political legitimacy

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Do you write letters to politicians?

I do. I write them frequently. Yet the idea of writing letters to politicians always bothers me a little. I wonder not just about the efficacy of it but about the meaning of it. Does writing letters imply we want the politician to make decisions based on the show of popular support, or do we hope they will make it based on best information? I’ll willingly concede that the information in my letters is often the regurgitated ideas from activist organizations I agree with, so if I hope politicians make decisions based on persuasive information, then most of my letters are a waste of time. The information is better sourced from the organizations themselves. I think writing letters is in some way an admittance that we want politicians to make decisions based on the popular support for decisions. We want our politicians to represent the majority.

I am careful to be respectful in my letters, but the letters still inevitably can feel like veiled threats. “Support this policy, please, or I’ll try my best to make sure you lose your job!” I don’t say that, of course, but I can’t help thinking that the underlying message of the letters is that. I’m hoping that the letter, joined by other people’s letters, convinces a politician that there is political will for such-and-such decision, and that the politician will therefor support the decision in order to keep our approval.

I am slightly uncomfortable with this whole train of thought. For one, the number of letters a person receives isn’t necessarily going to be representative of the population’s opinions. Certain segments of the population are often more inclined to write to politicians. Should their opinions be taken more seriously than the silent people’s? Maybe a politician would want to take their views more seriously since they’re probably more likely to vote too but maybe not. But even if the number of letters a politician received on a particular issue was representative of how the population feels (perhaps shown by surveys or polls), what then?

Should the majority viewpoint win? To answer no would be to suggest a distrust in the wisdom of crowds and human beings in general. To answer yes would suggest that there are no objective standards of truth, justice or even utilitarian good that should be sought after.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of political legitimacy in other ways too. I’ve been thinking about the struggle within the Occupy groups to try to form statements of purpose. The movement wanted to represent everyone in the 99%, but that’s a pretty big group with pretty different needs. The list of demands that came out of Vancouver included such items as that homeopathy be covered by health care and that prostitution be legalized. I would completely disagree with both of those. When my local group talked of creating a list of demands I clung desperately to the hope that if we sat down and talked through each item people wanted line by line we could persuade one another on at least some issues, but I wondered what would happen if it came down to us presenting a list with things I am dead against on it. Would I accept that I had said my peace and that I was outvoted? Or would I try to force the issue?

When my local group was struggling to come up with a statement of purpose one helpful observer inquired as to whether we were attempting to speak for the 99% or for what we think the 99% should want. Speaking for the 99% would mean listening to other people’s points of view. Speaking for the 99% would mean accepting ideas that we do not all share. If we tried to limit the list to what we all completely agreed on it would probably be very short and/or very vague. I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing but I think for a lot of very active participants representing the 99% would not be compelling. Not everyone is content with the idea of people needing more equal slices of pie, some people want to throw the pie out the window in favor of more complete revolution and I doubt the 99% really agree with that.

I do think that there needs to be quite serious changes in how we live. I’m just not sure that my idea of changes would match anyone elses so I’m hesitant to argue for them. No, that’s not true. I’m very, very willing to argue for what I believe. In an argument, a debate, a discussion… I would be more than happy to try to argue the merits of my position to anyone who wanted to hear. What I am hesitant to do is to actually say, “my idea is the way things should be.” That alone isn’t persuasion. The finishing part of that sentence has to be “because….” and then something other than “because that’s what I think” or “that’s what I want.”

That of course brings us to the issue of what counts as information or evidence. What sources does one trust? What makes a persuasive argument? Do you trust science? I don’t have time to write anything about this at the moment, but I’ve got two links to suggest. One is an article titled: Is Science Male?. The other is an article on the Science Based Medicine Blog. Neither are particularily spectacular, but both approach in different ways the issue of trusting sources.

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