Latin roots

This otherwise unremarkable article includes a rather curious construction:

My major concern about Clinton’s comments (aside from the fact that her identity instantly polarizes any discussion of this topic and makes “independent” inquiry impossible) is her use of the word “legitimacy,” a word that is derived from the Latin word legitimus, which means lawful. Does a legitimate election mean one in which no laws were broken by the winning campaign? Quite likely there has never been such an election.

If “legitimate” means “legal,” and every presidential campaign has involved illegal behavior, then it is literally Logic 101 to conclude that every presidential election has been illegitimate. One would think that the whole point of puffing oneself up and belching out a Latin etymology, all in italics and shit would be to draw precisely this sort of logically necessary conclusion, but, amazingly, the only purpose of the author’s nitpicking is to draw the empty conclusion that the official results of the election were the official results of the election.

Of course, if we’re going to take concepts seriously, then the question of “legitimacy” goes far beyond picking grammatical nits. The U.S. government’s claim to legitimacy rests on the idea of “the will of the people.” Because the citizenry is not directly involved in almost any government decision, elected representatives have to be able to claim that they’re just doing what their constituents want them to do, that people are “getting what they voted for.” This argument requires two premises to hold: everybody has to pay attention and vote, such that the input to the system is sufficiently representative, and the candidates have to accurately represent themselves and their interests, such that what people think they’re voting for is in fact what they’re voting for.

Neither of these premises actually holds. Relatively few Americans vote, and the electoral spectacle, as a rule, avoids discussion of policies and even values as much as possible in favor of pageantesque preening and reality-show drama milling. These problems are fixable; the solutions are mostly obvious and I won’t bother recounting them here. But nobody in the government is actually trying to fix them. On the contrary, politicians spend most of their time catering to the spectacle and actively suppressing votes. This, then, is the true sense in which elections are illegitimate: they simply to do not pass a reasonable evaluation of the relevant criteria.

For example, very few people voted Republican because they wanted corporations to get a huge tax break. Yet that is precisely the Republicans’ top priority; furthermore, they aren’t trying to convince anyone or even discuss the issue at all, they’re just trying to ram it through as quickly and with as little oversight as possible. Thus, this behavior is illegitimate on basic democratic principles, regardless of the specific institutional mechanisms by which it transpires. Talking about “legality” or “process” here entirely misses the problem.

But the criteria themselves are also not set in stone. Consider, for example, the debate over money in politics. Some people believe that, because those with money “earned” their money, they have the right to use it as they will to attempt to affect society. Others believe that politics should be a sacred ground where the pernicious influence of money is banished so the focus can remain on actual discussion rather than propaganda. This is a live debate on which there is currently no consensus among Americans, and which position you take directly determines which elections you can consider legitimate (if you take the latter position, then, again, no elections are legitimate). So if you only focus on legalities like campaign finance laws and bribes and things, you’re ignoring the bulk of the issue. The fact that particular actions happen to be legal at this exact point in time says nothing about the moral standing of the actors; on the contrary, it says something about the state of the law. It’s tautological to describe a particular government action as “lawful” when it’s the government making the laws in the first place. The reason Nixon was full of shit when he said that “if the President does it, it’s not illegal” was not because he was technically incorrect, but because that’s beside the point. If it happened to be legal to break into your political opponents’ facilities and steal their information, that wouldn’t change the moral legitimacy of an election whose results were premised on those actions.

This is also one of the many reasons why all of these Russia histrionics are so disgusting. We don’t need Russian interference to give us something to criticize about the U.S. election process. Even if the all of the imagined Glenn Beck chalkboard arrows turn out to be real, it would all still amount to nothing more than a drop of piss in our vast ocean of bullshit. We have several beams to remove from our own eyes before it will become worthwhile to bother with splinters like those.

People think the current situation, where everything is premised on lies and analysis has no impact, means that rationality has failed, but the truth is they don’t really know what it looks like. As soon as you fail to draw a conclusion that reason requires you to, you lose the name of action. Analysis doesn’t ever have an impact unless it ends in a fist. “Reason” in such a case is merely the guise you assume as a peddler of comforting fictions. The alarmist tenor of the moment is actually a perverse means of reassurance: it is the subconscious insistence that, once the crisis has passed, everything will go back to normal.

This is why theory matters – and why facts don’t matter until you have your theory right. Complaints about “re-litigating” this or that election are premised on the notion that elections are atomic: the only purpose of an election is to generate a result; the result has already been generated; there’s no point in discussing it any further. And it’s true that specific infidelities, such as Clinton’s financial arrangement with the DNC, stop mattering at some point. What is the point, though, is that revelations such as these show us not how things went down once, but rather show us how they always are. It’s not that we’re going to going to change the results or that Sanders “would have won,” it’s that, as long as this is the way things are, any candidate who is even remotely Sanders-like will always lose. Which of course means that we didn’t need really the revelations at all. We just needed to draw the real conclusions of what we already knew. The only way you can understand this is by figuring out not what happened but rather how things work.

The sticking point here is pretty straightforward. It’s cowardice. Literally all the signs right now are pointing not to the conclusion that things have gone wrong, but to the conclusion that the world was always constituted wrong. A situation this grotesque can only have arisen because it was inevitable. But that’s too scary, so people just don’t think about it. They feel like they need to say something “serious,” so they adjust their spectacles and cite their references, and then go right back to reading Harry Potter. Unfortunately, ceasing to believe in evil wizards is one of the basic preconditions for being an adult human. Trump being president is one problem. The fact that someone like Trump was able to become president is all the problems.

And it is in fact rationality that can solve these problems. Yes, I will admit that, despite everything, in the midst of insanity and in the face of looming catastrophe, I still cling to the dying embers of the oldest faith. Seriously though, rationality isn’t just a dull matter of calculating statistics and conjugating verbs. Real rationality means real engagement with the real world as it really exists. That doesn’t mean that things are always what they seem. It means that, behind the curtain, there is always a reason, a physical cause, that makes things seem the way they do. And because the universe was not designed but is rather an unintentional jumble of proteins, those reasons are generally not going to be appealing plot developments that slide easily into place. They’re generally going to hurt.

Etymology isn’t destiny, but it can help show you what the world is made out of – assuming you’re actually willing to find out. If you’re going to claim that you’ve gotten to the root of the issue, you’d better have dirt on your hands. There’s nothing more pitiful than fake scholarship.

Notes on process


Tomorrow the Electoral College meets in order to elect the next President of the United States. It may strike you as somewhat curious that the person we’ve been referring to as “president-elect” for some time now has in fact not been elected president yet. It may further strike you that a great many people have been saying repeatedly and with great fervor that we must do everything possible to prevent Trump from ascending to power, and that they are now apparently not willing to do anything at all. There have been a number of schemes concocted to deny Trump the presidency, but the Reasonable Adults insist that such a thing must not be done, that we must “respect the process.” This is, again, curious, since it was those very same Adults telling us throughout the entire campaign someone like Trump must not be allowed the powers of the presidency.

Clinton and Obama spent the entire election telling us that Trump was not simply bad but uniquely unqualified, a radical danger to democratic society. Clinton literally looked a reporter in the eyes and spoke the words, “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.” For them to now roll over and insist that we “give Trump a chance,” that we “work together” to make his presidency “successful” is worse than a betrayal; it is proof positive that there was never any faith involved in any of this, at all. Furthermore, it is this exact behavior, this sickening combination of histrionic grandstanding and moral cowardice, that drove voters away from “the establishment” and towards Trump in the first place. (Their mistake, of course, was failing to recognize that Trump is an even more extreme example of the same phenomenon. He has backpedaled in exactly the same way: insisting throughout the campaign that the current administration had brought America to the verge of collapse, and then reverting to smiles and platitudes as soon as the cards were actually on the table.) It’s been claimed that Trump “violated” or “destroyed” political norms in this election, but that’s only because the people who were supposed to be upholding those norms never actually bothered. No one who mattered ever put their foot down.

This is not to say that “democratic norms” are not real things – at least potentially. The “peaceful transfer of power” does have the real, justified purpose of preventing things from coming to blood, which is basically the point of doing politics in the first place. Politics is war by other means, and that’s a good thing, because war is the worst possible means of doing anything. But, as it’s been said, the Constitution is not a suicide pact. You’d be hard pressed to find a more vivid example of cowardice than failing to press a vitally important case out of fear that it might spark a real conflict. What political norms allow us to do is not to avoid fights, but to fight without violence. Even if you believe that order is more important than justice, you don’t preemptively cede ground. You fight right up to the letter of the law.

The thing is, insisting that the Electoral College vote against Trump (as just one example of a possible tactic) is not any kind of destablization or whatever. It’s actually the exact opposite. The Electoral College is already part of the process; deciding the presidency is already its job. If it’s the Electoral College that elects the president, then the president isn’t elected until the Electoral College elects them. It’s pretty silly to claim that the Electoral College shouldn’t “overturn” the results of the election, considering that . . . the election isn’t actually over yet. This is as far as possible from a radical reinterpretation of the situation. It is merely a description of the currently-defined process – the very same process that the Reasonable Adults are insisting we accord the utmost respect. So, y’know, let’s do that. Let’s insist that the electors use their wisdom and judgment to choose the best candidate. Let the Electoral College do the job that it was designed to do. Not to mention that this approach would be significantly less radical than what happened in 2000, when the Supreme Court awarded the presidency on the basis of partisanship.

(Implying, of course, that if the process that we happen to have right now seems pointless, even unbelievably stupid, we ought to be able to change it. The fact that “that’s not going to happen” isn’t an excuse, it is the problem itself.)

So really the election shouldn’t even have been called until the process was actually over. Like, that’s what a “process” is: it’s the thing that tells you what you have to do in order to be done. While I’m generally opposed to any explanation that blames “modern society,” in this case I think there’s a point here. We don’t need to hear the election results the exact minute they become theoretically extrapolatable. The election was “called” for Trump long before the process was over, and it’s hardly radical Luddism to claim that this didn’t need to happen. There’s still a two-month gap before the new president actually takes office; we can afford to wait a few weeks for the process to actually finish. The votes should be fully tallied, the results should be subject to a routine light audit, all of that stuff. Wouldn’t that actually be really nice, if there were some time after the election where it was impossible for there to be any more political news, if we were forced to think about something better for a while?

Like, the fact that the election results aren’t actually being verified right now should be a point of rather heavy concern for people who think the Official Democratic Process is the most important thing in the world. See, that’s the thing: the people insisting on process, process above all aren’t actually following the process. They’re just going with the flow. The point of a real process is precisely to oppose this kind of behavior: to require that things be done the right way, even in the most unusual of cases.

Of course, the fact that we’re stuck here talking about this is a major part of the problem. No one needs to be convinced at this point. If there were something we could do about the situation, we’d be doing it. But there are people who do have the power to do things – maybe not to “fix” the situation, but at least to begin ameliorating it – and the fact that they’re not doing so tells us something. After all, if we had the capacity to remove Trump, we’d also have the capacity to remove any other president who, I don’t know, started a war of aggression, formalized a global assassination program, tore up the social safety net, armed fascists, sponsored genocide. Hypothetical stuff like that.

There’s a saying: when someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time. It’s commonplace to hear claims that the Democrats are “spineless” or “incompetent,” that they “roll over” too easily, that they aren’t “tough” enough. But this is silly: we’re talking about some of the richest and most powerful people in the world, with access to an infrastructure that commands an unimaginably vast amount of money, information, and even personal action. You’d need one hell of a theory to explain why people like this would fail to do something that they actually wanted to. There is a much simpler explanation: this is what Democrats actually believe. Clinton didn’t “fail” to make her case during the election; she made exactly the case she wanted to. Someone who has the means and opportunity to fight for you and does not do so is telling you that they do not care. These people are not on our side.