Recap of the 2021 Moffett Lecture "Democracy and the Problem of Political Loss"

Jan. 16, 2022

Written by Théophile Deslauriers

Democratic decision-making inevitably entails losses for at least some people in any given society. Democracies require people to accept political losses and continue to respect democratic procedures, even when these procedures do not favor their interests. When these losses are legitimate, such as when one’s preferred political candidate or party loses a free and fair election, then the acceptance of loss is not only expected, but crucial for the maintenance of democratic institutions.

Yet this democratic disposition to accept legitimate losses is vulnerable to hierarchical social ideals and unjust expectations that certain groups will continuously bear political loss while others monopolize power.

In her 2021 James A. Moffett Lecture in Ethics, “Democracy and the Problem of Political Loss,” Juliet Hooker endeavours to answer important questions about political loss as it relates to American democracy. She investigates “the impact of different forms of loss on the political imaginations of citizens, as well as the civic practices they develop in response to loss” in the context of racial injustice and the refusal of many white Americans to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election. She defines political loss as loss that is shown, through the efforts of various individuals or constituencies, to require a collective response, or to be the product of “systemic disparities”.

The core of Hooker’s argument is that the politics of white grievance nurtures an anti-democratic commitment to imposing democratic losses on non-white groups while refusing to accept white democratic losses as legitimate.

Black citizens, Hooker argues, are expected to make sacrifices “for the sake of U.S. democracy.” This points to a problem of distributive justice: if loss is a necessary feature of democratic politics, then ensuring that loss is distributed fairly is crucial for preserving democratic equality. If the burden of losing is distributed along pre-existing hierarchical lines, as is the case in the U.S., then democratic citizenship is undermined. Remedying this problem is made all the more difficult by structural features of American society, namely white supremacy, which “obscures this uneven distribution”.

Political loss is not naturally occurring, and so Hooker argues that we ought to understand the acceptance of democratic losses as a “crucial civic capacity” that has been unequally developed. Some groups have learned to accept these losses, others refuse to do so, even when they are legitimate. White people have by and large failed to develop this capacity because “political dominance has been one of the advantages historically conferred by Whiteness that has come to be viewed as normal.”

This hints at the different ways in which loss can be mobilized in politics. Loss can be used as a source of outrage and grievance when certain groups are made to believe that they are entitled to win. This articulation of political loss, Hooker argues, is apparent in the anti-mask protests taking place during the pandemic, in which aggrieved (mostly white) citizens demand a trivial freedom that would impose risk, and inevitably severe loss, on others. In contrast, loss can also motivate a politics of grief, in which groups whose safety is endangered demand basic protections, such as when black-led protesters demanded racial justice in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Hooker argues that white grievance, characterized by “the inability or refusal to accept legitimate political loss,” is the greatest threat facing American democracy. Communities structured around racial dominance become authoritarian even if they have formally democratic institutions because they “instill in members of the dominant group the expectation of dominance” and teach them to refuse to accept political losses to those classified as subordinate.

Hooker proceeds to outline the constitutive elements of white grievance:

1. A “zero-sum view of politics that mobilizes white victimhood” in response to anticipated gains by non-white people,

2. Narratives of white racial innocence,

3. Nostalgia for past eras of white dominance,

4. Lack of training in the capacity to accept legitimate democratic losses,

5. Apocalyptic conceptions of racial equality as white subjugation.

In this view of politics, white losses are not part of a democratic distribution of sacrifice, but wholesale racial defeats.

Our ability to overcome “impoverished visions of democracy and freedom” is dependent on our ability to move beyond the politics of white grievance. In order for American democracy to be genuinely multi-racial, we cannot demand constant sacrifice from some racial groups while “allowing others to mourn justified losses they refuse to accept.”

The future of American democracy calls for a shift in political imagination: for these patterns of white grievance to be transformed into ways of coping with loss in fair and democratic ways.

Video recording of the Moffett Lecture is available here.