Our devotion to the underlying ideal

We like to curse “politics” and “politicians,” and no doubt some of the bastards deserve it. But the simple truth is we’re social beings, which means we’re political beings, and that means politics is always part of the equation. It’s just part of who we are; it’s part of how the world turns for humanity. So look in the mirror: politics and politicians are just reflections of us, of you, of me. As David Foster Wallace wrote: “Our leaders, our government is us, all of us, so if they’re venal and weak it’s because we are.”

The Founders of this country, especially Madison and Hamilton, were clear-eyed about our deeply flawed (i.e. pathetically self-interested) human nature and so they helped design a Constitutional Republic that’s institutions provided checks on individual and/or party ambition. Power was purposely diffused. This process encouraged coalition building, another word for bipartisanship, among legislators as they try to reach a deal. In a liberal democracy, like the United States, where individual rights and the rule of law are sacred, this is a critical element in successful democratic self-governance.

The underlying ideal of liberal democracy is that differences are settled by laws, by process, by ballots not bullets, by elections not war. The southern states broke faith with the ideal in 1861 and it cost the nation over 600,000 lives and the destruction of the southern economy and many southern cities. The underlying ideal, at its core, is the belief that after all the arguments and rhetoric and shouting and nonsense, in the end, we settle the contest by law, by process, by elections. There’s no appeal to the results of a free and fair election. The people have rendered their verdict…for now. Those who lost have the next election for an appeal to the voters.

The underlying ideal means if you want to enact a public policy or a change in public leadership you have to engage in the tough work of persuading the voters. That IS democracy in action. Intimidating and threatening election officials, lying about election results, enacting voter suppression laws, aren’t acts of people trying to persuade, but of those betraying the underlying ideal for their self-interested ideology, for raw power. These acts are anti-democratic and are meant to be so.

I’ve struggled with maintaining a positive attitude given incredible breach of faith in the underlying ideal by many on the political right these days. Nothing good can come of it for them, their constituents, or our democracy. And yet! I do believe there are enough people devoted—on all sides—to the underlying ideal that we’ll slowly work our way through these turbulent times, preserve our great democracy, and, I pray, our continued faith in the underlying ideal.

Bruce Catton has an excellent quote about politics and democracy that I think says it very well:

Politics works at a high price and operates at the lowest common denominator of what exists in the hearts of the people—which means the hearts of you and me. There is cowardice there, often enough, and meanness, and petty selfishness, and politics has to take them into account. Yet those same hearts contain courage and nobility and faith, and in the last analysis the good outweighs the bad. We live by politics. We do various hopelessly inefficient things, we waste enormous amounts of strength and energy, we compromise everything but the underlying ideal—but because at bottom there is an underlying devotion to that ideal, we keep on living.

Reinhold Niebuhr

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

— Reinhold Niebuhr

The Blessings of Liberty

Recently I came across this great sentence in a book by Timothy Synder:

Our politics are too much about the curse of pain and too little about the blessings of liberty.

There is so much in that short sentence to unpack. Our politics is filled with too many grievance mongers and selfish, dishonest applause seekers instead of people trying to solve real problems and improve the lives of our citizenry. The blessings of liberty are about a free people coming together, working together, through their natural disagreements, finding compromise, and finding solutions through the democratic process. History reminds us that oligarchy, autocracy, chaos, and civil strife are the rule and democracy, peace, and the blessings of Liberty the exception.

What we need right now is more humility, grace, intelligence, and compassion and less of the dark, greedy, selfish, tribal hatreds from the curse-of-pain crowd that are always seeking attention and stoking fear. In this brief moment of history we have the blessings of Liberty and self governance and a way of life only dreamed of by millions of souls who came long before us across the great span of human history.

We need to constantly remind ourselves of this.

Opposing tyranny in whatever form it presents itself

Winston Churchill:

I will not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazi-ism, I would choose Communism. I hope not to be called upon to survive in the world under a Government of either of those dispensations….It is not a question of opposing Nazi-ism or Communism; it is a question of opposing tyranny in whatever form it presents itself.

Toward Functional Immunity

Katherine J. Wu:

Eventually, all discussions about sterilizing immunity [Ability to totally prevent infection] become nerdy quibbles over semantics. Clearly, not every infection is clinically meaningful, or even logistically detectable, given the limits of our technology—nor do they need to be, if there’s no sickness or transmission. (A koan for pandemic times: If a microbe silently and inconsequentially copies itself in a tissue, and the body doesn’t notice, did it actually infect?) There is, for every pathogen, a threshold at which an infection becomes problematic; all the immune system has to do is suppress its rise below this line to keep someone safe.

But that might be exactly the point. Say that sterilizing immunity is impossible, that our immune systems cannot, in fact, be trained to achieve perfection. Then it’s neither a surprise nor a shortcoming that COVID-19 vaccines, or other vaccines, don’t manage it: An inoculation that guards marvelously well against disease—offering as much protection as it can—can still end an outbreak. Life would certainly be easier if vaccines offered invincible armor, with pathogens simply ricocheting off. But they don’t, and assuming or expecting them to manage that can be dangerous. The dubiousness of sterilizing immunity is a reminder that just about any immune response can be overwhelmed, if exposures are heavy and frequent enough, Grad told me. The best we can all hope for is functional immunity, more like a flame retardant than a firewall, that still keeps bad burns at bay.