More Philosophers Should Run for Office… as Independents (guest post by Jay Geyer)

The following is a guest post* by Jay Geyer. Mr. Geyer is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, working on moral uncertainty. He has recently declared his candidacy for the Colorado House of Representatives.

More Philosophers Should Run for Office… as Independents
by Jay Geyer

As the slow-motion train wreck that was the 2016 presidential election unfolded, a permanent sense of unease bordering on dread settled on me. Our body politic seemed to be suffering a terrible disease, one from which it was increasingly doubtful that it would recover. It was a disease whose symptoms included astonishing levels of dysfunction in our nation’s and states’ legislatures, and an alarming susceptibility on the part of the electorate to buy into the divisive rhetoric of a nativist demagogue. The causes of the disease were many—decades of increasingly heated political tribalism, encouraged by the parties and amplified by the echo chambers of social media and partisan news outlets; lobbyists and special interest money enforcing an uncompromising approach from legislators on their pet issues; and gerrymandered seats keeping elected officials accountable to only the most partisan voters in their district. What was perhaps most alarming was the realization that there was no help on the horizon. The leadership of both major parties recognized that they had too much to gain from their zero sum approach to governance to abandon it—the 2016 election was not an aberration, but the continuation of a trend. If someone was going to push back against this tide of cynical partisanship and dysfunction, they would have to do it from outside the two party system.

For this reason, I decided to run for public office as an independent. Philosophy is a noble profession, and one that I really enjoy. But as much social good as philosophers provide (and I believe that now more than ever a philosophically educated electorate is a desperately needed public good), I felt that I could be doing more. And I believe that, just maybe, you could be too. I hope to persuade you of two claims: First, that the greatest problem we face as a society is partisan dysfunction. And second, that your philosophical training may uniquely qualify you to make a tremendous impact on this problem should you choose to put those skills to work in a political career.

The argument for the first claim is pretty straightforward. Whichever pressing current problem you take to be most dire, there is no hope of successfully addressing it in the current polarized political environment. Both parties are perpetually focused on the next election and both are now committed to winning that next election by, shall we say, less than noble means. Instead of attempting to persuade voters of the merits of their platform or their effectiveness as elected officials, both parties have relied on stoking partisan outrage to turn out the vote.

But this strategy does not depend on good ideas or good governance. In fact, good ideas and good governance undermine this strategy. Good ideas are often new ideas, and it is hard rally the party faithful around ideas than need to be explained first. Good governance requires extending at least a minimal amount of respect toward those in our democracy with whom we disagree, by at least listening in good faith to their ideas, if not actively seeking compromise positions with them. But doing this would undermine the narrative that the other side is rotten to the core and must be resisted at all costs, in the legislature and at the ballot box. For this reason, every pressing issue has been sorted into the partisan binary, and if one side is for it, the other must be against it. Under this arrangement, no progress is possible.

Some partisans hold out hope for the ignoble strategy in the form of an electoral wave or series of waves, in which their side makes progress by taking over all of the significant levers of governmental power. But this is a dangerous pipe dream. The tribal split in this country is roughly even, and that is not going to change soon enough to address the most pressing issues we face. Moreover, electoral trends are cyclical and even if one party briefly seizes control, the party-line legislation they pass will simply be reversed at the next available opportunity by the other party. We see this in what Republicans are doing now and what Democrats are vowing to do as soon as they get the chance.

If the most pressing problem is partisan dysfunction, then the solution cannot come from within the two parties. The parties have fully committed to the strategy of zero sum partisanship. I don’t mean to suggest that the two parties are equally guilty of partisan games. But whether their culpability for the present mess is exactly equal is irrelevant to the question of what to do now. And the present reality is that both parties have trained their core supporters to view compromise as a betrayal, the established special interests on both sides will not tolerate moderation, and neither side will flinch while the other side continues to play the zero sum strategy.

Instead the hope lies in the ever-growing number of Americans who identify neither as Republican nor as Democrat, but as Independent. There is an unprecedented opportunity for consensus-oriented independents to win office – recent polls in Colorado, for example, indicate extremely high dissatisfaction with both parties, with a strong majority of voters, including among those registered with the two parties, saying they are willing to vote for an independent.

Once in office, these independents can wield outsized influence as swing voters and liaisons between two parties who are unwilling to work together. This has been the experience of recently elected independents in the Maine and Alaska legislatures. And even a small number of independents would be enough in many legislatures to deny either party a majority, which would force the parties to compromise and empower the moderate voices in each caucus.

But these independents cannot play the game the same way. Instead of stoking partisan anger, they will need to employ the lost art of persuasion. Without a base to turn out or party brand recognition to exploit, they must appeal to voters on the merits of their position.

This is where my second point comes in—more philosophers should run for office. The fight to save our democracy will require clever, articulate, intellectually honest, and morally courageous individuals to jump in. Philosophers may not be especially morally courageous as a group—some of us are sanctimonious blowhards who can talk a good game, but have no interest in putting skin in the game. (See, for example, Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust’s recent work.) And some of us are not intellectually honest—we espouse views that we do not really hold, or hold slippery views for personally convenient, but epistemically dubious reasons. (Right about now you may be thinking, ‘what the heck, I thought this part of the post was going to be a pep talk!’)

BUT philosophers are plausibly better than most at recognizing when they’re being intellectually dishonest. And I boldly claim that most of us are in fact intellectually honest. Most of us are articulate, and all of us are pretty clever (even if not quite as clever as we imagine ourselves to be). So I appeal to that subset of philosophers who possess all four traits in abundance—consider how much more good you could do in politics than in academia.

You are uniquely qualified to make a difference in politics. You may not have money. But what you do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills that you have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make you a nightmare for people like party bosses and lobbyists. First, you are good at reading and comprehending dense and lengthy documents. It is a common complaint that many of our current legislators often don’t understand the bills they vote on, even if the lobbyists who helped write them do. Second, you are good at analyzing difficult, abstract problems and coming up with creative solutions. Our current political debates have often calcified into decades-old talking points—we need some new ideas if we’re to make progress. Third, you are quick on our feet in thoughtfully responding to opposing viewpoints. Think of all of the times some student has tried to stump you and you turned it into a valuable teaching opportunity. Now imagine an elected official responding to a reporter or a potential voter with that level of attentive intellectual honesty.

I’m not suggesting that these skills are some kind of substitute for real life experience in the political world. What I am suggesting is that many of you are uniquely qualified to begin acquiring that experience. None of you may be qualified to run for U.S. Senate. But many of you are qualified to run for state house, or city council, or school board.

If I have persuaded you that partisan dysfunction is the single biggest threat to the future of our democracy, then do something about it! Vote for a moderate in your party’s primary. Better still, vote for a consensus-oriented independent in the general election this November, if you have one on your ballot. In the meantime, support an independent candidate, whether you can vote for them or not. And if you happen to be a philosopher who is not only clever, but also articulate, intellectually honest, and morally courageous, think about running as an independent yourself!

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