Fixing Politics?

I’ve heard many pine for a better practice of politics in our society. They’re tired of the gridlock, the bickering, the constant attacks. They want to make progress on issues that “concern us all.”

David Brook’s recent column is along these lines. He starts off with what he calls the “elite solution:”

The next president could get together with the leaders of both parties in Congress and say: “We’re going to change the way we do business in Washington. We’re going to deliberate and negotiate. We’ll disagree and wrangle, but we will not treat this as good-versus-evil blood sport.” That kind of leadership might trickle down.

Some of us are attracted to this kind of solution. We hunger for a fixer, nay, a Messiah, who will come and straighten us out through the use of charismatic authority and wisdom mixed with inherent goodness. I think that’s what Brooks hoped for from our current president. However much we want that kind of leader, and both parties offer fixers from time to time, it’s a dream that passes the buck.

Brooks continues:

In healthy societies, people live their lives within a galaxy of warm places. They are members of a family, neighborhood, school, civic organization, hobby group, company, faith, regional culture, nation, continent and world. Each layer of life is nestled in the others to form a varied but coherent whole.

I don’t know about calling these “warm places,” but that might just be due to my aversion to sentimentality. This minor complaint aside, Brooks is on track here. We do find ourselves inhabiting many sizes and types of overlapping community. By connecting to people in this multiplicity of contexts, we get a sense of “home.”

But the rot set in mid century, just after World War 2, when individualism took over. The desires, wants, opinions of the individual took precedence over any group, displacing multiple forms of traditional community – and the forms of authority that bound them together. As individuals, the most important thing became our rights.

Brooks addresses this pathology through the work of Marc Dunkelman, though he could have done so by looking at Robert Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone. But he’s done that before; it’s time now for a different approach.

He applies Dunkelman’s idea of the collapse of “middle ring relationships:”

With fewer sources of ethnic and local identity, people ask politics to fill the void. Being a Democrat or a Republican becomes their ethnicity. People put politics at the center of their psychological, emotional and even spiritual life.

This is asking too much of politics. Once politics becomes your ethnic and moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor. If you put politics at the center of identity, you end up asking the state to eclipse every social authority but itself. Presidential campaigns become these gargantuan two-year national rituals that swallow everything else in national life.

Yes, we’re stuck with the individual and the state. The desiring individual and the state that proclaims and defends the rights of that individual crowd out the institutions in between. All those institutions, from family, to marriage, to church, to union – and onward – all are oppressive in some way, putting limits on the freedom of the individual. With the accumulation of power at the top, getting to the top and maintaining power there counts for more and more. The Supreme Court has come to matter so much because the justices alone have the authority to override the non-functional legislative branch and enact new rights for individuals.

Brooks concludes:

If we’re going to salvage our politics, we probably have to shrink politics, and nurture the thick local membership web that politics rests within. We probably have to scale back the culture of autonomy that was appropriate for the 1960s but that has since gone too far.

I’m more pessimistic than he is. I think the rise of the individual (over the past 500+ years) has become a juggernaut. We cannot even conceive of setting our individualism aside, even as our other cultural institutions are falling away. Our two major political orientations are both rooted in individualism, though they tend to emphasize different flavors thereof. A third orientation, libertarianism, is more radical still, in its extreme form, cutting off all but the individual. It will take either some sort of cataclysm to change things.

Some – in related contexts – have hoped for a “Benedict Option” – drawing from MacIntyre’s suggestion in After Virtue.  Others have decried this as an ill-conceived withdrawal from society. I’m not a fan of withdrawal, but I’m not seeing anything that convinces me that one can play the game without being co-opted.

What do you think?


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