Sunday, March 10, 2019

Life in a Graceless State

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”).

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.”
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.
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.


Karl Kolchak said...

Another example of just what a pack of bought off, craven cowards today's Ivy League "thinkers" are.

Rules for "fixing Democracy."

Rule #1: End extreme wealth inequality.

Rule #2: If Rule #1 fails, break out the pitchforks and guillotine.

Rural said...

Thanks for that Mound, having been writing about our democracy for around ten years now its good to see that other folks are still as concerned about preserving and improving what we have as it is gradually eroded by the likes of Ford & Trump and many others. That new tribalism you mention in passing is fueled in no small measure in my view by the ease and widespread use of 'social media ' with which any knee jerk reaction to anything is spread and amplified whether accurate or not. The instant communication of today's world has impacted our democratic systems in ways in which we have not yer fully realized, and not necessarily in a positive way.

I shall read the The Economist series with great interest as I reduce my own writings on the subject, it being about much of the same abuse just from different players.

The Mound of Sound said...

Karl, grow up. Just a bit, please?

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Rural. You would have thought our political caste would have responded somehow to polls over the last couple of years suggesting that our young people are becoming less supportive of democracy, failing to see the utility of it (or rather what passes for democracy today) in their own lives.

Climate change, for example, is a stress test for democracy. It's on difficult issues like that, which pose a great threat to our young people, where they can see how reluctant our governments are to really intercede on their behalf.

In my view, we have expunged progressivism from our politics and surely that is the beating heart of democracy, the place where grace and virtue are anchored. Purged of all that, what emerges is a degraded democracy lacking vision and focusing on short term priorities measured in electoral cycles. That's what we have today.

the salamander said...

.. hmm
'political leaders' - fixing something..
Last I looked.. at the broad spectrum of highly diseased 'politics' across North America, that's like thinking 'hope' is an actual strategy.. or the answers like in seeking out your lord & savior. The best arguements rattling around our domicile center on the complete lack of practical solutions being overwhelved by carping MainMedia that caters to neoliberal fantasy and fuckery. Said another way.. a whole lot of whining and blamegame.. no solution suggested or desired. The partisan infighting is the new 'demockracy' - spy versus spy (Mad Magazine for them that not knows)

I can only whine about sidewalks that are not shoveled or plowed if I'm unwilling to just pitch in and just do something about it. So I do. By the way, too .. we have had 4 serious sidewalk falls this winter, two each.. on sidewalks, solar melt, frozen overnight, dusted with podwe snow

On a larger scale we have Pictou, Nova Scotia and the Boat Harour scandal. That entire town needs a Federal buyout. So resell, the Alberta/BC pipeline and divert the funds to Pictou. Immediately close the pulp mill & ensure syncronously shiting all people, business etc into a 'Remediation Based Economy' and local culture. Let nobody miss a paycheck as all directly and indirectly employed on contracting people are dicerted and converted onto remediation. What is the alternative? Keep pumping dioxins, furans, chloride and mercury.. and dumping a million plus litres or gallons of effluent direct from the 'settling lake' to Northumberland Strait to be sucked out on the ebb tide? (they periodically dredge and 'dispose' of toxic sediment elsewhere..)

The point is .. what level of 'political leadership' will be required to accomplish this ??
Extend the scope and scale now.. to say The Alberta Tar Sands aspect of Toxification to Remediation. Or consider the remediation of dead wells in Alberta or in British Columbia. Or that total plus the annual accumulation of more played out or abandoned wells, related pads, frackwater and produced water, access roads, incoming water pipeline, electric power access or generation, pumping stations or collector points. What political leadership on so many public service levels, local, provincial, federal levels can initiate and manage this herculean industry and transition to ??

We mainly are provided political hacks at the provincial and federal levels to consider (or not bother) and/or vote for. We then look after them handsomely. Look at how many multi millionaires have come from The Conservative Party of Canada.. in government or across the House Floor as Opposition.. keep in mind the joint access in caucus, to privileged and/or conflict of interest level information.

If I spent one day per political party, attempting to find the 'political leadership' required to turn this country named Canada around.. or at least wake it up, shake it up, fix it up.. what would I find? Five such exemplars? Ten? I would speculate I could search essentially any other sector than 'politics' and find better 'leadership' with ease.. and in large numbers. The compelling realities described in your post suggest such leaders must be pressed into service.

Anonymous said...

An addendum to Karl's list.

Rule #3: Elect an immoral, boorish trust fund brat whose life has been coddled, with several failed businesses as president and watch him give billionaires more tax cuts who instead of reinvesting in the economy (trickle down theory anyone?) buy more stocks instead. Watch unnecessary tariffs cost domestic businesses billions. Watch the debt skyrocket. See the nation descend into havoc.

Rule #4: Blame the Libs as justification for voting the trust fund brat as president. Continue in that vein.

mr perfect