Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Narcissism of Small Differences

Yesterday I marveled at Sarah Palin’s sudden metamorphosis in liberal opinion from a bumbling hick to an accomplished crypto-fascist. Joan Williams's post, "Sarah Palin Plays Chess," is another example of the phenomenon.  Today I’ll take a stab at explaining Palin's popularity in terms liberals readily apply to themselves.

Imagine that you live in an otherwise well-ordered democracy in which you are the only citizen who’s not entitled to vote. You’d have every reason to be indignant because such an arrangement surely does you an injustice. But how, exactly, does it injure you? Being a subject of a polity without having a say in how it’s run is hardly an intolerable situation. Immigrants put themselves in that position all the time when they choose to live as subjects, but not citizens, in a society that affords economic, social or cultural opportunities unavailable to them in a former residence in which they enjoyed all of the rights and privileges of citizenship. Truth be told, you’re a busy person who often doesn’t get around to casting a vote anyway. Why should depriving you of an opportunity that’s usually not important enough to seize count as a severe deprivation?

It’s not that denying you the right to vote has any real impact on the extent to which the political system responds to your interests or your ideals. It may be true, generally speaking, that letting every citizen vote is the best way of realizing everyone’s preferences. But a system that lets everyone but you vote wouldn’t generate materially different results. Were you entitled to vote, your vote would make a difference only on the vanishingly small chance that it breaks a tie among everyone else’s votes. For all practical purposes, then, your vote has no effect on the system’s responsiveness to your interests. That’s why people who don’t place much intrinsic value on voting don’t often exercise their right to vote. Calculated in the currency of time and inconvenience, the cost of voting massively outweighs any of its extrinsic expected benefits.

So, again, why are we so alarmed at the mere thought to being deprived of the right to do something utterly inconsequential? I can think of only one plausible answer. Denying you the opportunity to vote injures you not because it impedes the realization of your interests, but because it assaults your dignity. You have to believe your political preferences warrant public consideration not because they have any discernible impact on public policy, nor because you think they’re especially enlightened nor even because you’re sure that they accurately represent your true interests or your highest ideals.  In your eyes, your political preferences should count just because they’re yours.

It follows that no citizen can reasonably consent to being disenfranchised. Anyone who regards his own values as being unworthy of public consideration suffers from a pathological lack of self-respect. By the same token, a society that deprives him of his say in the conduct of public affairs subjects him to official contempt. It says to him in the bluntest terms that his preferences don’t matter because, in his capacity as a citizen, he doesn’t matter. That’s a slight that everyone feels acutely, even when they don’t bother to exercise their voting rights.

Liberals know the feeling. They were understandably indignant when they learned in 2000 that George Bush, and not Al Gore, was going to be president because Gore-voters had been effectively disenfranchised in Florida. Their distress at the recent Supreme Court decision nullifying their democratic preference for the restrictions on corporate speech imposed by McCain-Feingold is another case in point. Indignation is a perfectly appropriate reaction to being told that your political preferences don’t count.

Why, then, is it so hard for liberals to get what’s eating at the people who think that Palin speaks for them? It used to be that what she said didn’t matter because she’s a half-wit. Liberals couldn’t fathom how she’d even think of offering herself for national office. Now she shouldn’t be taken seriously because she’s a symptom of heartland paranoia. Her supporters get the message loud and clear: their preferences don’t count.

A lot of Palinite indignation is probably an unavoidable byproduct of the way politics is practiced in a pluralistic constitutional democracy. But liberals should be the last people to have trouble understanding a political constituency’s expressions of self-respect.

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