SEPTEMBER 26, 2018
DEMOCRACY CAN BE an amorphous concept, invoked almost everywhere and usually without any clear definition beyond vagaries like “rule of the people” when it comes to elections. But democracy goes much deeper than that, and questions about it are really about the fundamental design of society. So it might be best to think about democracy through the eyes of a thinker a step removed from the liberal consensus — someone like the late French philosopher Simone Weil.
By turns a mystic, a radical, and a fervent dissenter from the post-Enlightenment tradition, Weil not only looks outside that tradition for authority, but she also views authority in a very different light. Much of her work concerns itself either with spiritual matters or ancient philosophical issues, particularly ones raised by Plato. But precisely for that reason, her political work provides an illuminating contrast with more technocratic thinkers. This is especially true in her writing about political parties, which was most fully developed in two different books from 1943, the last year of her life: The Need for Roots, an in-depth discussion of Weil’s vision for society, published after her death, and On the Abolition of All Political Parties, a long essay/short monograph devoted exclusively to her belief that parties constitute an unmitigated evil.
Weil is a striking figure, perhaps better known for her biography than her work. Born in 1909 to a non-practicing Jewish family in Paris, she was one of the first women to study at the prestigious École normale supérieure, where she developed an eccentric demeanor and a forceful set of views inspired by anarchism and pacifism. She once took on a job at a Renault factory, where she operated a power press (in part to experience firsthand the situation of the industrial proletariat), and in 1936 she traveled to Spain to support anarchists fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Her stay lasted less than a year, and she was forced to leave the country after sustaining severe burns in a non-battle-related accident.
In May 1940, Germany began its conquest of France; Weil’s teaching career ended soon after, when the nascent Vichy regime banned scholars of Jewish ancestry. After a brief period in the French countryside — where she wrote a series of notes on religious and ethical questions, which were posthumously published to great acclaim under the title Gravity and Grace — Weil helped the French Resistance in London, where she worked with Charles de Gaulle and the Free French organization. Out of solidarity with the French living under occupation, Weil refused to eat more than her home country’s official ration, a dangerous choice given her lifelong health issues. She also contracted tuberculosis, eventually checking into a sanatorium, where she died on August 24, 1943. In the years that followed, especially as her posthumous books emerged in the 1950s, Weil became a significant figure in French letters, attracting fans like André Gide, T. S. Eliot, and Albert Camus.
It’s a remarkable life. But it matters not because it’s interesting, but because it shaped the ideas that make her work valuable today. On the Abolition of All Political Parties never apologizes for its radicalism, and never makes concessions to practical objections. The book proposes exactly what the title promises: Weil wants to get rid of them at once.
Certainly she’s thinking particularly of the Nazi Party in Germany, the international Communist Party based in Stalin’s USSR, and other infamously dictatorial parties of the 1940s. But she also bluntly declares that “totalitarianism is the original sin of all political parties,” not just the most menacing ones. She gives three reasons for this assessment: first, political parties exist primarily to “generate collective passions,” in order to bring out voters; second, parties apply pressure on members (such as elected officials) to conform to a set platform regardless of their conscience; and third, and most importantly, “the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.” Weil sees this desire for growth as inherently totalitarian.
Much of her hatred of political parties stems from her rejection of conformity, and she worries that the attitude of political partisanship has become pervasive in matters that aren’t exactly political. Weil decries intellectual tribalism in all its forms, observing that not even science and the arts are free. “Cubism and Surrealism were each a sort of party. […] To achieve celebrity, it is useful to be surrounded by a gang of admirers, all possessed by the partisan spirit.” But, in Weil’s view, this kind of conformity is intrinsic to political parties:
In fact — and with very few exceptions — when a man joins a party, he submissively adopts a mental attitude which he will express later on with words such as, “As a monarchist, as a Socialist, I think that…” It is so comfortable! It amounts to having no thoughts at all. Nothing is more comfortable than not having to think.
What’s interesting is that much of what Weil observes about partisanship anticipates the research cited decades later by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels in their 2016 book, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. They describe party groupthink in similar, albeit less value-laden, terms:
A party constructs a conceptual viewpoint by which its voters can make sense of the political world. Sympathetic newspapers, magazine, websites, and television channels convey the framework to partisans. That framework identifies friend and enemies, it supplies talking points, and it tells people how to think and what to believe.
Achen and Bartels muster a range of data demonstrating that party identification often comes through identity, rather than ideology, validating Weil’s contention that party members usually defer to the party line rather than puzzle out issues on their own. For example, they present evidence that as the Democratic and Republican Parties began to polarize over the issue of abortion in the 1980s, many voters (particularly men) began to change their beliefs to match their party’s newly articulated platform. But their main point is that voters are drawn to a party for social identity reasons, and then — only after joining — begin to adopt the party’s ideological language, meaning their “partisanship often has little real ideological content.” Just like Weil contends.
After analyzing voter behavior, Achen and Bartels conclude that “[t]he evidence demonstrates that the great majority of citizens pay little attention to politics.” But, unlike Weil, this doesn’t trouble them. “Human beings are busy with their lives,” they write, pointing to careers, child care, and other drains on citizens’ free time. Achen and Bartels’s insouciance stands in sharp contrast from Weil’s insistence that thinking is a good in and of itself, necessary both for good citizenship and a meaningful life. It’s worth coming back to this, because the major difference between the two is that Achen and Bartels see political activity as in some way separate from people’s lives, and Weil does not.
Weil is rather ambivalent about democracy. Indeed, in On the Abolition of All Political Parties she insists: “Democracy, majority rule, are not good in themselves. They are merely means toward goodness.” One reason Weil abhors political parties and other collective organizations is that they represent “a reversal of the relation between means and ends.” She believes that people should lead their lives focused on the abstractions that carry the most ethical and moral weight — truth, beauty, justice, and, most importantly, God. For her, “[g]oodness alone is an end. Whatever belongs to the domain of facts pertains to the category of means.”
Achen and Bartels, like all political scientists — and most other inheritors of the liberal tradition, including the vast majority of contemporary American political actors — are almost exclusively interested in means, which is why they don’t object to people who choose to prioritize work and family commitments over political involvement. They see parties as an important tool of any “realistic” democracy, insisting that “policy making is a job for specialists,” and “interest groups and parties have to do the work.” Their reasoning is straightforward: parties are useful because they are effective.
Precisely because they are starting from such different places — Weil from a philosophical quest for the good, Achen and Bartels from an interest in following hard data — it is fascinating to see how much they overlap. For example, both see propaganda in similar ways. Weil, unsurprisingly, hates it. “The avowed purpose of propaganda is not to impart light, but to persuade,” she writes. But it is essential to the workings of parties: “All political parties make propaganda. A party that would not would disappear, since all its competitors practice it.” Weil is certainly correct here — all campaigning is designed to persuade, rather than “bring light.” But Achen and Bartels are also sensitive to the way campaigns can distort citizens’ views. Countering those who reason that the “wisdom of crowds” (where ordinary people’s misjudgments would essentially cancel each other out), they note that “[w]hen thousands or millions of voters […] are swayed by the same vivid campaign ad, no amount of aggregation will produce the requisite miracle.”
In fact, because Achen and Bartels are focused on exactly how politics work, rather than simply focusing on parties, they end up seeing propaganda in much more expansive terms than Weil:
If an incumbent government censors or distorts information regarding foreign policy or national security, the resulting errors in citizens’ judgments obviously will not be random. Less obviously, even unintentional errors by politically neutral purveyors of information may significantly distort collective judgment, as when statistical agencies or the news media overstate or understate the strength of the economy in the run-up to an election.
This begins to hint at one of Weil’s blind spots — namely that she tends to emphasize the dangers of political parties at the expense of the power of incumbent forces in society, including current governments and business interests.
Since Weil is so virulently opposed to collective thinking, and to propaganda, it is unsurprising that her ban on parties come with serious restrictions on civil liberties. Weil bluntly proposes, “Whenever a circle of ideas and debate would be tempted to crystallize and create formal membership, the attempt should be repressed by law and punished.” She expects, and supports, informal political factions gravitating to journals and other publications. But even there, she sees the need for limits, writing, “At election time, if contributors to a journal are political candidates, it should be forbidden for them to invoke their connection with the journal, and it should be forbidden for the journal to endorse their candidacy.”
One can imagine Achen and Bartels responding by claiming that voters are not simply swayed by political propaganda, but by their own mistakes, and that this will render Weil’s efforts insufficient to create the kind of engaged populace she seeks. Citing the work of Philip Converse, who observed that most people “do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time,” Achen and Bartels argue that in surveys and other studies, many voters have a difficult time even sorting different policy ideas by their ideology (meaning they don’t know when a given proposal is considered a liberal or conservative idea), and that people’s views are highly unstable, changing frequently over time. Even more pointedly, they make a case that voters often base their decisions on clearly irrational grounds. One particular example stands out: “Voters along the Jersey Shore punished the incumbent president, Woodrow Wilson, for the panic and economic dislocation stemming from a dramatic series of shark attacks in 1916, reducing his vote share there by as much as 10 percentage points.”
But Achen and Bartels’s primary thesis is that most voters are influenced not by shark-related panic but by group attachments. According to research they cite, “Even in the context of hot-button issues like race and abortion, it appears that most people make their party choices based on who they are rather than on what they think.” Weil expects this, noting, “The artificial crystallization into political parties coincides so little with genuine affinities that a member of parliament will often find himself disagreeing with a colleague from within his own party, and in complete agreement with a politician from another party.” But Weil’s notion of citizenship — really of humanity — is an intellectually strict one, and is unsympathetic to the idea that people should let any kind of social group influence their decisions. For her, engagement is a moral good, in and of itself. From this perspective, the divisions that parties themselves promote are therefore responsible for voter ignorance.
Weil’s vision of democracy isn’t focused on plebiscites or elections — it’s about allowing people to make choices about how to live fulfilling lives. And while I might not agree with her answers, I think her questions are the right ones. To her, even the idea of a political party — as utilitarian invention as you can think of — is subject to an ethical investigation. And it should be. Because if political engagement is dependent on social identity, political struggle will ultimately become a struggle of competing values. After all, values define social identity.
Reformers impressed by Weil’s arguments but unwilling to give up parties altogether would be wise to draw upon Achen and Bartels’s findings and focus on empowering organized groups and smaller parties. Ideas such as ranked-choice voting and proportional representation offer good starting points. But the real lesson of Weil’s work is that a democratic politics needs to be expansive, acknowledging that everyone is entitled to an equal stake in society and an equal say in how society works. In effect, democracy needs to be a system of principles, not a system of practices. Weil is far too idiosyncratic to offer a workable blueprint for society, but her ethical seriousness remains compelling, and she certainly forces readers to think hard about what it means to create a just society.
Banner image from Cornell University Library.