The First Challenge On the (Still) Radical Notion that People Should Govern Themselves

Sam Adams believed in self-government. That was before cable news, though.

Sam Adams believed in self-government. That was before cable news, though.

A lot of digital ink has been spilled over the sad state of affairs in Washington; namely, the inability of the two major parties to reach any sort of meaningful consensus on how to tackle the nation’s most pressing challenges (though the ice might be cracking on immigration). Future posts will try to examine the causes of that dilemma more closely, but for now I’d like to spend a little bit of time looking at what I take to be the major impediment: we’re all looking at the wrong things.

At times like these, I’m reminded that the frustrating thing about democracy is that we get the government we vote for. Political junkies spend a lot of time obsessing about closed-door negotiations involving grey-haired men in positions of power, but we should try to keep in mind that those grandees enter the scene very late in a very long process –  one in which each of us is involved. That process is an interplay between three major elements. The first is the public discourse; then come the institutions through which we select leaders as well as the powers we vest those leaders with; finally, there are the incentives we create for people in positions of power.

Those three elements set the scene – the individual politicians, for the most part, just play out the drama. True, they can try to move the conversation, they can rewrite the rules, and they can curry favor with powerful players. But that is something it takes a political class to accomplish; eight Senators in a room can’t do all that. By the time those guys enter the scene, the die is cast and yet…that’s the part we spend all our time looking at.

Everything about the way we do politics today is designed not to let you see that misdirection. I don’t mean this in a conspiratorial way, I just mean that democracy is hard. It’s a high-wire act and we’re easily blown off our perch. Consider the distinction between what I call ‘the politics of performance’ and, alternatively, ‘the politics of process’.

The politics of performance encourages us to engage in the political process as a way to exercise or ‘perform’ our self-image. It’s a process of self-affirmation. The two quickest ways to a voter’s heart are fear and flattery and the politics of performance works by validating whatever it is about ourselves we feel is either most important or most threatened. You know this phenomenon as ‘pandering’, but pandering is an incomplete descriptor for two reasons. First, while pandering emphasizes what the politician does, I want to emphasize how we, as the voters, respond. Two, pandering connotes a sense that what we’re talking about is mostly policy outcomes when what I’m emphasizing is a process that gives voters not the outcomes they desire but rather the conversations they feel most comfortable with.

In fact, it is precisely because the politics of performance work primarily through self-validation and not policy outcomes that it is so powerful: its effects are immediate and its demands, for the politician, are low. All that is required is that you validate yourself and that you demand that your elected leaders validate you too; unfortunately, this validation is also all we can expect to get out of this.

The politics of process, on the other hand, is a considerably duller affair which is probably best captured by Otto Von Bismarck’s description of politics as “the art of the possible”. If the politics of performance depends on us viewing compromise as tantamount to capitulation, the politics of process views compromise as an affirmative good. Consider Madison’s views on heterogeneity as expressed in the Federalist Papers, where he argued that disagreement between factions would help constrain extremists from implementing poor policies. This is a view that accepts compromise as a way in which we can reach consensus and better choices, rather than viewing politics merely as a way to settle intractable disagreements. A healthy institutional structure encourages the former while allowing for the latter.

Prussian troops during the Battle of Leuthen in 1757. An effective army would later help Bismarck expand his sense of the possible.

Prussian troops during the Battle of Leuthen in 1757. An effective army would later help Bismarck expand his ‘sense of the possible’.

I want to make sure that I’m clear about what I’m not saying. Many readers will be familiar with the distinction that some draw between pragmatists and people with strong ideological convictions – disparagingly referred to as ideologues. Readers will also be familiar with the older philosophical and theoretical ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ camps. I’m not making that distinction here and I’m certainly not taking sides in those debates. My personal view is that while we need to keep a firm eye on what is and isn’t politically possible, we must always be guided by strong principles about what we must attempt and what we must avoid. Those latter considerations are at the core of who we are as human beings as well as who we are as a people.

But I am drawing a distinction between an approach that is constructive and an approach that is irascibly combative. I’m also calling for a healthy dose of awe and humility as well as a new reengagement.

After more than two centuries of almost steady success and progress it is easy to lose sight of the great audacity of our experiment in self-governance. Never before has a country so diverse, so large, and so expansive set for itself such high goals of self-rule and come so close to them. Other countries might be as democratic or, perhaps, more so; but they are much smaller and much less diverse. Other countries might be large, diverse places; but they have so far proven unable to weave themselves together into a coherent, well-governed whole.

Our reflexive veneration of the Founding Fathers is a testament to their vision, but the truth is that it also ignores just how much we ourselves have expanded the American project. The list of accomplishments is well known to us. We expanded the country across the continent, the franchise throughout the population, and our economic system out to the world. We freed the slaves, reformed the South, tempered the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, and put a man on the moon. The Founding Fathers were at the vanguard, not the apex, of the political philosophy that we are the inheritors of. They cannot have solutions to all our problems because so many of our challenges are new to us and would have been incomprehensible to them. Their guidance lives in their spirit, their values, and their example. But we, like they did, face the future alone.

Slaves planting sweet potato. Also, compelling evidence that the Founding Fathers got some things wrong. For additional information, see 'Civil War'.

Slaves planting sweet potato: compelling evidence that the Founding Fathers got a few things wrong.

To be reminded that we are part of a revolutionary project is to remember that we cannot be complacent about what it will take for that project to succeed. We have to open ourselves to the notion that our common-sense instincts about how to run a country might oftentimes be wrong because running a country like ours is difficult and there’s nothing instinctive about it. If there were, then everyone would be doing it.

One great accomplishment of the first several thousand years of human civilization – through religion, ethics, and moral philosophy – was the realization that our gut-feelings about how to tell right from wrong can lead us astray to terrible effect. The great accomplishment of the enlightenment and the scientific revolution came when we recognized that an understanding of the natural world is only possible once we embraced the limits of our senses and of our intuitions. The world, at every turn, is more complicated than we first imagined. That isn’t elitism, it’s humility.

Above I argued that the politics of performance encourage us to view ourselves as consumers of a conversation. I’d like to argue that what is demanded of us is that we view ourselves instead as citizens; which is to say, as the authors of that conversation. In the end, it’s our country and so we have to give new emphasis to the words ‘government of the people’, and that means underscoring our duties rather than focusing just on the words ‘government for the people’ while narrowly advancing our demands.

Insisting on the right to govern yourself means embracing a healthy respect for just how challenging a task that is. You cannot be satisfied to have your leaders tell you that you already know everything you need to know about running a country because you know how to balance a check book. We have to be wary of politicians who are only willing to tell us what we want to hear and of citizens who are only willing to hear what will validate what they think they already know. That path only leads to demagoguery.

If there’s a way to summarize my argument, it is probably this: intransigence is the product of a retreat from complexity, and a retreat from complexity is the privilege of those who have abdicated personal responsibility for the outcome of a task. I’m guessing no surgeon has ever insisted on acting based on a medical opinion she had failed to examine because she knows she might well kill the patient, yet we have no qualms about demanding the enactment of policies we don’t understand and haven’t examined. But as long as they sound good, and championing them makes us feel good, we’ll give them our support.

When politicians fail it is much easier to blame them than to recognize their failure as evidence that we might be failing ourselves.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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