Agonistic versus Antagonistic Politics

I recently talked about the philosophy of democracy, and I am a philosopher; I’m not a political theorist; I’m not a political scientist. What that means is I look at what are the fundamental underlying issues related to political actions, political beliefs, rather than the nuts and bolts about politics. So, I can’t predict election results. I can’t give you demographics about who votes and why. Not in that sense.

Transcript of Episode 30 of the Insert Philosophy Here Podcast.

What I can say is that elections and politics are expressions of human nature, human fears, human desires, and of course, human society itself. One thing to note about politics is the reality that politics is inherently agonistic. It’s a term that philosophers use to describe the basic idea of struggle, of conflict. Politics is about conflict, as I mentioned in another previous episode when I talked about my book on What Left and Right Mean, politics is about power and a struggle for power.

Power is the foundational reality of politics. Everything else is built on that foundation, whether it is simply looking for better services from your government, laws, and most importantly, in terms of democratic governments representation, you want someone to represent you in government to represent your interests.

The problem, of course, which is a very human problem, is that yes, you want government to represent you and your interests, but other people want government to represent them, and their interests and their interests do not necessarily coincide with your interests.

Agonistic Politics

The idea that goes way back to Plato is that politics is thus agonistic. It is agonizing between people. It’s an odd word because we think about agony as that it is painful, it’s brutal, and sometimes politics can be. But in the philosophical concepts, to say that something is agonistic just simply refers to this idea of there is a conflict, which can be painful but is nevertheless a struggle.

Politics is always a struggle. That doesn’t have to be in theory, and I will say that there are a number of really good feminist political theorists and philosophers who say we could have a different politics if we choose to do so—a non-agonistic politics, one that looks for cooperation and solidarity more than it looks to conflict.

That is a very good point, and one that I definitely agree with. It would be wonderful to say, instead of constantly assuming that everything that we do politically has to be a struggle, is a conflict: “I need to win, I need to defeat somebody else.” It’d be lovely if politics wasn’t that. It would be lovely if we did sit down and say, “OK, I have my interests, you have your interests, let’s compromise,” and it’s not like that never happens.” It’s not like nobody wants that.

The reality is, of course, that politics is not that way because far too many people don’t want that. Far too many people do see politics as simply a matter of, “I defeat somebody else, I control the situation, and I assert my interests over the interests of other people.”

So, if we’re going to be honest citizens, philosophers, political observers, we have to be honest that that is the reality of politics. Politics is fundamentally agonistic. We’re seeing that in this year of many contentious elections and other political activity. It, of course, is now a week from the US midterm elections and that is most decidedly an agonistic process.

You have two parties who, despite the fact that the vast majority of their political agendas are identical. They act like this is a titanic apocalyptic battle between good and evil, with both sides claiming to be the good and claiming that the other side is evil.

This is something that is repeated politically around the world. You look at the UK right now, which is the other country that right now has this titanic battle of good versus evil going on there between the two major parties.

As I’m speaking right now, they’re counting the votes in the Israeli election. Israeli politics is incredibly agonistic for a variety of reasons, but the one I’ll just say right now is you have so many political parties vying for a tiny slice of the pie of who gets to control the Knesset in Israel. Even after the agonistic campaigning and the agonistic voting, there will now be yet more months of agonistic trying to form a coalition, which of course has failed four times in the last four years. So here we are a fifth time trying to do this.

I have mentioned elections because fundamental to a nation whose government is selected by elections is the reality of an agonistic struggle. You have an election, you have at least two, maybe multiple candidates, and only one can win. That’s the very definition of a conflict. That’s the very definition of an agonistic struggle. Multiple candidates want your votes. Multiple candidates will try to convince you to vote for them.

One way by which a candidate can solicit your vote, solicit your support and agreement is to tout their positive agenda. Now, I’m old enough that I remember a different style of electoral politics than what goes on today in the United States. It was a much less antagonistic politics where a politician, would stand up and say, “this is what I can do for you, this is what I promise. I’m going to bring this wonderful thing to your lives and these wonderful things to our lives, and we’re going to make our society better.”

Antagonistic Politics

All that changed in the mid-1990s, specifically 1994. When a certain party in the United States declared a contract with or on America and the tone changed. It not like politics was never ugly, or that it was devoid of and antagonism, but it changed then, and it’s only gotten more so as time has gone on.

This antagonism, this hatred—and I don’t use that term lightly, but it is hatred—lies in that there are two parties in the United States, two major parties, and the appearance, anyway, is that they hate each other.

The other side is not just, “my opponent won’t do as well for you as I can.” That would be a positive politics, and that’s fair. If you’re being positive, you can say, “look, my opponent can’t deliver what I can deliver for you.” It’s a valid comparison and positive in its net result. But now, no, it’s, “we need to save our country from the other side. The other candidate wants to destroy America!” It’s not just one party doing this. Both parties are doing this.

What does this mean philosophically? Well, philosophically, when you have a situation like this where electoral politics is now dominated, strangled, by this rhetoric of “apocalypse averted if you vote for me, apocalypse assured if you vote for him or her,” either is making a change in society at large or expressing a change in society at large. Of course, because this is how reality works, society works. It’s a little bit of both.

The tenor of the nation has perhaps changed, and the change in the tenor of the nation is a reflection of this style of antagonistic politics. What this says about the United States is difficult to say it. It certainly can’t be said simply. It’s not just a matter of “ohh, it’s the media. Ohh it’s social media. Ohh it’s the time. Ohh, it’s that party because it’s not my party, even though we say the exact same thing, just flipped over from the other party.”

Reality is complex. That’s one thing that I will continually say: Reality is complex, and there is no part of reality more complex than human society. And so why electoral politics is so toxic these days is certainly a result of many complex factors. One of those factors, to my mind, quite clearly, is the issue of recognition versus misrecognition, and I talk about recognition a lot; several episodes of my podcast have been devoted to that already, and certainly many more will be, and recognition theory is one of my main academic and research interests. The reason I think that is that I think recognition theory holds the key to understanding so much of human society and so much human behavior.

We see recognition most starkly and misrecognition most starkly in electoral politics. Recognition, as most simply put, is the idea that I look at you and I recognize that you are a valuable human being, and as such, you deserve to be treated in certain ways. If you are a human being, you have rights. If you are a human being, you have certain privileges. If you are a human being, I have certain ethical obligations to you and how I treat you.

Many philosophers have talked about this in one way or another in the past 80 years. Recognition theory attempts to give these behaviors a framework by which we can more easily understand them.

What’s happening in electoral politics now, whether it’s Israel, the UK, the US or elsewhere is creating fault lines based upon recognition norms. Recognition norms are ways in which we instruct people, either implicitly or explicitly, how to behave, what to value and how to react when you see? These values, these traits and other people. If someone is behaving properly, we are taught to recognize them and treat them as someone who deserves to be recognized, deserves to be treated. If someone is not behaving according to recognition norms according to how a person should act in our society, then we are entitled, if not obligated to. Treat them quite differently.

One very simple example of that is someone who commits a crime. Now, there’s still a human being, they still have rights, but if they’ve committed a crime, they have violated recognition norms and therefore they have lost a certain right to certain treatments. We punish them we. Convict them. We may put them in jail or prison. They may lose some of their rights, they may lose some of their property, or they’re required to make restitution because they violated our cultures recognition norms. It’s most easily seen in criminal conduct, but we see this in all areas and aspects of human society. Someone who is just rude, someone who just doesn’t play along well with others, is treated with appropriate disdain or just disapproval.

How this is manifested more recently in electoral politics is that this idea of recognition norms and its associated misrecognition conduct has now been attached to holding certain positions or just simply membership in the other political party. Where there are disputes, we can agree to disagree or we can use this method of antagonistic, not just agonistic politics, but antagonistic politics of declaring the other person, the other party, as criminal, as evil, as something that needs to be dealt with in the most extreme way.

Now, if you wish to say, “okay, my opponent, the other party, does not agree with me on issues A, B, and C, and I believe that their disagreement on issues A, B, and C is harmful to the social welfare of our country.” That’s perfectly legitimate. It’s a bit of a journey, but not too long of a journey to go from that very civil—still agonistic but very civil—disagreement to, “my opponent does not agree with A, B, and C, therefore my opponent is an enemy of the people, an enemy of the state, a danger to our society, and needs to be purged from it! Vote for me!

Or it’s not even “vote for me.” Actually it’s “be sure not to vote … no, be sure to vote AGAINST my opponent! Satan, be gone!” And I’m not really exaggerating in some of the rhetoric that’s going on in the races today.

The primary message of politics today is an exhortation to actively misrecognize other people who have different views. Its antagonism is not just agonism. When there does not seem to be enough reason given to oppose the opposing candidate, the opposing party, the parties now invent reasons for you to misrecognize the other candidates.

The Role of Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories have been a major part of political rhetoric. In the United States and in the UK for quite some time, and in Israel too, since I’ve mentioned them earlier, the idea of “those people are out to commit genocide against my people.” In the United States, well, actually there is a conspiracy theory about the supposed “white genocide,” that all the people of color are going to rise up and destroy white society, whatever that means. But usually, it is less grand than pronouncements of genocide about to happen.

We saw a very real consequence of that in the United States just last week, where a person who undeniably believes a lot of bizarro conspiracy theories attempted to attack a sitting congressperson. That would be Nancy Pelosi. This believer in conspiracy theory instead attacked Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

This was a political act. It was a political act of misrecognition. Because this motivation of this person was quite simply saying “you do not agree with policies A, B, and C, even though policies A, B, and C were nonsense conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories are part and parcel of antagonistic politics. The more a nation, the more a society gives in to antagonism, into demonizing the other side, the more it opens the door to apocalyptic thinking, dualistic apocalyptic thinking of our ultimate battle of good and evil. If you do think that people different from you are evil, you tend not to be satisfied with just simply hating them for tangible reasons. You will create new reasons to hate them. And this cycle begins and manifests in conspiracy theories and manifests in ultimately violent acts.

Now, if I’m starting to sound like I’m preaching here, I apologize. I’m trying not to, but I’m simply wanting to point out here that in this election season where we’ve seen so many elections in so many countries, this shift from an agonistic politics to an antagonistic politics is increasingly dominating elections and their aftermaths.

It is too simplistic to just simply say, “well, let’s just stop being antagonistic towards each other, let’s stop thinking that our system needs to be agonistic.” Society is complex and therefore agonism is a fundamental part of being in a society. People will disagree, people will have disputes, and they need to resolve those disputes. It would be far, far better that they resolve disputes with recognition constantly in mind. “Yes, we disagree, but I recognize that you are a human being, and I recognize you have a right to your opinion and a right to your set of interests. And so, let’s talk. Let’s have a dialogue.”

Antagonistic politics is an end of dialogue, an attempt to silence the other side, to silence viewpoints different from your own. It is a form of cowardice — a refusal to be courageous enough to acknowledge that other people have a right to their opinion.

The reality is that to disagree with you does not mean that person is evil, bad, and stupid. It just means they disagree with you. It takes a certain amount of courage, a certain amount of maturity to accept that other people disagree with me. It’s okay.

The phrase, “intelligent minds can disagree,” which was much more common when I was younger than it is now, is something that we need to bring back. Intelligent minds can disagree. Sincere people can disagree.

Eyes Wide Open Politics

That said, I am in no way Pollyannaish in believing that every disagreement is just a matter of intelligent disagreement and calm minds. There are certain beliefs, there are certain attitudes that are reprehensible, fundamentally reprehensible, and have no place within society.

That’s where recognition norms come in too. You can have a civil disagreement, you can have a sincere disagreement, or you can just be a bigot and you can just be incredibly antagonistic and dangerous. Yes, we do need to stand up against that. I’m not pretending that there are not abhorrent attitudes out there and people doing abhorrent things on that. We have to disagree and disagree as strongly as is necessary.

We don’t need antagonistic politics; we don’t need the misrecognition. What we need is recognition—recognition of other people. That’s not a simple answer. It’s not a bromide of “ohh. we’ll just work for consensus, we’ll just cooperate with each other, we’ll find solidarity.”

Recognition itself is an agonistic process. It’s not immediate, it’s not simple, it’s not easy at times, but it is necessary. If that’s preachy, fine, that’s preachy. Recognize other people or human beings, even when they’re behaving not like human beings. Even when they’re engaging in antagonistic politics and saying that you’re the devil incarnate. You’re not, and they know you’re not. So just call their bluff on it again.

I don’t offer a simple solution because there is none. But it does have to begin with dialogue. It does have to begin with recognition of other human beings as human beings, recognizing other individuals as individuals. And then the real work begins.

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