Representation in Politics and Art

by Daniel A. Kaufman

My discussion with Crispin Sartwell of Dickinson College, on Representation in Politics and Art.







30 responses to “Representation in Politics and Art”

  1. DW

    This was a good conversation, and I’m glad to see you do another one with Sartwell. Hope you guys keep going since you are always so interesting.

    Since you are talking about the US, you ought to have noted a few details of the system. In particular, the US Constitution is almost impossible to amend. Regarding voting, in the last century there have been two amendments extending franchise, one that gives DC Electoral College votes, and one that prohibits poll tax. The most recent of these is nearly 50 years old. And any amendment that reduced the electoral or congressional power of small population rural states would require the approval of many of those same small states. 80% of the population could want the amendment, but it would fail. I know you were most interested in talking about philosophical topics, but you did talk about the real cultures in the US. It would have been worth talking about the very poor prospects of reform. This affects culture too. We could very well have a movement of wanna be revolutionaries, but we will not have a serious movement of reformers because everybody already believes that they will fail.

    The other place where I thought you guys came up short is in sticking to an unexplored simple concept of equating “atomistic” and “one person, one vote”. Another serious failure of the US system is that it uses “first past the post” which is a terrible voting system. Since you guys were interested in multi-level representations, it would have been fruitful to consider some of the various schemes that produce proportional representation. These can have geographical and other components that don’t assume the whole population is one undifferentiated mass.

    But I do like this notion of looking at representation in other fields and considering what that might say about good political organization. It would be interesting to see what you come up with if you explore that further.

  2. It has been a while since I saw Aravis Tarkheena around. Why did you choose this particular alias? Do you enjoy talking to your horse?

  3. She is my favorite character from one of my favorite children’s books.

  4. Enjoyed listening. Much to agree with. Of course, the European conservative and liberal traditions were always wary of atomistic individualism. The crude majoritarian democracy to which such thinking leads was seen by them and even by some pre-Marxian socialists as a form of tyranny.

    On another point, I would be wary of linking ideas of representation in politics and art as I tend to see this in terms of polysemy and semantic fields, and the two uses of the word as being quite distinct. A word’s meaning is dependent on other words with which it is conceptually related, and representation as political concept (which is associated with ideas like sovereignty, authority, etc.) sits in a different semantic field or domain from representation as an art-related concept.

    Sure there is a vague connection between the two meanings, but my initial reaction is that it is too limited and loose and metaphorical to build anything much on.

  5. Just to clarify, I had in mind liberals like Benjamin Constant.

  6. We’ll we obviously disagree with your last point, as we devoted a good half of the dialogue to it.

  7. Hi Mark

    Of course, the European conservative and liberal traditions were always wary of atomistic individualism.

    Wouldn’t the claim by Margaret Thatcher, that there is no society, only individuals, count as this kind of atomistic individualism?

  8. It is true that one-person-one-vote would not give a true representation of the country, but don’t forget the same principle applies at state level, the state vote does not necessarily represent the state. It often seems to be assumed that the way Wisconsin voted, for example, is a true picture of Wisconsin.

  9. Robin

    “Wouldn’t the claim by Margaret Thatcher, that there is no society, only individuals, count as this kind of atomistic individualism?”

    I had in mind the old European liberal tradition. Thatcher claimed Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty as her political bible. Hayek’s views, certainly, are representative of the tradition I am talking about.

    He wrote: “Liberalism (in the European 19th century meaning of the word) is concerned mainly with limiting the coercive powers of all government, whether democratic or not, whereas the dogmatic democrat knows only one limit to government — current majority opinion…”

    I don’t want to give a commentary on this, however, or on the notorious interview which Thatcher gave to Woman’s Own to which you appear to be alluding. But she didn’t say there are only individuals: at least she mentioned families and neighbours. She said: “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it’ … and so they are casting their problems upon society, and who is society? There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then after our neighbour … and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.” Further on, she repeated her point, saying: “There is no such thing as society.”

    Not surprisingly, this unfortunate sentence was picked up and used against her ever after.

    To what extent was she a liberal in the same tradition as Hayek? I couldn’t say precisely.

  10. s. wallerstein

    Chile changed the electoral system recently to increase proportional representation. Previously, the country was divided into congressional districts of roughly equal population, each electing two deputies (congresspeople). The fairly predictable result was that each district elected one deputy from the mainstream center-left coalition and one deputy from the mainstream center-right coalition. The reform halved the number of districts, and the size of them increased, some electing 4, some electing 6 and some electing 8 deputies according to their population. That way candidates from small parties and independent candidates had a chance of getting elected. The result was to increase the number of leftwing deputies, the number of women deputies, the number of evangelical Christian deputies (the religious right), thus reflecting the variety of political opinions in the general population. That seems positive to me.

  11. Dan,
    Well, I’m about a half way through. Challenging discussion.

    I am now a principled opponent of the Electoral College, since I think it is out-dated, regardless of whether it benefits Dems or Reps. Although gerrymandering makes a joke out of the House in some ways, I’m certainly not opposed to having a Senate that seems to grants as much representation to Wyoming as to NY. That is where the non-1 person=1 vote argument works well.

    But the presidency is a different matter, because we expect a President to represent all Americans, and the Constitutional government, and American interests over-sea. One could groan over W. Bush’s election in 2000 for many reasons, but after all, he had convinced us, and remained true to this conviction, that this was exactly what he believed he was doing.

    But the full danger of the Electoral College has now been realized. We now have a President who quite clearly does not believe he represents all Americans, who is perfectly happy governing in order to please his 36% fan base, and whatever Republicans are willing to tag along to get their own agenda accomplished (eg. Evangelical), regardless of the will of the majority; regardless of any long term harm done to American interests; regardless of the harm it causes large populations of American citizens and residents.

    I’m afraid this changes everything. It’s one thing to have a minority-representative president who, despite ideological differences with the majority, still tries to represent all American, and in the process hopes to bring undecided or independent voters on board to build a majority. It’s an entirely different matter when a minority uses the deranged narcissism of their president – “their president,” because he openly disavows any interest in representing his non-fans like me – to ram through ideologically driven policy changes, without proper debate, without proper inquiry, without addressing interests or concerns of their opponents.

    Frankly, this problem – the man-baby in the White House, and the profound divisiveness he has driven into us, aided and abetted by a Republican Party – that is, the Trump Party – that has surrendered its reason, its courage, its own commitment to serving the interests of the American people and the Constitutional government. Has led me to rethink the entire Constitution and its history. I haven’t studied that in a long while, but I am pulling together some unhappy thoughts concerning it…. Although I agree with DW, we are unlikely to see amended for the better any time soon.

  12. I hate Trump too, but I think the reaction to him has been far beyond anything remotely proportionate to his badness. As far as I’m concerned, Nixon was much worse.

  13. … Ok, well, I found the second half a little disappointing. First, I agree with Mark about being ” wary of linking ideas of representation in politics and art (…) Sure there is a vague connection between the two meanings, but my initial reaction is that it is too limited and loose and metaphorical to build anything much on.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I think such thinking useful, even necessary in broadening the perspectives of political philosophy. Unfortunately, when trying to tie it back into practical politics, something just doesn’t hang together, and the focus gets lost.

    The problem is that most of our present problems (which, remember, are building our future even as we discuss this), are the result of a difficult, complex, and sometimes unhappy history. I think this needs a different kind of discussion.

    BTW, there have been only 10 African American US senators in America’s history. An eleventh was elected in the later 1870s,; but a Congress under the control of the Democratic Party (still dominated by the South) refused to allow him to take his seat (albeit, to be fair, due to controversy surrounding the election process). P.B.S. Pinchback had already served a brief term as governor (following the impeachment of the man for whom he served as Lt. Gov.), the only African American governor until 1990.

    Politics is a messy business, and history is even messier, since it must account for those ‘invisibles’ who somehow break the surface, and those disappointments produced by misadventure through human limitations.

    Perhaps the solution to the Electoral College dilemma would be resort to a Party-elected Chief of State, rather like they have in England. At least removal would be easier than the teeth-pulling contest of impeachment, which the founders may have thought would be a fairly easy process, since a Congress (having no political parties) would be filled with reasoning adults…. Oh, they were wrong about the political parties business, weren’t they…. I’m beginning to think they were wrong about a lot of things. It’s really surprising we’ve survived this long and have adapted as well as we have to the challenges that have faced us, many of which seem tenacious beyond reason.

  14. I do wonder about the impact of a Trump flavoured SCOTUS for years to come after Trump has gone.

  15. …well, I found the second half a little disappointing

    On the contrary, I thought that was where Dan-K’s thoughts were expressed most clearly and what he said made a great deal of sense. The nature of a tree is not determined by the number of its leaves.

  16. Dan-K,
    this was another most enjoyable discussion, provocative and informative.

    Early in the discussion you mentioned giving a course in the philosophy of psychology. This sounds fascinating. I hope we see an essay on the subject. You mentioned that today there are two corporatist parties, that much of the electorate feel they have been sold down the river by both parties.. Indeed, and I think that this is the real problem, that is destined to become worse. Corporate America is a natural constituency that deserves to have its interests represented but its power has become outsize.

  17. As to the real danger Trump presents us with (as opposed to Nixon (who was a real politician, whatever his criminal behavior and later bizarre behavior in office – and who in his own strange way seemed to believe that he represented all Americans): I wrote of Trump’s “fan base.” i think that an accurate term. Many pundits have noted it, but little has ben done to explain it – Trump is in office because he was the star of a popular ‘reality TV’ show. Beyond the damage he has already done to American institutions and global prestige, a far more invidious harm is his reduction of the office of President, and the politics surrounding it, to yet another ‘reality TV’ show. This is a major change in American politics – perhaps a real sea-change.

    One of the issues not discussed in the video here. is that this 36% fans of Trump trust him because, not only is he saying things they would like to say (feeling disenfranchised as they understandably do, the Democratic Party especially guilty of turning their backs on them), Is that they live in a world of ‘reality TV,’ of celebrity idolization, encouraged by the media, of a culture war dominated by simplistic rhetoric reducible to tweets of expressed victimization and outrage.

    What considers itself the far left (the SJW) have a similar problem; but they are blessed with a sense of irony. On some level, the college students among them know (as the radical left knew when I went to college) that the game would be over when they graduated and had to get jobs in the real world.

    For Trump fans, there is no irony – the ‘reality TV show of Trump’s rallies and tweets is what life is all about.

    That changes everything. We have not developed any language with which to address ‘realty TV show politics.’

    As a last note, I will remark – as some pundits have already noted – that Trump only and always represents the interests – of Donald Trump. And the Republican unwillingness to restrain him makes him an anomaly in American politics – unless , that is, ‘reality TV politics’ becomes the norm….

    Finally, to swing back to my comment on the discussions revolving around an ‘aesthetics’ of political/geographical representation – I think in a sense the conversation ended too soon. In the last few minutes you and Prof. Cartwell got very excited about the philosophical implications of some of Prof. Cartwell’s musings. I would like further discussions along these lines, because, as noted, I think such discussion useful and necessary philosophically.

    I’m not sure that it can be tied into practical politics. Ultimately, winning over the Latino vote in Pennsylvania will have more to do with savvy rhetoric and negotiations about shared concerns – and getting out the vote – then the geography of Pennsylvania -except insofar as that geography, with its dense forests and hills, isolate certain communities from one another.

  18. Labnut: Of course, out of everyone, you got it.

  19. Nixon is directly responsible for the Cambodian genocide. Nixon created the War on Drugs. (For largely racist reasons.) Nixon gave us the Southern Strategy, which played on Southern racism, to give us the miserable Right that we have today. There’s more, but that’s more than enough.

    Seriously, it’s not even close. Trump is a small fry clown in comparison.

  20. Well, I concede that your examples are the stuff for a strong argument for your view on the matter. And after all, we’re only 2 years in with Trump.

    However, I do think that the problem of ‘reality TV’ politics is a real one, and one that may be concerning us further as we go on beyond Trump.

  21. The Nixon/Trump example to my mind points to the adage: I’d rather have a stupid bad guy than a smart one.

  22. I think it is an interesting and potentially useful analogy between the meaning of ‘representation’ in politics and its meaning in art, although I admit to a “What the …!” moment when I read the heading.

  23. s. wallerstein

    Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement on climate change, which is very serious. However, Trump is worse than Nixon insofar as he lowers the standards for acceptable presidential political discourse. Nixon, while not an intellectual, was well-informed about international affairs and was not a clown, unlike Trump. Trump sets the dangerous precedent than anyone can be elected president, while previously at least in the 20th century presidents were all educated people, all of high intelligence (except Bush 2), all people who could be taken seriously when they spoke, etc.

  24. I am not sure if Trump is stupid or not. Did you note the little tit-bit he threw to the Christian Right today? Mid-terms are approaching, they got numbers they can mobilise.

  25. Trump is not the subject of the essay. The real subject needs more attention.

  26. Bharath Vallabha

    Agree with labnut. Dan and Sartwell are getting to some of the deeper causes. There are a lot of different things happening in world right now: ecological, technological, economic, and yes, racial, but not just in the old fashioned colonialism way. It is tempting to fixate on individual people, as it gives something tangible to hold onto, someone to blame or to put all of one’s hopes in. The left did it with Obama (was emblem of all that is good), now happening with Trump, and will happen with others to come.

    Not that different from praising or blaming the rain gods for rain. To deal with rain better required a conceptual shift to seeing rain in non-human terms. Something analogous is needed with current social situation. Not non-human causes of course, but certainly causes not rooted in individuals (no matter how charismatic or self-promoting), but in broader forces.

  27. If much of America feel that they have been sold down the river by both parties, then there must be something that they are expecting of one or the other party that was not delivered.

    So what is it that they were expecting? And is it something that any party, corporatist or otherwise, is capable of delivering?

    Are people in manufacturing areas wanting a party to reverse the effects of there being billions of people on the other side of the world who can work at a tiny fraction of the cost of an American worker – even an American worker on a starvation wage?

    But there can’t really be any significant kind of trade war with China and other countries in that region, because America is no longer the price-maker economy, China is.

    Perhaps it is better to start being realistic about what either party can do.

  28. Complaint understood, and understandable. However, the discussion opens with remarks concerning the Electoral College, and the Electoral college is what largely put Trump into power (although the Democrats fielding a terrible candidate with a terrible campaign strategy certainly didn’t help). And the fact remains that Trump represents only 35%-40% of the population, and makes no pretensions otherwise.

    That 34-40% is spread across more than half the states (largely rural or rust-belt), however – thus the point of the whole discussion. In what way should geography determine representation of the population, if at all? I agree with Mark English that this may be a case of carrying a metaphor too far. But I also think the discussion raises important issues. I just think the latter half of the discussion needed tighter focus.

    In a funny way, Trump actually could supply such focus. He’s a NYC real estate scammer (and anyone who’s lived in NYC knows the type). yet his primary appeal is to the rural and rust-belt disenfranchised. How come? Well, that’s why I raised the Re4ality TV issue – because I suspect that’s largely how come. Consider: Hell’s Kitchen (US) started its 19th Season. As more than one critic (including the late Alain Bourdain) has noted, the show is not about cooking, nor restauranting, nor even about the contestants. Its about Gordon Ramsay. The audience trusts Ramsay, they effectively invite him into their home by watching the program, they await Ramsay’s rambles, his occasional generosity, his rants and raves – much as some do the former star of The Apprentice now in the White House. Hopefully (and most reports indicate this), Ramsay is not a neurotic narcissist with an megalomaniac desire for power, and an overwhelming desire to efface the legacy of America’s first African American president (who was nowhere near as liberal as his critics claimed). Unfortunately Trump is. So it’s a real question whether Trump’s sickness is worse than Nixon’s, or his stupidity worse that of W. Bush.

    I would argue that he is at least as dumb as W, Bush, but W. had a savvy politico behind him, Dick Cheney. And Nixon was himself a savvy politico. I argued that Trump is more dangerous than Nixon; Dan made cogent points that Nixon’s policies were more egregious. I think that’s worthy of a discussion, although such discussion – I agree with you – ought properly be carried on in a separate essay.

  29. I should point out that the one “corporatist” party argument has been made by Noam Chomsky for decades (actually, he says that the Dems and the Reps are two factions of “the Businessman’s Party”). And I have agreed with him for decades.

    I support the Democrats because 1) I believe our political fictions have value; 2) specifically in practical politics; and 3) because to achieve lasting practical results in politics without war or revolution, one always starts with what one has at hand, not with what one wishes were the case. Finally, of course, I think the political fictions of the Democrats (certainly those of the New Deal) are preferable to those of the Republicans.

    If both the far left and the far right would recognize this, we would have a far different – and healthier – politics than we have today.

    However, none of this is the case; the two parties will not admit their short-sighted commitment to interests in the private sector, the far left and far right will not move toward the middle on the basis of practical politics, the electorate will not make the effort to discover their real interests and vote on these. Hence, as I’ve admitted repeatedly, I am ever the pessimist.

    But – its worth discussing such issues; just in case. Like most pessimists, I am willing to be pleasantly surprised.

  30. Like most pessimists, I am willing to be pleasantly surprised.

    Now that is an oxymoron if ever there was one.

    I think you have just confessed to being a pessoptimist.