Heresthetics, Taboos, and Cultures.

Bill Riker was, to the end, a huge believer in the inherent multidimensionality of politics. A key contribution of his thinking, the idea of heresthetics as means of manipulating politics is fundamentally grounded on this premise.  Essentially, if you are losing on one political dimension, you can usually change the debate to another dimension, cut up the incumbent majority coalition, and gain advantage politically.  A more formal variant of this argument is, of course, the famed instability argument from McKelvey.   The putative counter to this herestheetical argument is that agenda is usually limited by institutional design:  not everyone can propose anything they like that can upset the present status quo.  The keepers of the current institutions can, in theory, keep the interlopers and troublemakers at bay simply by not allowing them to introduce troubling proposals.  Riker didn’t buy this:  he noted that institutions are themselves mutable.  If enough people want to change them, they can.  So why not?  Why don’t people try harder to heresthetic their way into political advantage…but what doesn’t stop them when they do?

A much better answer than simple institutions was intuited at by Keith Krehbiel in a paper purportedly not related to the larger debate:  the institution of “unanimous consent agreements” in the US Senate, which, though vitally important in guiding the Senate agenda, are anything BUT unanimous in reality.  In effect, his argument is grounded on the norms:  even though the formal institutions permit even very small minorities to upset the legislative agenda if they so choose, they would rather than pick fights with so many of their colleagues for short term gains.  This subtly shifts the argument away from the particulars of formal institutions to informal “ethics” and “organizational” culture, as it argues that substantive, definable, and “real” gains in policy output are traded for something mushy and underdefined, like “getting along.”

I don’t know if Sam Popkin ever followed up on this intuition, but long ago, when I was talking to him on regular basis about ideas, he had a peculiar idea about “taboos.”  In many political debates, many potential proposals, indeed, entire dimensions along which proposals might be offered, are often ruled out by fiat as somehow being beyond the realm of “decency.”  This, of course, follows up on Krehbiels’ variation on the “informal counters” to heresthetics:  people who belong to a given “cultural” grouping do so on the implicit acceptance that certain dimensions are off limits.  But decency is itself a murky criteria, defined by the norms within a given organization or culture:  what constitutes “beyond the pale” for congressmen needs not be beyond the pale for non-politicians, and so forth.

This sets up the setting for what I think, in retrospect, as the losing politics of the Democratic Party in 1980s:  the informal taboo that governed the agenda of the Democrats placed strict limits on how far the politicians could move along the social dimension but less so on the economic.  Thus Kennedy and Carter could differ from each other seemingly on “liberal” and “conservative” dimension, but, in practice, largely on the economic dimension only.  But the voters were not part of this taboo.  The seeming “moderation” of Carter relative to Kennedy, achieved largely if not entirely on economic matters, did not impress them at the least and probably offended many of them–especially those to whom economic dimension was the decisive determinant for their support of the Democrats.  The Democratic taboo, of course, did not limit Ronald Reagan:  he could and did heresthetic his way to electoral victory.  With the Democrats hamstrung by the social taboo, he could simply deemphasize the economic issue–on which the difference between him and Carter was relatively small anyways–and capture many voters who saw the greater difference on social dimension as more relevant than the small economic one–even if they might have been, had the difference been greater, more inclined to value economic rather than the social dimension.  (Or, in other words, the elasticities matter–the preferences need not be (strictly) lexicographic the way political psychologists imagine the non-spatial politics to be.)

This goes beyond conventional electoral politics, into the realm of culture, religion, and terrorism.  While this is unlikely to have been the specific motive behind the shooting, the peculiar intersectionality of the cultural issues makes this an heresthetical event.  Western societies have increasingly made overt discussion of sexuality a taboo:  while there are many holdouts and several legal restrictions on LGBT rights remain, the prevailing attitude is increasingly that of let people do what they may.  If you will, taboos have been changing for sociocultural reasons.  This is not the case with other cultures:  in many traditional societies, homosexuality is still criminalized by death–public executions of gays still take place in several Middle Eastern countries.  Whether this is really “Islamic” is not my business:  it’s not my religion and I don’t know the topic, although I’ve come across people who have actually made Quranic argument for tolerance as well as many examples on the other side.  The bottom line, for my purposes, is that what is becoming a taboo in many Western societies is not in other cultures.  Of course, multiculturalism is another taboo in much of the modern West.  Condemning an entire civilization with billions of adherents is not something we want to do, so many liberals sidestep carefully to avoid linking the issue to religion.  Given the great deal of influence of the less tolerant (let’s say) sects in the Islamic world, this seems to be a dangerous mistake:  while “Islam” may not be easily defined as “tolerant” or not, there are indeed many highly intolerant Muslims who justify their beliefs on the basis of religious faith.  The problem is further compounded because this generalization probably would not apply to many, if most Muslims in United States, many of whom, if anything, came here because they didn’t care for all that overpious religious restrictions, but given the prevalence of the more intolerant sects, it would be equally misleading to think that just because average Muslim in United States is tolerant and peaceful, the number of the potential converts to radicalism is miniscule enough to be ignored.  What is already a complex enough statistical problem (the mean is peaceful but the variance is larger than we’d like) is subject to the additional heresthetical problem:  we have trouble even venturing into a serious talk along the “religion” dimension at all.

I don’t know if I have a good answer to address this, but it strikes me that the Orlando shooting has really placed the West in an awkward situation.

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