The Economist has launched a new series, "How to fix democracy."
In the opener, Cass Sunstein, of Harvard law school, considers the rise of the age of political savagery.
DEMOCRACIES DEPEND for their stability on four things. First, well-functioning institutions. Second, the delivery of good or at least decent outcomes for most citizens. Third, norms of reciprocity and forbearance. And fourth, certain character traits among both officials and citizens. While the four are closely connected, the last is the most fundamental.Sunstein argues that grace, the pursuit of virtue, is the very foundation of liberal democracy. Today, personal grace is endangered by political savagery.
James Madison, the principal thinker behind the American Constitution, focused mostly on institutional design. But in the Virginia Ratifying Constitution, he went in a different direction, and offered a kind of cri de coeur: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure.”
...In his second inaugural address, delivered near the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln might well have been expected to speak in Manichean terms. Instead he offered a clear demonstration of political grace, which he modeled it for all to see. Lincoln avoided any kind of triumphalism. He did not treat Southerners as enemies. His closing sentence began this way: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” He projected humility and a sense of his own fallibility (“as God gives us to see the right”).Read the comments section of a political story in any major news source and you'll see precious little sign of the "better angels of our nature." What is on display is the widespread breakdown of social cohesion, a new tribalism fueled by anger, fear and paranoia, a political Lord of the Flies. As I have discussed in several posts this is no accident. We have been groomed to become this divided and, through our division, deeply weakened as a society. In America we are witnessing a society more deeply riven than at any time since the Civil War.
Emphasising what all of us share, which is mortality, Lincoln asked the nation “to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” In so saying, he echoed his first inaugural address, in which he proclaimed, “We are not enemies, but friends,” and prophesied that “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone,” would “swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Then as now, the risk of disintegration manifested itself in a kind of Manichaeism, in which citizens see the forces of good as pitched against the forces of evil. In such societies, the only real question, asked about essentially everything, is this: Which side are you on? That question invites personal and political savagery. It makes self-government impossible.And in this engineered reality of division and hostility, grace is imperiled.
In democratic politics as in daily life, grace tends to produce more of the same. It embodies a commitment to empathy. Gracious winners do not crow or accuse. For that reason, grace makes political compromise possible. Even more important, it makes political learning possible. When people see each other as fellow citizens rather than as enemies, they are more likely to attend not only to different judgments about facts, but also to different moral commitments. Manichaeism becomes difficult or even impossible. It looks thin and tinny, infantile, even pathetic.
In politics as well as in daily life, savagery has the opposite effect. If members of one political party cry “lock her up” about a political opponent, we have something approaching a declaration of war. If a nation’s president repeatedly calls the press “The Enemy of the People” and a purveyor of “Fake News,” a core democratic commitment is under assault (and members of the press might face physical danger). If political leaders describe those who disagree with them as traitorous or disloyal, or as beholden to “the banks” or to “millionaires and billionaires,” their targets will be tempted to respond in kind. The temptation might prove impossible to resist, producing a cycle of savagery. That cycle can undermine norms and ultimately institutions.Sunstein's conclusion - we need change, starting at the top.
...It is crucial for political leaders to tackle the problem of savagery head-on—and treat it as urgent. Instead of telling their opponents that they are traitors or fools or hypocrites, or in someone’s pocket, or indifferent to the nation’s welfare, they can address the merits of competing proposals, assuming good faith. They can refrain from attacking people’s motives. Political parties can promote politicians who play by those rules, and call out or diminish the authority of those who do not. The media can give less attention to sensational accusations and more attention to what really matters, which is the likely effects of policies on people’s lives.
Whatever the short-term incentives of those who are involved in politics and democratic debate, they need to listen to the better angels of their nature. They must aspire to grace.