Objectivity in Politics: Possible?

There was a post a little while ago about the plutocratic/oligarchic nature of this country, and I wrote a comment about the strangeness of the conflation people frequently make between one’s status as an “elite” and their wealth. I realized that I’d like to expand on my comment, because I think it is very important to define “elite” appropriately as it relates to politics.

Here is an article from 2012 about Mitt Romney’s difficulty in shaking the perception the he is an “east coast elite.”

The main thrust of the article, which was published in the Harvard Political Review, is that republican voters were deeply skeptical of Mitt Romney’s Harvard education and Massachusetts governorship, but respectful of his background in business and his personal wealth. I’m not sure I can say this with complete certainty, but, judging by our popular culture and the way our citizens’ opinions are portrayed in the media, I would suggest that this is a way many Americans think.

The distrust of “elitism” does seem an embedded part of American culture. Our government belongs to us (we like to tell ourselves), and so we desire representatives who we can relate to personally. And not only that, but we like to project images of what we might personally desire onto our representatives. The mother of three who worked her way up the ladder, found herself the C.E.O. of a company, and is running for office because she wants more people to have the opportunities she had (or so she tells us), resonates deeply with many people. “She is just like what I want to be, and I think she will help me become what I want to be.”

The problem with projecting only your personal desires onto your representative, I believe, is that you’re throwing objectivity out the window. The philosophy that most resonated with me this semester was the doctrine of utilitarianism, and specifically John Stuart Mill’s expansion of the doctrine (as first articulated by Jeremy Bentham). It speaks to me because it seems like an earnest (and plausible) attempt to arrive at objective conclusions about things that common wisdom suggests we can only come to subjective conclusions about. The best decision is not only the one that will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. One can also say that there are higher forms of happiness, and we can determine what those forms are by surveying people who have experienced them. That notion might sound in some sense condescending, until you pose the question to yourself: “Would any of you voluntarily make yourself less intelligent if you thought it would bring you greater happiness?” I know I wouldn’t, and one would be hard pressed to find a majority of intelligent people who’d say they would.

So, we can say that a model for decision-making in a democracy must involve an assessment of the “higher” pleasures. It’s difficult to articulate exactly how this could happen, but I think we need some mechanism for measuring these higher pleasures, so our citizens can at least be aware that what they desire might not be objectively best.

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