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In Theory

On chess and democracy

(Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Agon Limited)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about democratic stability. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky professor of philosophy at Yale University. His most recent book is “How Propaganda Works.”

Is the American system of government now in peril?  

Consider the following thought experiment: A and B are playing a game of chess in front of an audience, all of whom know there are rules. Some are ignorant of the rules. Others do not regard the rules as essential, caring only about the game’s entertainment value. A understands the rules of chess. A wants to win, but his desire to win is secondary to his devotion to the rules of chess. B is different. B’s sole motivation is to be publicly declared the winner and reap the honors that result. How might the game go? How long will they be playing a true game of chess?

Suppose, as is likely, that A is clearly a better chess player and has gained the upper hand. In response, suppose that B makes an illegal move and — when challenged — claims that it is legal and that A has rigged the game.

A calls some chess experts in to verify the rules. B, anticipating just such a move, has hired a set of fake chess experts to disparage A’s chess experts. Perhaps B has even set up an alternative institute, the Competitive Chess Institute, devoted to disparaging and mocking what have long been the rules of chess, insisting, for example, that the bishop can move exactly like the queen.

Perhaps A could then bring in a set of newspapers that report on the fact that the Competitive Chess Institute was set up to benefit certain interests of players who cannot succeed by the rules of chess, to help them in just such times. But B has craftily predicted this eventuality as well and has a set of other news outlets at his disposal that disparage and mock the news outlets and journalists brought in by A.

Let’s suppose further that while people always tried to follow the rules of chess, sometimes the temptation to win became too much and rigging had occurred. Mainstream chess journalists always came around to calling out the rigging. But on a number of occasions they were either implicated in rigging the game or were tricked as well.

In the scenario I have sketched, a concern arises about the stability of the practice of playing chess. Perhaps those who equally respect its rules could enjoy a private chess match. But the conditions even for the possibility of a decent public chess match have been gravely threatened.

How would one reestablish the conditions for the possibility of public chess? Institutions like the Competitive Chess Institute would have to be eliminated. We would have to have a powerful ethos of chess journalism that placed the rules of chess above profiting from reporting the exploits of particularly exciting chess champions, or currying favor with particularly vindictive ones. And everyone — the chess players, the audience and the journalists — would have to explicitly and simultaneously recommit to its rules and traditions.

Our liberal democracy is based on a practice of open debate and discussion among equals, and truth is meant to govern that system. Equal respect serves as a means of ensuring adherence to truth — without it, someone could dismiss a legitimate claim with ridicule or threats rather than reason. Truth and equal respect function as the rules of democratic debate, just as the rules of chess govern its practice.

But a democratic system of government like our own has for centuries been rejected as fundamentally unstable. Rousseau sheds some light on why in his 18th-century work “The Social Contract”:

The reason our political theorists go astray is the following: All the states they see were badly constituted to begin with, and they are struck by the fact that no polity of the kind I have described [democracy] could possibly be kept going within those states. They tell over to themselves, with vast amusement, all the absurdities that a crafty scoundrel or spell-binder could pass off on the people of Paris or London.

For it to remain possible, our system of government requires a well-constituted society. A well-constituted society, in the relevant sense, is one that employs equal respect for all citizens to guarantee the value of truth over power.

The eminent ethicist Stephen Darwall of Yale University describes it as one “in which people are answerable to one another for their conduct … one that values public inquiry, getting at the truth behind social appearances and ‘speaking truth to power’ … When we respect ‘not the person of men’ in the sense of honoring their persona or social appearance, but rather respect all equally … we commit ourselves to a mutual accountability that implicitly honors fact over appearance.”

Chess is a game; our system of government is not. Its aim is the preservation of freedom — the freedom to speak our minds and to have our reasons acknowledged. But when threats replace reasoned debate, truth is replaced by power. It is one thing if chess can be practiced only in secrecy. It is quite another when freedom must retreat to back alleys and whispered conversation.

Read more:

Has western democracy become unstable?

Propaganda used to be a source of shame. Now governments take pride in it.

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