Is Coercion Unavoidable in Politics?

no: at least, not in a nation with a democratic political process

Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

People seem to have gotten the idea in their heads in this country (the U.S.) that to lose a political contest is to be subjected to coercion. People are beginning to see our democratic political process* as just another form of tyranny. That has made the prospect of losing any political battle genuinely fearful. That in turn is driving the stridency that is devouring our politics.

The idea that to lose a political contest is to be subjected to coercion is incorrect. At least, it’s wrong if the result was justly obtained. Political outcomes can only be justly obtained in a democratic political process.

That’s because a democratic political process is the only form that process can take that allows all of the members of the community, who are subject to being affected by the choices effected for the community as a whole, to participate in the process of effecting those choices. So outcomes obtained in a democratic political process are not coercion. Some people’s desired outcomes are always going to be thwarted, but that is not coercion.

Since a democratic political process is a just process, any result obtained in a democratic political process is a just result so long as it was not obtained due to unjust actions (that really did occur) on the part of individuals acting within the process. It must therefore be accepted by all citizens — for the sake of preserving the democratic political process itself.

Unjust actions in the political process would include lying and cheating (both of which are contained in ‘dirty tricks’). Since it is a process involving human beings, some injustices will presumably be perpetrated in every political contest. An outcome is illegitimate only if injustices determine the outcome.

Again, whatever the outcome in a (reasonably well-conducted) contest within a democratic political process might be, it does not mean anyone is being coerced. It only means some people’s preferred outcome has been thwarted. It also doesn’t preclude trying again to achieve the desired end.

It is no different from individuals competing for the same job with only one being able to obtain it. If I don’t get the job, however thoroughly convinced I might be that the wrong decision was made, I have not been wronged (provided, again, nothing unjust, to include lying and cheating, has determined the outcome), much less coerced in any way.

Even so, there are outcomes in the political process that do affect how people can (legally) live their lives. To minimize to the greatest extent possible the extent to which some people (even a majority) are determining how all people in a community might choose to live their own separate lives, laws governing the actions of people should be restricted to prohibiting conduct that necessarily causes obvious, knowable harm to other people (though such harm might be, as well as material, of a psychological nature, such as behavior that is threatening to another person). That maximizes liberty.

One more time: in a democratic political process, having one’s desired outcome thwarted is not being coerced. If everyone will just understand that, the fear of losing that has crept into our politics, which drives so much of the stridency that is so threatening for our democratic political process, can be alleviated.

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*The political process takes place within a system composed of institutions. In a society with a democratic political process those institutions include as rights and freedoms all of the various forms that participation in the political process can take: every citizen can participate in that process via freedom of political speech; via the rights to petition the government and to assemble (peaceably), citizens can muster more immediate political pressure for or against one choice or another. Two political rights, the right to vote and the right to run for office, can be justly restricted, but only by age. Age is a just restriction because there is a good reason for it (as a proxy for sufficient maturity) and because it is universally applicable (unlike, say, gender or ‘race’ — i.e., color of skin — or national origin or creed).