just pie-in-the-sky wishcasting; it’s something that we can learn and practice. It’s one of the roles of humanistic education. We cannot accept the primacy of the insidious marketability criterion for higher education priorities. Humanities, histories of thought, and classics are necessities, not luxuries if we have any hope of sustaining societies that can reconcile stability with diversity of culture or belief.

I’m reminded of George Saunders talking with Trump supporters, from his recent article:

Sometimes I’d mention a Central American family I met in Texas, while reporting another story. In that case, the father and son were documented but the mother and daughters weren’t. Would you, I’d ask, split that family up? Send those girls to a country in which they’d never spent a single day? Well, my Trump-supporting friend might answer, it was complicated, wasn’t it? Were they good people? Yes, I’d say. The father, in spare moments between his three jobs, built a four-bedroom house out of cinder blocks he acquired two or three at a time from Home Depot, working sometimes late into the night. The Trump supporter might, at this point, fall silent, and so might I.

In the face of specificity, my interviewees began trying, really trying, to think of what would be fairest and most humane for this real person we had imaginatively conjured up. It wasn’t that we suddenly agreed, but the tone changed. We popped briefly out of zinger mode and began to have some faith in one another, a shared confidence that if we talked long enough, respectfully enough, a solution could be found that might satisfy our respective best notions of who we were.

Well, let’s not get too dreamy about it.

Yes, let’s not pretend to have solved the world, but it’s not nothing. How painful it can be to internalize the voiceless, but how calming and empowering, too.

This is why I feel wounded by nativist and racial politics. It’s not just the awful content. Its method is not to internalize the voiceless but to demonize them. It equates powerlessness with worthlessness. The coalition is no bigger than the number of votes it can muster: what you see is all you get. The tents get smaller and smaller, a snowballing Balkanization of forgetting, fear, and hostility.

I feel the failure of education. I feel the fragility of the whole edifice of social knowledge. It needs constant work, and if it’s not passed down, it’s gone. And so back to work we go, rebuilding our ability to hear each other over and over again.

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