Thinking About Politics, and Doing Politics

What’s the status of thinking about political subjects? I think it’s fair to say that there’s no way of achieving something called “truth” or “scientific knowledge” when dealing with basic political concepts. For example, there’s no truth about democracy, human rights, justice etc. We’re stuck with mere opinions. Opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the unquestionable truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. This doesn’t mean that we should all become extreme relativists for whom everything is equally valuable. Opinions can be based on prejudice or arguments, on good or bad arguments, on arguments picked up more or less randomly or on arguments that are properly tested and investigated, on correct logic or flawed logic etc.

This doesn’t mean that there can’t be any truth or scientific knowledge in the field of politics. We can do scientific work, for example we can do quantitative analysis on support for democracy, on preconditions of democracy etc. but not on the concept of democracy as such. The basic terms of the debate will remain contestable concepts that mean different things to different people, and that are valued differently by different people.

Opinions – contrary to the truth – do not have to be accepted, do not eliminate difference and do not impose consensus. They can be accepted or rejected, depending on the force of the arguments, your inclination to properly investigate the arguments, your prejudice, your upbringing and education, your social environment etc. Needless to say that the proper way of thinking about politics or about anything else requires investigation of the arguments for and against any opinion.

The world of political thinking is therefore very similar to the world of politics itself, at least as long as we limit ourselves to democratic politics (which for many is the only proper type of politics – any other kind is really just force rather than politics): it’s a world of plurality, contradiction and persuasion. We like to hope that the similarity between these two worlds goes even further than this, that democratic politics isn’t just a clash between opinions, but that the persuasion taking place in democratic politics is based on the proper investigation of all the arguments for and against, and that the opinions which temporarily gain the upper hand (and become policy or law) are the ones that are strongest intellectually. Just like in the world of political thinking.

Of course, democracy is only potentially like this. In reality, the predominant opinions aren’t necessarily the ones that are backed by the best arguments. Sloppy arguments or even prejudice (the absence of arguments) often determine which opinions “win” in a democracy. But that also happens in the world of political thinking, although perhaps (and hopefully) less often (if it happens less often, this doesn’t have anything to do with the supposed superior “intellects” of political scientists or philosophers compared to the ordinary people; it’s because of structures and procedures such as peer review and citation requirements, the time these people can spend on investigations of arguments etc.).

Democracy falls short of its potential because arguments aren’t investigated properly or are replaced by prejudice, but also because some players in the game regard their opinions not as opinions, but as the truth. As a result, they don’t believe it’s necessary to investigate the merits of other opinions or the arguments behind other opinions. Other opinions are no longer equal players in a game of persuasion, but are mistakes, errors, lies, or even sins (if the “truth” is of godly origin).

Ideally, the world of political thinking and the world of democratic politics would merge. Democratic politics, if it’s to avoid prejudice, faulty argumentation and claims of truth, needs an education in argumentation. Political thinkers (and, yes, I’m not thinking of myself) can provide this, not because they are smarter than the ordinary people who engage in politics, but because they have the benefit of practice in the art of argumentation. However, the benefits don’t have to travel in this direction: Soviet political science in the 1930s or 1940s, for example, could have benefited a lot from the example of ordinary US politics at the time. I’m not so sure about present-day US politics…

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