Tuesday, October 7, 2014

In Defense of Politics: An Essay

Hannah Arendt: Not referenced in the essay, but a guiding light
I spent time this morning agitated after reading about Iowa Tea Party (Republican) candidate Joni Ernst’s positions that struck me as wrong and reckless. I wasn’t going to vote for her, but she might win, the thought of which only causes me greater agitation—and after such a nice morning meditation! Why do I bother? 

Despite all of our celebration of democracy and professed desire to export to around the world, few people in the U.S. engage in politics. Most are indifferent, some lazy, others scared. Some are too harried by life’s other demands to donate time and energy to what appears so confusing and so remote. And those who do vote often do so for appallingly shallow and na├»ve reasons. Some justify their lassitude as caused by disgust with the process of politics. I understand that sentiment. The attention paid in Iowa to chickens, games of telephone, motorcycles, and hog castration can influence one to walk away with a sense of sour amusement of the ridiculous of it all. And this is just the Iowa Senate race. 

In the United States, the level of our political discourse has declined. I say this with some sense of reluctance: the level has never been that high. Read about the political campaign of Jefferson vs. Adams, which can claim to be the start of electoral mudslinging, mendacity, and inanity in American election campaigns. But even recognizing that the bar hasn’t ever been set high, we still perceive that the level of reasonable and productive political discourse remains near a record low. Even behind closed doors, where dialogue might prove fruitful, we see little engagement. Whether one calls it “political decay” following the recent work of political scientistFrancis Fukuyama, an “iron age” as did Hesiod and Ovid in Greek and Roman times, or the “Age of Kali” in Hindu tradition, we can sense that something is amiss with our time. One has to be careful not to project a fantasy onto a past that never existed, but accounts of trustworthy observers and measured studies of various indicators support the contentions of those who agree with Fukuyama that the U.S. is in a period of political decay. So what is to be done? 

One can fiddle while Washington burns, following the Roman precedent (otherwise so valued by the Founders). One can retreat into the insularity of the home, enjoying the bread and circuses that consumer capitalism spreads before us with alluring ease. Or one might retreat—to Montana or to a monastery—and seek to ride out the storm. Yet each of these paths marks surrender, an unwillingness to engage. Even if one believes that any hope for a re-vitalized political discourse is a chimera, one must still recognize that the contest continues, and our world may get worse unless we inject some measure of sanity and goodwill into it. The arena of political decisions, of decisions made about our common world, is the sea upon which our private lives float, sometimes soothingly with gentle, lapping waves, but other times subject to tsunamis of war, economic depression, and other calamities. Together, we have some power over the waters, the ability to calm the waters, if we use our power wisely.

What is politics “about”? In a New Yorker article, Tim Kreider discusses science fiction as a political genre, but what he says about S-F as a genre applies to politics as a whole. He writes: 

Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. . . .  The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame. [Emphasis added.]

It is still “anybody’s ball game” even if historical patterns, the deadweight of inertia, or a “sub-optimal equilibrium” remain stacked against us. There are trends that we can’t simply negate at will and neither can we flee them or wish them away. We must stand and fight.
Having said all this, the type of political warrior we must become matters greatly. We must not scorch the earth upon which are opponents stand: this is inimical to democracy (the worst form of government except all of the others that have been tried from time to time--Churchill). Do I dislike Joni Ernest? How can I? I don’t know her. However, I know her ideas and have some sense of what she’d do as a U.S. Senator, and I find those ideas very bad (foolish, ill-founded, & probably harmful). Whether she’s a nice person, rides a motorcycle, shoots guns, or smiles warmly matters not at all to me. Conversely, I’d say that even if Bruce Braley was found to have kicked a puppy, I’d vote for him based on what he’d do in the Senate. 

I know this essay represents an almost utopian (nowhere) line of thinking, but even tiny differences in perceptions and behaviors, in words spoken and shared, can change things for the better. I believe so. Politics may—in fleeting moments— allow an expression of dignity and heroism, an opportunity to share in service of one another with the intention of creating a good for everyone. Political debate may exhibit the contention of perceptive minds attempting to sculpt a future out of the stubborn rock of humanity with the hope of one day winning the praise of posterity. That doesn’t happen often, but it can. The power created by the speech of politics is only alternative of the force of violence. We have a Republic, if we can keep it. Remember that.

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