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History, philosophy, and political hope

Politics in general is all about how to develop, sustain, and revise institutions, practices, and policies that bind individuals together productively and that point toward more fulfilling individual and joint futures for them. Debates about how best to do this are natural. Should the US become yet more aggressively libertarian-individualist, or should a substantial social compact that enforces terms of fair cooperation via significant redistribution be instituted? Should the UK embrace European social democratic values and relations, or should it stand on its Anglo-Saxon distinctiveness?

These important questions are increasingly addressed, however, in the absence of significant, articulate knowledge of political ideals that historically have informed political life. As a result, debates about these questions are typically shriller and less productive than they could and should be. Various forms of nativism and populism supplant more considered deliberations, for good enough reasons, as individuals and subpopulations come to be and to feel disenfranchised from political and economic business-as-usual.  In a 15 May 2016 New York Times opinion piece, the economic historian Michael Lind reports that “A 2016 Presidential Election Survey by the RAND Corporation revealed that the single factor that best predicted voter support for Donald Trump among likely Republican voters was not income, education, race, gender or attitudes toward Muslim or illegal immigration, but agreement with the statement ‘people like me don’t have any say.’”  Globalization and the degradations of the powerful are increasing political and economic disenfranchisement throughout the industrialized world. Disenchantment then produces anger, for good reasons. Presciently, and echoing Plato’s criticisms of democracy (though not his proposals to abolish it), the philosopher Richard Rorty suggested in 1997 in Achieving Our Country that

“members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers–themselves desperately afraid of being downsized–are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for–someone willing to assure them that once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots…

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

The demand for an outlet for resentment and anger is being exploited by so-called anti-system politicians and parties, including Trump and Sanders in the US, Marie LePen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK, Beppo Grillo in Italy, and the Syriza Party in Greece. Whether from the left or the right, the watchword is “tear it down,” not “build it up.”

One way to begin to reverse these developments and to enrich political debates is to consider detailed accounts of political-ideals-as-lived that have been articulated and argued for by major philosophers who are sensitive to the values all at once of individualism, responsibility, political equality, economic security, rich joint meaningful life, and ongoing critical thought, as commitments to these values have been lived out against the backgrounds of religious and philosophical traditions. Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin are two thinkers of exactly this kind. Each of them eloquently asked and answered the question, “What may we hope for?,” and each of them answered it by taking seriously both political ideals and available historical possibilities that might be seized.  Working through their partly complementary, partly opposed ideas about the historical achievement of value within joint political life might help us to develop richer images of political maturity and help us toward more productive public political debate. As Michael Lind concluded his essay, “If we want to avert the sense of powerlessness among voters that fuels demagogy, the answer is not less democracy…, but more.” Reading Kant and Benjamin together and subjecting their accounts to reflective comparison and criticism can help us to cultivate a more genuine, informed, reflective democracy and, thus, to give life and depth to political hope.

Featured image: US Capitol Building at night Jan 2006 by Diliff. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Lyall Watson

    The irony of this article is that you allow someone like Richard Rorty to go on and on without any sort of political or social rejoinder. Rorty himself is perfectly representative of the “postmodernist professors” that he claims are the targets of the “badly educated Americans”. His undisguised contempt not just for the BEA’s but for anything conservative is enough for me to shout down his smug utterances anytime and for all time.

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