“Conspiracy theory is the ultimate refuge of the powerless. If you cannot change your own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world.” ― Roger Cohen
This presidential election has generated TONS of fun (philosophical) things to think and talk about. Among them is this notion of “rigging” that keeps coming up. Bernie Sanders used the term early on in the primaries when speaking about the economy: “The economic game is rigged, and this level of inequality is unsustainable. We need an economy that works for all, not just the powerful.” Then, if not Sanders himself, his more vehement supporters carelessly threw the word around complaining that the primary election was rigged after Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton.
Inevitably, it didn’t take long for Trump to also start using the term in regard to the American democratic process, first in the primaries and now in the general election: “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary – but also at many polling places – SAD.”
I have some thoughts on all of this.
First, we should try to be as clear as possible on what we mean when say something is “rigged.” Rigging, used as a verb the way we’re seeing it used here, is a mechanical term which means to consciously manipulate something in a fraudulent, secret sort of way. Also, it’s important to note that saying something is “rigged” has a negative valence. It just does. A good example of something being rigged would be a slot machine that is programmed ahead of time, in secret, to never let the player win. The slot machine could be said to be rigged in favor of the casino owner.
The other important consideration to keep in mind is that “rigging,” the way most people have been throwing it around lately, has a conspiracy theory sort of feel to it (more on this later).
Now, given the definition of “rigging” I am using here, my question is: are Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s claims legit? Is “rigging” the right term to use? My intuition is to say no. Here is why:
The Democratic primaries
Even with the Podesta emails coming out, rigging is the wrong term here for one important reason: the Democratic Party basically decided and openly told everyone who was going to win before voting started. There was no secrecy, that’s the important distinction here, I think. Yes, the Pedesta emails confirm what progressives and Sanders supporters claimed, that the Democratic party was being unfairly biased toward Hillary, but that the DNC is less favorable to Sanders, who had never been a Democrat before, is not really surprising to me; it’s their party after all. Now, whether or not the Democratic party should even do primaries if they’re going pull shit like this is another matter (a serious one, but it’s another matter); maybe they should pick their candidates internally from now on instead of burying debates and colluding with media outlets (which, I admit, is getting very close to my definition of rigging), etc. So “rigged” is the wrong word here. Biased? Sure. Unfair? Yes. Unethical? I’d say so. The Dems picked who they wanted in the end, though. Bottom line.
The Republican Primary & General Election
Trump’s claims that the Republican primary and the general election are both rigged are just plain idiotic. First of all, he won the Republican primary, so that’s that; the primary couldn’t have been “rigged” from Trump’s perspective. But now Trump is crying that the general election is in danger of being rigged even before votes have been cast. I won’t spend much time here on Trump’s claims that polling places are rigged; NPR offers 5 reasons this can’t happen, and like it says in that article, claiming an election is “rigged” implies a systematic, coordinated effort to cause one candidate to win. This brings me to the last example.
The Economic System
Out of all of the examples, the one I sympathize with and understand the most is the impulse to want to call our economic system rigged. Bernie Sanders did this over and over during the primaries, and people loved it. And I totally get it, capitalism sucks. I get wanting to use some pathos soaked language, hyperbolize and disparage a dysfunctional, unjust economic system; I do it myself, I’m not a friend to economic liberalism to be sure. BUT, our economic system (and I realize some will argue with me on this) is not rigged in the sense that it was consciously and secretly set up by a few powerful “bad guys” in a coordinated, malevolent effort to subjugate. It took centuries for the transition from feudalism to capitalism to take place for crying out loud! Yes, the pathologies of capitalism, in my opinion far outweigh any sort of dignities the system may have now, or at one time had, and I will not disagree that something new will (and should) replace capitalism just as it replaced feudalism. Additionally, I am always quick to acknowledge that, generally, if left unattended, ignored and on its own, free-market capitalism naturally produces extreme inequality, injustice and can “possess” and oppress those trapped within it. But look, if I buy into the notion that capitalism is inherently “evil” and “rigged” in the sense that a group of “bad guys” got together one day and colluded to create the perfect economic system that would allow them to stay oppressively rich and powerful, then I might also have to take really seriously the notion that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the Apollo Moon landing was faked, or that the Illuminati is secretly pulling strings somewhere, or that the Earth is indeed still flat…
I think you can see where I’m going with this.
I mentioned above that the way Trump, and his followers in the alt-right in particular, are throwing around the term, rigged definitely has a conspiratorial feel to it. And it’s really tempting to buy into conspiracy theories because it makes one feel less anxious and more “in control” of a very confusing, chaotic world, i.e. there is a sort of gnostic quality to conspiracy theories (not to mention the in-group camaraderie feels really nice). I understand all of this. I also understand, however, that embracing any sort of denialist viewpoint that appeals to conspiracy to support it, and follows up with still more conspiracies on this or that side of the aisle, will only be promoting problematic approaches to knowledge, society, learning, politics, and much else.
As far as “rigging” goes, then, this term can only be scaled up so far, in my opinion. So unless we’re talking about a boxing match that can easily be “fixed” by a few people, or an actual human-made machine that was literally assembled in a certain way, secretively, to manipulate someone in a conscious, fraudulent way, then “rigged” is not the right word. This is because all you’re essentially doing is using a mechanical metaphor in a hyperbolic way in a feeble attempt to try to explain uncontrollable, confusing/dumbfounding cosmic events by simplistically reducing the world down to nice neat categories of “good” and “evil.” I’m as postmodern as they come and, epistemologically speaking, I understand that we can’t be too certain about anything! I get this. That said, however, I will always be skeptical about reductive claims that indicate certain grand, complicated events are really the result of a secret plot by exceptionally powerful and cunning conspirators to achieve malevolent ends. Reality is way too complex for that, I’m afraid. So in accordance with Herbert Marcuse, I’ll ask you kindly to stop projecting your feelings of fear, confusion, anxiety and meaninglessness onto the nature of existence itself. Thanks.