-by Haydar Khan
Structuring the world so you can win. This sounds like sorcery but in politics,
there is a phenomenon called heresthetics that has existed for centuries. This term, heresthetics, was coined by William H. Riker (1920-1993), the American political scientist who founded the field of Positive Political Theory (PPT), the study of politics through the lens of game theory and statistical analysis. Riker considered heresthetics, at its theoretical core, to be the fourth liberal art, alongside the medieval arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. As the scientist put it, the theory of heresthetics is “concerned with the strategy-value of sentences”. In practical application, heresthetics has been employed in the past by politicians such as Abraham Lincoln to achieve a variety of political victories. Riker documents twelve such practical heresthetical examples in The Art of Political
Manipulation, published by Yale University Press in 1986. In what immediately
follows, I will explore some of the examples in this book and will I describe
Riker’s three general categories of heresthetical tactics: agenda control, strategic
voting, and manipulating dimensions. After a review of Riker’s work, I will
explore two 21st Century examples that fall under the third and most commonly
used heresthetical category, that of manipulating dimensions.
The first heresthetical category is agenda control, where the formal leadership
of a decision-making body attempts to shape the list of things to be considered by the body in such a way that aims concurrent with the wishes of the leadership are fulfilled while alternatives contrary to the wishes of the leadership are defeated. Riker, in Ch.12 of Manipulation uses the redefining of a quorum by U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed in 1890 as a perfect illustration of the heresthetic tactic of agenda control. Prior to Reed’s election as Speaker, the Republican legislative majority was unable to enact any legislation due to an opposition tactic known as the disappearing quorum. The tactic involved the minority party members taking advantage of a legal loophole by allowing them to withhold their votes if the members were physically present in the House. Since the Republican majority could rarely produce the minimum numbers needed for a quorum due to reasons like illness or travel and the resulting gap between majority and minority was less than the number of absentees, the minority party could bring business to a halt simply by withholding their votes and denying a quorum via a type of faux-absenteeism. In January of 1890, the Democratic minority attempted the disappearing quorum tactic yet again but Speaker Reed was prepared to overcome his enemy. In a theatrical display, Reed read aloud the names of the 165 Democratic members who were present and yet withheld their votes. This enraged the Democrats who were vehement in insisting that they were not actually present due to their interpretation of the disappearing quorum loophole. It was at this point that Reed sprung his logical trap upon his enemies. As Reed put it: “There is a provision in the Constitution which declares that the House may establish rules for compelling attendance of members. If members can be present and refuse to exercise their function, to wit, not to be counted as a quorum, that provision would seem to be entirely nugatory. Inasmuch as the Constitution only provides for their attendance, that attendance is enough. If more were needed, the Constitution would have provided more….The Chair therefore rules that there is a quorum present within the meaning of the Constitution.” A few days later, the House adopted Reed’s quorum reform, due to his interpretation of the Constitution and his
theatrics gaining the support of the Republican House members.
The second heresthetical category, according to Riker, is strategic voting.
Strategic voting is where individual members, as opposed to the leadership of the governing body (agenda control), can advance or halt an agenda by strategic use of their voting power. Riker devotes Chapter 9 of Art to a prominent example of strategic voting, the 1980 defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in the Virginia Senate. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is a possible amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees equal legal rights to all citizens no matter their sex. Article V of the Constitution requires a minimum of 38 state ratifications of the ERA and in 1980, the number of state ratifications was up to 35, not counting legally questionable revocations. The Virginia Senate requires an absolute majority for the passage of a resolution to ratify an amendment to the Constitution and in 1980, the Senate was tied 20 to 20 on the ERA vote. Were this tie to have persisted, the Lieutenant Governor of the state would have been allowed to cast the tiebreaker vote in favor of the ERA. However, due to the actions of Senator John Chichester, this was not to be. In a clever move, Chichester used a senate rule that allowed a Senator to abstain from voting on an issue in which he or she had “an immediate, private or personal interest.” The Senate leadership did not contest Chichester’s interpretation of the Senate rule and Chichester won out. By withholding his vote, there was no tie to break, the vote in favor of the ERA could not result in an absolute majority, and the resolution was defeated. The ERA was not ratified by the Virginia Senate until January of 2020.
The third heresthetical tactic is that of manipulation of dimensions. Manipulation
of dimensions is according to Riker, “that of raising against a disputed alternative
still another dimension of judgement that splits the opposition” or “when the
currently winning side anticipates that the opposition will add a dimension to split the winners” and blocks the added dimension. Riker’s first chapter is an account of one such dimensional manipulation by master heresthetician Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, Lincoln the Republican was campaigning for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat of incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. Lincoln and Douglas participated in a series of seven debates. In the second debate at the town of Freeport, Lincoln put Douglas in a heresthetical trap by adding a dimension to the debate. Lincoln posed the following question to Douglas: “Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution?” This was a trap because Douglas needed anti-slavery Northern Democratic votes to maintain his Senate seat but needed pro-slavery Southern Democratic votes for a presidential run in 1860. If Douglas answered yes to Lincoln’s question, this would satisfy the Illinois Democrats but would anger Southern Democrats. On the other hand, answering no to Lincoln’s question would jeopardize his chances at maintaining his Senate seat but would satisfy the pro-slavery Southern faction of the Democrats, whom he needed to secure the party nomination in 1860. Douglas answered yes to Lincoln, won re-election to the Senate, and ruined his chances at winning a presidential run in 1860. Lincoln may have lost the short-term battle but he won the long-term war as he went on to a greater victory in the presidential election in 1860.
Of the three of the heresthetical categories that I have reviewed, Riker had this to say: “Often it is difficult to control the agenda or to vote strategically, especially if the equilibrium winner has a substantial majority. But the number of dimensions can always be used to upset an equilibrium, provided the heresthetician is clever enough to find the correct dimension to use. This, no doubt, is why manipulation of dimensions is just about the most frequently attempted heresthetical device, one that politicians engage in a very large amount of the time.” In support of Riker’s conclusion, there are two contemporary examples of dimensional manipulation that I will give: the financial straitjacketing of the United States Post Office to force its eventual failure and possible privatization and the push to adopt a Balanced Budget
Amendment in order to prevent Keynesian intervention in U.S. markets.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) is one of the few government agencies
explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution. According to the Postal Clause of
the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the authority “To establish Post Offices and
Post Roads”. This explicit Constitutional authorization has made the USPS very
robust against attacks from corporate interests and libertarian ideologues.
However, in 2006, a clever implementation of the heresthetical “limiting of
dimensions” tactic breached the defenses of the USPS and now threatens its very
existence as a public entity. In 2006, H.R. 6407 (109th): Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was signed into law. This law requires the USPS to prefund its retirees’ health benefits up to the year 2056, a requirement that does not exist anywhere in the public or private realms. Additionally, the law restricts the ability of the USPS to raise funds via non-postal services such as banking and limits the ability of the USPS to raise postal rates beyond the rates of inflation. This law has been a very clever effective limitation of the fiscal dimension, as this law has forced the USPS to lose billions of dollars without no relief in sight.
Another 21st Century example of dimensional manipulation is the attempt by
corporate and libertarian ideologues to add a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) to the U.S. Constitution, thereby limiting the fiscal dimension. Just as the
limitation of the fiscal dimension is driving the USPS to inoperability, the
implementation of the BBA would restrict the ability to engage in Keynesian
deficit spending, imperiling the funding of public goods and countercyclical
spending during an economic downturn. After the breakdown in the Keynesian
consensus during the 1970s, the BBA movement was born. One of, if not the
intellectual godfather of, the BBA movement, libertarian James M. Buchanan,
wrote an entire book, Democracy in Deficit, published by Academic Press in 1977, dedicated to savaging Keynesian economics. Buchanan’s criticisms in this book culminate in a call for a Balanced Budget Amendment and Buchanan gives an outline for such a proposal. In 1980, the push for a convention to propose a BBA came close to fruition, narrowly missing the required 34-state benchmark needed to trigger a Constitutional convention. The next closest attempt to impose the BBA was in 1995 during the time of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America campaign. The BBA proposal passed the House of Representatives but was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate. Since that time, BBA supporters have continued their campaign. As of now, there are 28 states calling for adoption of a BBA. If implemented, the BBA would be a dimension-limiting equivalent of a nuclear bomb, the USPS situation writ large. In addition, the Constitutional convention triggered by the 34-state minimum would not be limited to the topic of the BBA, so there would ample opportunities for other Constitutional alterations. If alterations in addition to the BBA were to come to pass, the push for a BBA could truly result in a horrifying, heresthetical masterpiece.
Once one views past and current politics through a heresthetical lense, one realizes how abundant application of the fourth liberal art is and how consequential its application can be. Hopefully, I have convinced readers of this through my citing of examples from Riker as well as the contemporary cases I have provided. Though the word “heresthetics” may be an obscure term to the general public, I hope this essay will bring attention to Riker’s discovery. There is one other contemporary heresthetical example I think worthy of exploration in its own essay: the manipulation of dimensions via cancellations, shadow banning, and algorithmic manipulation in the 21st Century equivalent of the town square: social media.