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The Brink

How to Not Panic about the Election

Is tranquility possible in an era of political emergency?

Democrats are always worried about their political prospects, and they have been especially terrified about the 2024 US Presidential Election. Now, following last Thursday’s debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, they are in a state of abject panic. Will the next four months be psychologically endurable for Democrats?

Three possible coping techniques are at hand. First, you can entirely withdraw from the world of politics, ignoring all news and adopting an attitude of total indifference. If you are naturally inclined to care about the health of the country, this is a difficult attitude to assume, but it’s not exactly uncommon either. A sizable portion of the electorate are “low-information voters,” and lots of eligible voters simply do not vote at all.

Second, you can remain as committed as ever to your political preferences—above all else, that Trump loses the election in November—and somehow convince yourself that your preference will be realized. There is no need to worry about a bad outcome, because you simply do not regard it as a live option. If anything, this attitude seems even harder to inhabit than the first, since it requires a degree of delusion that may be difficult or impossible to sustain.

But there is a middle way between these two positions, one that embraces the conviction (and not the self-deception) of the second position, and works vigorously on its behalf, all the while remaining largely unmoved by whatever the outcome might be, like the first position. According to this approach, moreover, the rightness or wrongness, or wiseness or foolishness, of the original advocacy has little connection to the eventual outcome: victory with good effects or victory with unforeseen bad effects, or defeat with unforeseen good effects or defeat with bad effects. What matters is the advocacy itself.

This third way is an expression of the type of political quietism that the 17th century French polymath Blaise Pascal advances in a 1657 letter, likely to his brother-in-law Florin Périer. More recently, it has been developed and embraced by—or at least entertained with a “seriousness approaching endorsement”—by the Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths in the final chapter of his 2014 book Decreation. It is a counterintuitive approach to politics, to say the least, and one that most people in modern democracies will find whimsical if not absurd and potentially even dangerous. Nevertheless, it might hold some value for those crippled by anxiety about the upcoming election.

That a theologian would find wisdom in Pascal’s political quietism is not surprising, since Pascal’s own view is firmly rooted in his own religious convictions, especially his belief that God is in control of (or at least permits) every political outcome, a fact you can be more certain of than the rightness or wrongness of your own preferences and beliefs.

This is not to say that you should not passionately advocate for your convictions. For Pascal, these passions are themselves inspired by God. But the selfsame God allows opposition to them, permitting any number of obstacles to stand in the way of (what you take to be) good. What matters is how you endure those obstacles—with tranquility, secure in the knowledge that a world created by God is never ultimately lost, or with a combination of anxiety, fear, and rage always at risk of tipping into despair.

“We act as if we have a mission to make truth triumph, instead of a mission to fight for it,” Pascal writes. In other words, ensuring that the truth triumphs is not within our purview, and if God allows some state of affairs to obtain, then on some level it must be fitting, appropriate, or otherwise ok—this is entailed by Pascal’s wider theology. It is best, then, to simply support what you perceive to be in line with the will of God.

Crucially, however, you can rarely be certain that what you support is in fact the right thing to support, and on two levels. First, in a broad range of cases, you can simply be wrong—because of mistaken reasoning, distorting social pressures, or what have you—meaning that what you take to be true and good is in fact neither. Second, you can fail to anticipate the actual effects of what you advocate, which could cause more harm than good. People are thus poorly positioned to know what outcome is in fact good, and so there are good reasons to remain broadly indifferent to it.

What does any of this have to do with the presidential election, particularly for those who do not share Pascal’s religious views (for which I have some sympathy, but by no means endorse in all their details)?

The first thing to note is that something close (but not identical) to Pascal’s political quietism can be expressed non-theologically. The epistemic humility he calls for is not intrinsically religious, even if it resonates especially well with traditional understandings of God’s providential role in history. (Christian or otherwise. A very similar idea is expressed throughout the Bhagavad Gita, for example in the well-known verse 2.47: “Your right is to action alone; / Never to its fruit at any time. / Never should the fruits of action be your motive; / Never let there be attachment to inaction in you.”)  

Almost none of our beliefs are demonstrably true, following neatly from incontrovertible premises. And it is equally clear that we cannot reliably anticipate the effects of events with complex global ramifications, like national elections. Both observations strike me as obviously true, regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof.

A sort of quietism—not as thoroughgoing as Pascal’s, but certainly more radical than most will find initially palatable—can thus be applied to the general election in the United States, and it can also applied to the immediate crisis occasioned by Biden’s debate performance.

And this immediate crisis strikes me as truly grave (a judgment I may well be incorrect about). It seems to me that Joe Biden, all things considered, should drop out of the race, and so oddly I want his standing to deteriorate as rapidly as possible (falling polls, evaporating donations, etc.), leading to a collective call for him to step aside, thus forcing his hand.

But the hazards of this approach are obvious. If Biden’s campaign is badly damaged, and yet he still chooses not to drop out (it is his decision entirely), then the call for him to step aside would turn out to be harmful—harmful from my perspective, that is, because I still vastly prefer Biden to Trump (although this judgment is itself complicated by the very factors that are at issue).

I also thought that Biden should have dropped out long ago, enabling a primary and thereby a new Democratic nominee for president to emerge. Trump is a profoundly weak and damaged candidate, and so in my view any reasonably competent Democratic politician stood a good chance of beating him. But I am also deeply uncertain of this counterfactual. The alternative to Biden could very well be even weaker than he is.  

Applying this reasoning to the general election is harder to stomach, at least for me, but the same reasoning is operative here as in the two previous examples. Do I think Biden would be vastly better than Trump? Yes. Can I know this with any degree of certainty? No.

Among other problems, the debate cannot be undone, and what people saw cannot be unseen. If the Democratic Party moves forward with Biden anyway, and if he wins and continues to deteriorate, this could badly damage the party, to say nothing of the dangers of having an increasingly diminished person running the country. Democrats were rightly outraged that Republicans stood by Trump, letting a manifestly unqualified person take over their party and then assume the presidency. Is it so much better for Democrats to stand by Biden after one of the most disastrous debate performances in political history, which seemed to confirm every fear voters have about him?    

Or if Trump wins, perhaps he will so thoroughly disgrace himself that it will set back the Republican Party for a generation, thus laying the groundwork for prolonged Democratic control of government, giving its leaders the time and popular support to pass a wide range of bills that (in my fallible judgement) are good.

The plausibility of either of these scenarios or the countless others we could dream up are largely beside the point. What matters is that the future is opaque to us—the world is beset by contingent forces that are impossible to control and whose effects are generally impossible to predict.

The fact that I call these contingent forces hints at how my own view differs from Pascal’s, and also lays bare the risks of adopting quietism. If the world is subject to contingent events—events that are not driven by necessity, undetermined by God or anything else—then perhaps we are in a position to shift the course of history. In fact, I suspect we are, but that does not change the fact that we see through a glass darkly, unable to assess the propriety of many of our beliefs and actions, much less anticipate their effects.

We are therefore left in a bizarre situation: We should advocate, in both speech and action, for whatever we take to be the correct view, but remain surprisingly unbothered by what actually happens. We should not be overly concerned by the thought of loss or failure, nor should our advocacy be driven by the hope of gain or success. It is our mission to fight for the truth, not to ensure it triumphs, for the simple reason that the latter is not possible. Focus your time and efforts on advocating for what you think is true and just; worrying about results is futile.

Or so Pascal’s suggests, and I am willing to entertain the suggestion in no small part to quell my own anxiety about the election. Serene detachment may be the only way forward, if the alternative is to exist in a state of constant panic for the next four months, which of course will have no impact on the election results anyway.

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