Parity and the Morality of Democracy

Modernity’s conception of democratic morality seems preoccupied with fairness, and particularly so in reference to viewpoint parity. This is primarily a concern for those who perceive themselves to be in the minority, or, in populist cases, fear becoming a minority.

One can see this concern in the cries of discrimination expelled from the lungs of conservatives who believe themselves censored on social media. Part of this argument is driven by the incontrovertible fact that left-leaning content, in most cases, is seen and shared by a larger audience than is conservative content. The driving force behind claims of social media censorship (if such a term can be applied to the actions private companies take to manage their own platforms) seems to be based on the idea that some sort of natural parity between individuals who identify with right and left ideologies, which is intentionally distorted by social media to magnify one viewpoint and compress another. No credence is given to the possibility that there is a natural disparity between the numbers of conservatives and liberals on social media, or even a difference in their social media consumption habits or the frequency with which each group does so.

The same argument is also evident in electoral politics: in lawsuits against Congressional districts that are supposedly gerrymandered to bolster one party’s chances of gaining office. The idea that there are areas where one partisan affiliation is naturally concentrated are often disregarded in favor of a viewpoint that assumes parity, or something very close to parity, naturally exists. If Congressional districts were simply constructed by dropping a grid over the polity, Republicans and Democrats would be found in almost identical numbers.

Parity, then, is emphasized as a constitutive element of fairness in both public and private venues.

Incorporating it into the virtues of democracy, however, becomes tricky. Officially, the government is meant to be objectively neutral when it comes to policing viewpoints. But neutrality, when coupled with the idea that democratic fairness requires parity, means neutrality becomes not government passivity, but a government that actively seeks to promote and maintain an environment where left and right are balanced. In the past, this idea has manifested itself in the Equal Time Rule, a part of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Fairness Doctrine, a policy that actively led to the kind of silencing such policies are intended to prevent. For fear of running afoul of government regulation, radio and television stations often shied away from political discussions for fear of being charged with not giving equal airtime to all sides. In many cases, radio stations simply could not find participants from all sides willing to participate in a base; in other, this was not reflective of audience demand. It is no mistake that conservative talk radio burgeoned following the rollback of the Fairness Doctrine, something right-wingers currently ginning for regulation of social media as quasi-public entities seem to have forgotten.

Viewpoint neutrality may be the end product, but the act of attaining that apogee of balance and fairness is not neutral. It requires proactive thought on the part of government. The very act of identifying parity as a value to be upheld requires judgment, drawing it into the process of adjudicating. It must identify what the application of neutrality looks like, as well as what it does not, and take action to implement these values. It requires not only thought on the part of government, but, worse, imaginative thought. Regulating neutrality means government cannot itself remain a neutral arbiter. Discrimination is inherent to the process. Parity might be the end result, but at what cost? Certainly, there is no parity of rights for those whose speech has been discriminated against on the grounds that it would be unfair to minorities to allow majorities to assume their natural place of preeminence in society.

But there are more than philosophic snags to making parity a major component of democratic morality. The very concept of democracy is predicated upon disparity. Society turns upon the judgment of the largest faction. This is true inside and outside of government. Free market capitalism, which responds to demand as expressed by large groups within the populace, also responds to disparity. It is able to accommodate competing tastes in a way that government cannot but nevertheless responds primarily to the tastes of the majority, as this is where the greatest profit motive lies — and the greatest chance to recoup the risks taken by producers in a capitalist system.

In both free markets and democracy, virtue is not really a reflection of anything objective. This is not to say that there is no place for objective value-judgments, but the majority’s opinions take on a force all their own. Particularly where government is concerned, virtue is imputed into the will of the majority. Government action is inherently discriminatory; it can only pursue one course of action, unlike the free market, which allows competition to occur. Hence the state of sanctity with which the majority is viewed in democratic parlance. If only one group can have their way, it seems fair that this be the group that includes the largest number. Thus, there is virtue inherent to government’s policy responsiveness to the majority opinion. But parity here is impossible; the entire system requires that one faction win out, which comes at the expense of other minority factions. It does not negate their chance to have their say, but it does frustrate their desire to see a government that reflects their values.

Parity, then, is of little use to democratic systems. It should have no place in any conception of democratic virtue. Parity and equality are not compatible. When parity is promoted, government must discriminate against certain elements that are naturally more numerous in the populace, which violates the idea that individual rights are equally held and to be equally exercised, barring aggression against another. Democratic impulses are predicated on the idea that the various viewpoints that exist in the polity do so disparately. Proportionality, not parity, is a guiding tenet of democratic representation, if mathematics must be brought into it.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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