MAX HEADROOM & DEMOCRACY

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In the late 1980’s, cult television brought us Max Headroom, a futuristic series whose eponymous hero, an artificial intelligence, a dissipitive bundle of code, lived in cyberspace and interacted with carbon based life forms (like us).

In Max’s time, democracy is the rule but the electoral process is not at all what we’re used to today. Instead of publishing political platforms, competing parties and candidates stage entertainment spectaculars on TV. The winner, you guessed it, is the candidate or party that garners the highest ratings.

On election day, voting takes place continuously.  A cyber-tool records each household’s real time viewing choices and displays the aggregate results. As viewers (voters) change channels, the fortunes of the candidates ebb and flow.

In Max’s society, candidates are not selected according to their political or economic proposals; they are elected according to the cultural affinities of the electorate. The candidate that best understands voters’ tastes and proclivities and uses that understanding to create a product that resonates with those same voters ultimately triumphs.

Does such an electoral system make the slightest sense? Maybe! After all, understanding voters’ values and preferences and being able to translate that understanding into something tangible demonstrate that a candidate is ‘in touch’ and therefore perhaps a ‘better choice’.

It is not easy for folks to decide what they think about complex political and economic issues and it is even harder for politicians to figure out what folks think about such things. But we all ‘know what we like’ and we eagerly and sometimes eloquently defend those decisions of the heart.

Of course, the electoral process in our society is nothing like this! According to our text books at least, each voter carefully and thoughtfully assesses the platforms of the various candidates and comes to favor those candidates whose proposals seem to be in the best interests of society as a whole…or at least of the voter himself. Then each voter retreats into the privacy and isolation of a voting booth and records his conclusion without any input from or interaction with any of his fellow voters.

But is this what ‘democracy’ really is and, even if it is, is it how our political system actually works?

According to G. W. F. Hegel, true democracy does not involve a direct relationship between the individual citizen and the Sovereign (whether King, President or Parliament). Rather, true democracy is what happens when individuals participate in functional communities and those communities in turn influence or direct Sovereign policy.

What is a ‘functional community’? The group of people we live with as we build neighborhood, the group of people we work with as we produce or distribute goods or services in exchange for compensation, the group of people we pray with as we worship God, the group of people we play with as we recreate ourselves.

Of course, we derisively call such functional communities ‘special interest groups’ and we deplore their unofficial role in our political system. But to Hegel, these communities were the true building blocks of democracy. He found the notion of isolated voters directing public policy by pulling levers while hiding behind curtains…well, hilarious (and I don’t get the impression Hegel found very many things hilarious).

Hegel would argue that we are not at heart isolated individuals, that with rare exceptions we exist only in communities. As we produce ourselves in the context of our communities, we naturally take on certain political perspectives. We do not deduce those perspectives from study and contemplation, we inherit them as we produce our lives within our functional communities.

Marx accepted Hegel’s notion of human beings as fundamentally social animals but in place of Hegel’s functional communities Marx inserted the concept of ‘class’. We are in most cases born into a class which is defined by the relationship of its members to the ‘means of production’. While Hegel’s concept of community was broad enough to include all important human activity, Marx focuses almost exclusively on economic activity.

After the Russian Revolution, Lenin combined the teachings of Hegel and Marx and built ‘democracy’ in Russia on the basis of so-called ‘soviets’, communities with an economic focus and purpose. Of course, one can lustily dispute how democratic the political system actually was in Hegel’s, or Lenin’s, Europe. But then again, one can also dispute how democratic the political system actually is in the United States today.

So what really happens in the US on election day? Do our election results reflect the considered judgments of isolated voters or are they a product of our functional communities or are they driven by the economic interests of the classes to which we belong? Or is it possible that they spring from our cultural affinities and identities just as they do in the time of Max Headroom?

In 2004, John Kerry lost the Presidency to George W. Bush. Did that happen because each voter performed her own exhaustive analysis of the political and economic prescriptions of each candidate, a slight plurality favoring Mr. Bush’s policies over Mr. Kerry’s. Of course not! (Can you hear Herr Hegel laughing?)

Bush won because voters felt more comfortable with his Texas swagger than they did with Kerry’s Patrician condescension. He was a better cultural fit. As the press reported it, “people would rather have a beer with George Bush (even though he doesn’t drink) than with John Kerry (even though he does).”

Bush resonated, Kerry didn’t. The median voter felt a cultural affinity with Bush that she did not feel with Kerry. It seems we are not so very far from the world of Max Headroom after all. Cultural affinity appears to trump intellectual analysis, social identity and even economic self-interest.

But even this analysis is over-simplistic…by a mile. The real impact of cultural identification on the political process is much more subtle…and even more powerful.

Our cultural identities themselves are the product of a highly non-linear process of selection and reinforcement. As Hegel correctly understood, our relationship with political leaders is not a direct one but is rather mediated through a variety of social groupings and institutions. Each of us belongs to a number of functional communities and these subcultures are the primary determinants of our cultural affinities, which in turn are the primary determinants of our political choices.

We live in a neighborhood, we hold down a job, we belong to a church, we bowl in a league on Thursday nights. Almost everything we ‘do’ embeds us in one social group or another. But what does this have to do with politics?

To a certain, but admittedly variable and limited, extent, we choose the neighborhood where we live, the church where we worship, the company we work for and the ‘guys’ we bowl with on Thursday night.

But how do we make these choices? At least to some extent, we look to associate with folks whose life experiences, values and tastes mirror our own. Sure, there are famous exceptions but they are famous precisely because they are exceptional. When studying political behavior, we are not interested in the rebel; we are interested in the crowd.

When we choose to belong to a functional community, we are already making a cultural statement, albeit often a very weak cultural statement. Selection is the first step, but only the first step, in the formation of cultural affinities.

The bigger factor, by far, is what happens once we are in a given functional community. Belonging to a group is all about being accepted by the other members of that group. If your beliefs, values, tastes and behaviors differ radically from those of most other members, you will often find yourself isolated; eventually you will wake up some morning and realize that you are no longer really part of the group at all.

This is the process by which some folks decide to move to a new neighborhood, change careers (or at least employers), change religions (or at least churches), or give up bowling (“I never really liked bowling anyway and besides, I should spend more time with my family.”). But ultimately, we are social animals and most of us most of the time will try to make our existing relationships work, even if that means gradually learning to think and act like the other people in our functional communities.

Groups form in part because of cultural affinity and then in turn groups massively strengthen and focus that affinity! Functional communities are crucibles of consensus!

How does this impact the political process? As our cultural affinities harden, we find ourselves drawn to candidates, and even parties, that seem to share and reflect those affinities. More importantly, we find ourselves wanting, even needing, to join our mates in lauding one candidate or criticizing another.

Most issues have two sides. Which side are you on? Which set of arguments do you emphasize in your thinking and talking; which set of arguments to you minimize? Take abortion, for example. The interests of the mother and the interests of the unborn child, by themselves, both clearly have a legitimate claim. Which claim do you lionize, which do you marginalize, and why? The final answer, at least for most of us, is cultural. Do we belong to social groups that tend to be primarily concerned with women’s rights or do we belong to groups that focus on the rights of the child? By the process of selection and amplification outlined above, our views tend to become consistent with the functional communities to which we belong.

Of course, this too is over simplistic. Many folks are deeply conflicted over the issue of abortion, some break from their cultural roots, some put forth nuanced positions, some even propose novel solutions. But most of the time, when you discuss abortion with someone, you come away with the sense that your interlocutor formed his position first and later adopted arguments to justify that position. Where does that aboriginal position come from? It comes from cultural affinities defined and amplified in functional communities.

Consider the story of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Berkshire County is a wonderful place. It is geographically gorgeous, full of friendly, caring and creative people and home to an extremely vibrant culture of the arts. But, isolated from the rest of state, Berkshire County is also an excellent social laboratory.

Everything about Berkshire County screams heterogeneity. It includes cities, towns, villages and rural farmland. Among its principal industries are manufacturing, retail, agriculture and art. Its population includes yuppies, townies, retirees, and families with school age children.

The residents of Berkshire County have every imaginable relationship with Marx’s ‘means of production’: seasonal farm workers, minimum wage service sector employees, manual laborers, entrepreneurs, trust fund babies, millionaire refugees from Manhattan, artists and folks not working but living in part on incomes provided through various government programs and agencies (including Social Security).

Twenty years ago, Berkshire County was the most Republican County in Massachusetts. For 32 years before that it was represented by a Republican, Silvio Conte, in the U.S. Congress. Today, Berkshire County is almost ‘Republican-free’ and on election day it is one of the most reliably Democratic counties in the state.

What happened? Certainly, there has been a significant influx of new population. But it would we way too easy, and inaccurate, to attribute Berkshire County’s political homogeneity to population change alone. Something much more profound is going on here.

Berkshire County is a way of life and that way of life permeates all its social, commercial and artistic institutions. Unlike other parts of the country, folks do not really have a choice among different social groups with different value sets. While individuals are diverse, functional communities are not. Wherever you go, the culture is the same.

In a certain sense, Berkshire County is one big functional community. Community there is not something that incidentally happens; it is a value that helps define the society. Community is a verb, not a noun, and that is one of the things that makes living in Berkshire County so magical. But “magic always comes with a price” and the price is cultural hegemony.

To live in Berkshire County and to be engaged in its functional communities is to immerse oneself in a univocal process of cultural selection and amplification. The overwhelmingly Democratic tilt is only one very superficial manifestation of this cultural hegemony. After all, there are plenty of reasons not to be a Republican these days! A much clearer manifestation can be found inside the politics of the Democratic Party itself.

In 2013, a U.S. Senate seat became available in Massachusetts. John Kerry (above) vacated the seat to become Secretary of State. Two sitting Democratic Congressmen announced. Neither man lived in or near Berkshire County; neither had any significant past history in that part of the state. Both candidates were middle aged white men, both had predominantly liberal voting records.

But one candidate (Lynch) came from South Boston and enjoyed significant support from organized labor while the other candidate (Markey) came from a Boston suburb and was generally favored by the academic community. Statewide, the race was fairly close; but not in Berkshire County. Markey, the more urbane of the two, gathered over 85% of the vote. Berkshire Country’s cultural hegemony flexed its muscle that night.

But Berkshire County is really no different from any other county in the U.S. What is writ large there is actually happening, albeit less obviously, in every hamlet and metropolis across America. The sovereign voter, enshrined in the texts of American civics, lives only in those texts…nowhere else. Likewise, Marx’s purely economic voter is a myth. Whether it is the futuristic world of Max Headroom or the historical world of G. W. F. Hegel or contemporary America, politics is not about ideology but about cultural affinity and electoral outcomes are dictated, not by voters acting in isolation, but by functional communities and the cultural identities they foster and amplify.