Severe Delays Expected
Play with Fire Goes Master

Considering Politics

Beshty_polabstract1 Do we understand the politics of representational democracy? Many routinely decry our current political systems as fatally flawed, or our politicians as irredeemably corrupt, or the voting public as hopelessly naïve – but representational democracy places at the very least the potential of power and influence into the hands of the collective. Surely there is a way to play this game and win? 

This is a thought experiment using Temperament Theory. It is not science, nor strictly philosophy, but rather something of a cartoon of modern politics.

Firstly, let us not consider democratic politics in terms of people, but in terms of the countries as a whole. Rather than individual voters, the country expresses different proportions of support for different political factions – in effect, each political party is a particular signal competing with other signals for relevance.

Furthermore, the signals in each case are quite variable – if you examine the signal from a certain political party, it does not remain constant over decades, but rather changes gradually. There may be certain themes that remain present over the short term, but over the long term the signal for each party is highly variable. (Consider, for instance, the reformation of the Labour party in the 1990s in the United Kingdom, which transformed from being a form of soft communism to a form of soft capitalism during the process of ascending to political dominance).

In some countries (such as the US) there are only two significant signals, with some noise contributed by minor political factions. In others (such as the UK) there are three key signals – two major and one minor, with again some noise contributed by minor political factions. Still others (such as Italy) have many competing signals such that there is no pattern of overall signal and, indeed, the political system is effectively tied into a constant deadlock, with very little progress possible. (It is a matter of taste whether this political incapacitation is a benefit or a disadvantage for a country). 

When we look at the political factions in this way, we can ignore to a certain extent the alleged corruption of politicians. Yes, those in power will always wield their influence in part for their own benefit – but it is in their best interests to do whatever the dominant signal demands, as this is how power is maintained. Besides, in our cartoon we are ignoring the individuals – political corruption thus becomes something like the edge that a casino maintains over its gamblers; a side cost of operating under these political rules. It is not, and could not be, the dominant force without resorting to ballot stuffing or similar extreme measures.

Now let us add to this grossly simplified picture of the political system, some equally simplistic sketches of Temperament Theory. From this perspective, there are four signals of significantly different strengths: 

  • Guardian makes up 50% of the signal (that is, is dominant in approximately 50% of the population), and in political terms is principally concerned with maintaining traditional ways of life.
  • Artisan makes up 25% of the signal, and in political terms is principally concerned with its own self interest.
  • Idealist makes up 10-15% of the signal, and in political terms is concerned with utopian goals, and whatever is deemed to be in the best interests of everyone.
  • Rational makes up 10-15% of the signal, and in political terms is concerned with logical action, and also with securing maximum autonom for individuals.

Remember, this is by nature a cartoon, and not a scientific model, but in our thought experiment we have four signals which exist in the ratio 1:1:2:4. Remember also that we are ignoring people as individuals – any given individual may express any of these four signals in voting, but we are only concerned with the overall signal this generates, not the actions of individuals. 

Notice immediately that the Guardian signal, which seeks to maintain the traditional forms, is 50% of the signal and therefore typically dominates. In order for the Guardian signal to be overruled, it is necessary for the Artisan, Idealist and Rational signals to be in perfect agreement, or for there to be some drift in the unity of the Guardian signal.

In practical terms, the Guardian signal does not support a single political faction, but rather tends to be split between the traditional factions. Thus, in a two party system we can imagine 25% support for one faction and 25% for the rival faction. Each faction therefore seeks an additional 25% of the signal share (the vote, in a representative democracy) in order to gain control. 

The easiest way to gain this 25% is to court the support of the Artisan signal – which (in our cartoon) is only concerned with its own self-interest. Thus, at any time that there is a political issue which requires sacrifice to be made (such as environmental restrictions on fuel consumption et al) it is political suicide for a faction to push forward this issue without unilateral support from the other factions, as any faction opposing such an issue can gain the upper hand.

If the Artisan signal becomes split evenly – which we may expect if opposing factions each have different issues that represent self interest (a practical inevitability) – then the outcome of the political battle comes down to the Rational signal versus the Idealist signal. But the concerns of these signals do not overlap – the Rational signal’s desire for autonomy will tend to be orthogonal to the Idealist signal’s desire for mutual co-operation. Thus the political system reaches its position of being delicately balanced, such that the slightest difference in the relative signal strengths can be decisive. 

One of the consequences of this situation is that minority political factions whose issues appeal solely to the minority Temperament signals have essentially no possibility of gaining power. So, for instance, the Libertarian party in the US, which is principally concerned with personal autonomy, attracts solely the Rational signal. It does not attract the whole of this signal, because the logical course of action is not necessarily to support a minority party, and therefore the net effect of the Libertarian party is to weaken the Rational signal’s influence in the political organism.

Similarly, the Green party in most countries appeals primarily to the Idealist signal, and again, does not acquire the whole of this signal, and certainly has no hope of gaining power unless it somehow manages to become traditional, and thus acquires the support of the Guardian signal. These revolutionary shifts in factional support can happen – but they require extreme circumstances to wrest support from the old factions. 

And yet, it is not the case that the Green party has had no effect on the political organism. By championing an issue that previously did not exist, the Green party allowed environmental issues to be added to the political agenda. In the European elections of the late 1980s, the Green party was able to secure a surprisingly large share of the vote (in part because voters simply didn’t care who represented them in the European Parliament, and therefore felt a certain freedom to support minority causes). At that point, environmental issues – which had previously been ignored – shot to the forefront of the political agenda, and no political faction could afford to be silent on this issue.

In this regard, the Green party had served a vital purpose. It is uncertain whether or not its continuing existence provides additional benefit, or simply removes a portion of the Idealist signal (at least in our cartoon model) from circulation.

Thus, minority political factions can have significant effects in the political organism, by bringing new issues into play, or by representing local signal rather than national or international signal. For instance, various UK nationalist parties – such as Plaid Cymru (the Welsh national party) or the Ulster Unionists – manage to get a good share of local signal (local vote) and thus manage to get a few representatives into parliament. This is because a faction representing a regional view can take a significant share of the regional Guardian signal by representing a traditional, local perspective. Such factions cannot usually gain power – but a few seats can make a difference when the major factions find themselves equally matched, as they hold the ‘casting vote’. Thus they can get the least controversial of their issues pushed through the political system under the right circumstances.

I am doubtful that the Libertarian party in the US has the capacity to push forward an issue into wider view (as with the Green party) and it certainly has no hope of gaining local support (since it tends to have no local issues) – but political organisms can be full of surprises. It is certainly possible that circumstances might arise that would lend this faction relevance, as happened with the Green party in Europe briefly. One cannot help but wonder if the goals of the Libertarian party would not be more effectively rendered in a political pressure group than in a political party. (Is there a confluence of viewpoint with the ACLU, for instance? I am uncertain.)

The ultimate lesson of this cartoon is simple: in order to wield political influence, it is necessary to form alliances. From the perspective of Temperament Theory (or at least our cartoon of it), the minority signals – Rational and Idealist – must find common ground with each other, or else with the Artisan signal, in order to push against the Guardian signal, which maintains the ‘old ways’ in some form or another. Alternatively, the minority signals can ally with the Guardian signal and attempt to influence the expression of traditional signals (such as religion and nationalism), which they may do in everyday life, through open and friendly discussion, without resorting to the political mechanisms. 

There is limited value to the Rational signal squandering its strengths by, for instance, focussing on how to completely remake the political systems in place. With the Rational temperament’s focus on systems, it is easy for it to be caught up with fanciful ideas to change the way the political machine functions – and some of these ideas may even be useful – but they can never be put into play without support from the other signals, so the case for their implementation must have undeniable wide appeal. Solutions focussed solely on the autonomy of the individual will always be a minority concern.

Similarly, there is limited value in the Idealist signal squandering its strengths by, for instance, focussing on overly utopian goals that cannot be achieved without massive self-sacrifice by all – the Artisan signal will always resist this, and its greater signal strength will always tend to overpower the Idealist signal’s lofty purposes. 

If the minority signals wish to fulfil their potential, they must seek to form alliances by finding common ground with other signals, or they must work to influence the traditional signals towards new approaches that offer evident mutual benefits. The political game of representative democracy is not a hopeless cause – perhaps it is just that we have yet to work out how to play it successfully.

The opening image is Political Abstract #1 by Walead Beshty, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.


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I wish I could find something to fault in this cartoon. I can't. As someone on the rational/idealist boundary, it all leaves me feeling rather depressed!

It's a shame; I didn't write this to depress people! One of the suggestions from this cartoon is that it is precisely the Rational and Idealist signals which can tip the balance in politics. If the two signals can be brought into alignment, they can collectively wield significant influence. Political power comes into existence when people find ways and means to work together.

Best wishes!

Your "cartoon" is wrong on too many levels... Let's start with a basic underpining:

"Rather than individual voters, the country expresses different proportions of support for different political factions – in effect, each political party is a particular signal competing with other signals for relevance."

You are extrapolating the "signal strengths" by their results in elections. But less that 50% of the people of voting age, in both U.S. and U.K., voted in the recent elections (compared to, say, Venezuela where 70% voted in the election last year).

Your "cartoon" just unravels under scrutiny...

Suyi: Doesn't this depend upon whether the vote is representative or not? Since the deviations between polls and final voting are minimal, I'm inclined to suspect that even with less than perfect turnout the vote is still a representative sample.

(I'll be focusing on the U.S. because that's what I've done the most reading on, but the U.K. doesn't lag far behind)

Like I said, wrong on too many levels.

First, yes, there were deviations between exit polls and the 'votes' that were tallied. In the U.S. 2004 presidential election the deviance in key states (Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio) was over 2% (2.2, 3.9, 3.7, 6.7 respectively), all skewed for Bush. Obviously, there is something wrong there.

Second, and more importantly, is that over 50% of the population aged 18 and over did not vote - they never made it to the booths and they didn't even bother to register. A conservative might argue that these non voters were satisfied with the status quo. But the people who do not vote (or are disenfranchised) are predominantly the poor and the uneducated. I'm inclined towards the explanation that says none of the signals are appealing (more an indictment of the major parties as those get all the coverage in the dominant media) and that people are cynical about 'their' representation keeping campaign promises.

Your "cartoon" just unravels under scrutiny... [sorry, but I'm not sure how to salvage your analysis]

Suyi: I'm willing to accept your criticism, but I just don't see this as sufficient to unravel the concepts at the core of the cartoon (which, after all, is only an illustrative model). This is effectively a thought experiment designed to encourage some different views of politics; it strikes me that your point is that the key political issue is the failure of political parties to appeal to the electorate. I cheerfully concede this may be an important issue overlooked in this cartoon, but I don't believe it undermines anything in this piece significantly. Perhaps this is just a question of interpretation and relative significance?

Either way, I appreciate the input!

I don't mean to come off as belligerent. When I say I can't salvage your analysis, I mean that I not sure I understand Temperament theory so I can't use it. I prefer demographics to psychographics...

My (first) quibble is with the strengths of the different signals. I do not, for example believe the Guardian (or what I understand that means) "is dominant in approximately 50% of the population." I don't believe those percentages are correct. I assumed that you got them from election results, so that's why I pointed out that voter turnout is relatively low (and if you are serious about fulfilling the potential of the collective in a representative democracy you would do well to take that into account).

Ah right, this is the root of our misunderstanding! The proportions attached to the Temperament data comes from Myers-Briggs typographical data, and thus is entirely independent of the election data. I guess I didn't make this sufficiently clear...

The nature of this piece is to attempt to collide that research data with a simplified model of politics and use that as a thought experiment. Obviously I use that line of research quite a lot in my game research, so this was an attempt at converting that information into another form and see what it could say.

I'm uncertain about this issue of voter turnout... All the data I've seen suggests that when the turnout is higher, the voter proportions remain the same (within a few percent tolerance), so I'm inclined to think that the turnout is a lesser factor. But this of course rests on many assumptions, which could easily be overturned in practice.

I am serious about attempting to fulfil the potential of the collective in representative democracy, but I am uncertain if this requires greater turnout. If it is the case that we get a representative sample in a typical election irrespective of turnout (which is my hypothesis in this regard) then the important thing is finding the points of agreement, not in motivating non-voters to vote. But one can approach these problems from many different angles, of course, and it's certainly not the case that we can know what would happen in, say, a case of perfect turnout.

Political science rapidly becomes metaphysics! :)

Anyway, I wrote this piece because I was chewing over all my Temperament Theory work in order to tie up the play style descriptions. When we move forward into Ethics, I won't be referencing this theory at all. We'll be digging into moral philosophy with little or no recourse to science.

Very much looking forward to your contributions when the Ethics campaign kicks off in about a month or so! I really appreciate the books you've pointed me to as references in connection with other posts.

Best wishes!

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