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.