All or nothing

John Stuart Mill surfs tension. In one chapter of Considerations on Representative Government, he pleads Tocqueville-like for democratic participation, but a couple of chapters later, his distrust of public opinion leads him to something like Hegel’s “universal class” – bureaucracy.1

Hegel thinks bureaucracy is history’s answer to history: bureaucracy’s professional universalism will resolve history’s tribal divisions. Bureaucracy is, admittedly, a bland eschatology, Hegel’s version of clouds and harps. But there’s peace.

Tocqueville’s greatest disciple, on the other hand, describes bureaucracy as “rule by nobody . . . an ever-present danger of any society based on universal equality.” In a bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt warns, “the personal element of ruler-ship has disappeared.”2

Ironically, the authoritarian Hegel gives a better account of today’s federal bureaucracy than the democratic and republican Arendt. The president’s withering attacks on the intelligence services test the universal rule of law. But is the rule of law also “rule by nobody”?

Just as ironically, then, the appeal of Arendt’s republican view of bureaucracy aids Trump. Mueller and the “deep state” (an updated, sinister “rule by nobody”) intelligence agencies have little power against what Hitler approvingly calls “the authority of personality.”3

Nationalism has its own eschatology, and eschatology puts tension to rout. The American government, of course, is built on tension. The Constitution both separates the government’s branches and redefines federalism to create tension. As history’s wave again begins to crest, Americans may choose to destroy their government rather than to endure this tension. Anything for peace.

[Photo of John Stuart Mill]

  1. I here paraphrase Dana Villa observations in his book Public Freedom at 135.
  2. Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics at 77 – 78.
  3. Vokler Ullrich, Hitler:Ascent (1889 – 1939) at 250.

Dénouement

Washing dishes this morning while listening to the HomePod play the New World Symphony. Hannah Arendt isn’t the only one who writes about the new world’s work on the old one’s mind. Reading between Tocqueville’s lines, of course, one learns more about the old world than the new. Democracy in America is about the beholder.

Dana Villa, writing in 2005, resolves his chapter on Tocqueville’s conception of a public sphere akin to “Montesquieu’s pouvoirs intermédiares” with this reversal of fortune:

It is an irony of history that the political conception of civil society Tocqueville introduced to Europe must now be reintroduced to America — from, of all places, a democratic and secular Europe.1

Researching the HomePod, I was sickened by this Apple ad. Our protagonist leaves a cramped public space — she apologizes her way out of an elevator car packed with impersonal shoulder blades — for her small apartment, which she widens with waves of her hand as the HomePod plays a favorite. If our new worlds are private ones, Tocqueville warns, the old world will hunt us down.

Title page of the autograph score of Dvorák’s ninth symphony

  1. Villa, Dana. Public Freedom (2008) at 45, 48.

DO NOT CONGRATULATE

I quit Facebook again. Maybe I’ll stay quit. I’ve seen hashtags encouraging people to quit Facebook. The irony is lost in a snowbank of wishful thinking. I’m not sure Instagram (owned by Facebook), Tumblr or Twitter is any safer or any more scrupulous.

Don’t fix civics class. Fix civics.

The rise of Donald Trump has led to calls to fix high school civics. Some want to change its content, others its delivery, and still others its share of the curriculum. Representing this last view is the Washington Post‘s Colbert I. King, whose column includes this peroration: “The declining civic portion of public education . . . is a threat to our democratic values. It must be addressed, and now. Only a demagogue would argue with that.”

I argue with that.

In Kansas, the Post informs me this morning (we demagogues, unlike our victims, still read the paper), six high school boys are running for governor. The article is full of ironies: the would-be governors aren’t old enough to vote; one candidate, Tyler Ruzich, rushes from a debate to his part-time work as a grocery store cashier; and Ruzich observes that, in Hamilton’s time, “someone my age could be commander of a frigate.”

The article’s climax involves an interchange among two of these candidates, Ruzich and Jack Bergeson, and Soledad O’Brien on her nationally syndicated show. The show is taped the day after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The article implies that the Florida shooting makes O’Brien take the candidates seriously: O’Brien “didn’t ask whether they were old enough to drive.”

Instead, she asks Ruzich about Parkland.

Instead of finding better ways to tell teens the political facts of life, many adults after Parkland have begun to listen to and learn from high school students. As a high school English teacher, I’ve spent years learning from them through their discussions and research papers, most of which address matters of public concern. Now some American students, suddenly in the news, are taking their learning outside the classroom to discover how the kind of argumentation they’ve been trained in, based on facts and reasoning and respect, works in our public realm.

Parkland students were in the galleries when, days after the shooting, Florida’s House of Representatives voted two-to-one not to consider a bill banning the kind of military weapon that mowed down their friends. One Parkland student was photographed covering her mouth as if she were about to sob or vomit. So it goes.

At his hotel with his mom the morning of O’Brien’s show, Ruzich watches Parkland student David Hogg address Florida’s lawmakers on CNN: “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action.”

But most of the action recently has come from the students. They – and we – are up against what Hannah Arendt calls “automatic historical or political processes,” ones that seem both disastrous and inevitable. Yet action – “the work of faith,” as Arendt calls it – can perform miracles to interrupt these processes1:

. . . in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them – men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.2

Man’s civic action stems from his ontological relation to the world, Arendt says: “man is a beginning and a beginner.”3 Because these teens are closer to their beginning than adults are, as I see it, Arendt’s “men” now include boys.

On national television, Ruzich, a Republican, answers O’Brien’s question about gun control:

If I’m making an enemy of the NRA, that’s something I’m kind of proud of, to be honest. I’ve seen what gun violence does. It’s time that we change the rhetoric and the discussion. Because clearly we are too far gone to say it’s a mental illness problem.

The students in Florida and Kansas are not just entering public space; they are creating it.

Our public realm is shrinking. As Philip Gorski puts it, our society believes, with Ronald Reagan, that “the true domain of human freedom [is] the marketplace, not the public square.”4 We are not far behind China in this respect. Our students are trained in civics, but they leave high school or college for the “real world” in which leadership and creativity are not often put to the public’s service but to private gain. American conservatives used to mistrust the modern marketplace – a liberal idea, after all – precisely because it tempted citizens away from republican virtue.

We vaguely believe our democracy is modeled after ancient Athens’s, but we’ve forgotten our civics lessons that informed us about Athenian democracy. It wasn’t just the city’s small size that permitted more participation. After all, Athens became the center of a Greek empire after the Persian Wars, and most places its league conquered became their own democratic poleis. Athenian juries sat not twelve but at least five hundred.5 Any citizen could speak at the general assemblies. In nearly every civic position, Athens had not a single officeholder but a college or a group of magistrates, and the citizens rotated in and out of office annually. These policies were inspired by the Athenians’ fear of tyranny.6 Many Americans believe that a fuller democracy leads to demagoguery and tyranny. But the Athenians reasoned that the greater the democracy, the smaller the chance of tyranny.

Mr. Trump wasn’t elected because of democracy; he was elected because of an institutional check on democracy that gave him the election despite his losing it by almost three million votes.

A lack of democracy causes misinformation, which in turn can lead to tyranny. King cites a study indicating that only a third of American adults in a recent survey could name their country’s vice president. But misinformation that exploits powerlessness is worse than ignorance. Vast numbers of Americans believe, for instance, that Trump won the popular vote and should postpone our next presidential election until he is satisfied that the system is no longer rigged. This isn’t the result of an inadequate civics curriculum. It’s the result of inadequate civics. Our politics is a spectator sport, and a dull one at that. People are susceptible to believing anti-government, “deep state” conspiracies because they feel powerless and invisible.

This invisibility worried John Adams. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, he believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings:

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.7

Of course, Adams’s observations about the poor’s lack of free time apply as well to a large portion of today’s American middle class, which works longer and harder than its counterparts in other industrialized countries. Our emphasis on the marketplace over the public square is costing us.

Compared with today’s America, my public high school is a hotbed of democracy. Its many clubs and teams resemble what Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his 1835 classic Democracy in America. Like most high schools, the cafeteria is broken into cliques, and students must learn how to navigate among them, a great skill in a pluralistic society. Students are inoculated against demagoguery not so much by learning the three branches of government as by learning how to distinguish popularity from friendship and truth. The student-officeholder-to-student ratio is high. When they vote – and they vote in both class and schoolwide elections, and their turnout is near one hundred percent each election – they listen to candidates who are empowered to make changes that affect how students experience high school. Officeholders negotiate with the school administration to realize changes that are outside of their direct control. By the way, the civics classes and teachers are first rate. I saw all of this at my previous high school, too.

How does this high school civics experience apply to the civic responsibilities students face when they graduate from high school or college? We consider an adult a model citizen if she doesn’t dodge jury duty and votes once a year. Is that enough democracy? The students go from practicing democracy in school to becoming mere spectators as adults, and the school’s inoculation against demagogues, in many cases, loses its efficacy.

How can we transplant high school’s civic engagement to our adult world? For one thing, we should seek to shield politics from necessity. We can learn even from the Athenians’ practice of slavery if we understand the institution as a cruel means of conquering necessity, which for the Greeks constituted a private, pre-political sphere. Only Athenian men who had conquered economic necessity could participate in public life. A school tries to insulate students from some aspects of poverty – it institutes clothing drives and free and reduced lunch programs, for instance – in part for the same reason Athens allowed only free men in its polis – so its members can learn and participate without the distraction of necessity, and so the community can have the benefit of their talent and insights. If we believe in equality, then we could take steps to move the poor into the public realm, not because they otherwise wouldn’t be adequately represented but because they otherwise wouldn’t be seen – wouldn’t be fully human in our eyes, despite our idealistic protestations to the contrary. In the private realm, their poverty is measured by their lack of life’s necessities. In the public realm, though, their poverty is measured by their transparency and ultimately by our own commensurate civic poverty.

High school teaches us also to take responsibility for the local. We connect to government if we participate in it. What if we took steps to take responsibility for our subdivisions the way the Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are taking responsibility for their school community? What if the states ceded more power to the local governments, and the local governments more power to the precincts, boroughs, and subdivisions? What if the local mattered again? Edmund Burke may have gotten it right if one applies his idea of the local not to love but to civic friendship and engagement:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.8

We need a revival of local, civic engagement. Our republic, in other words, needs a deeper democracy.

Public space can be created by policy, as the Athenians created it, or by acts of faith, as the members of the French Resistance created it when, as Arendt puts it, “without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute wily-nilly a public realm where – without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe – all relevant business in the affairs of the country were transacted in deed and word.”9

Through action, these students in Kansas and Florida are creating public space. At the risk of sounding like a demagogue, I think we could learn more about democracy from our children.

Feature image: “Philly students #CounselorsNotCops rally” by Joe Piette. Above image: “Student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws” by Lorie Shaull. Both used by permission.

  1. Arendt, Hanna. Between Past and Future, at 166.
  2. Id. at 169.
  3. Id.
  4. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 188.
  5. McInerney, Jeremy. “Athenian Courts and Justice.” The Age of Pericles. www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/age-of-pericles.html.
  6. McInerney, Jeremy. “Democracy and Government.” The Age of Pericles. www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/age-of-pericles.html.
  7. Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279.
  8. Burke, Edmund, quoted in Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, at 359.
  9. Arendt, supra, at 3.

The crisis & the merely urgent

“The old forms rattle, and the new delay to appear.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, February 3, 1861

I remember, years ago, reading Bruce Chadwick’s 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See, a book about the eponymous year, and thinking: they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the war came, and swept them all away.

That book, like my news feed, covers missed clues as well as more reassuring events, such as marriages and economic trends. John Brown’s raid vied for public attention with a nasty economic recession, and I’d be a Monday-morning quarterback not to acknowledge that it must have been hard to sift through all of the merely important news to discern the momentous.

To make it more difficult, the former masks the latter. We’re used to our divisions on issues like women’s rights, gun control, taxes, and the government’s role in health care, and the news about them justifiably garners headlines. Florida’s school shooting last week revived the gun-control debate for a few days; the White House was relieved that the shooting turned the restive social media focus away from the Russia probe and its investigation into one administration threat to our very democracy.

We’re in something like what James Hurst once called the “clove of seasons”: our decades-long, divisive season is not yet dead, but our crisis season has not fully arrived. The political weather on any given day can feel more like chilly division than stormy crisis. It must have felt that way to Americans picking up the newspapers in 1858. And a lot of 1858 is like 2018 so far – a mid-term election year, a deeply divided and incendiary press, a host of conspiracy theories (including Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech), and there’s much evidence of food, drink, and sex. But the similarities aren’t the point. Rather, can we discern the times any better than our forebears given the equal portion of news from the old and new political seasons?

Generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe posit that, every four generations or so, America moves from an “unraveling era” to a civil crisis. It happened around 1858, and over a quarter-century ago Strauss and Howe argued that it would be happening now. The civil crisis, they said, would threaten our national existence. Our civil-crisis news concerns a president who often threatens our press’s freedom – not just by threatening to change the libel laws but also by cooperating with foreign disinformation campaigns – a president who often attacks our country’s intelligence services, a president who refuses to protect the integrity of our electoral system despite the clear and present danger four of our intelligence services conclude that Russia poses to it – indeed, he has attacked the system’s veracity himself by repeatedly claiming without evidence that almost three million illegal aliens voted against him in 2016 – and a president who has, by his own admission, obstructed justice – he has twice admitted to firing the FBI director in order to “fight back” against accusations concerning his and his campaign’s ties to a foreign enemy.

Over the last few generations we’ve had other scandals and cover-ups, of course – Nixon during what Strauss and Howe call our latest age of spiritual renewal and Clinton during the middle of our own unraveling age – but neither previous presidential scandal was as serious and, given the groundwork of our deepening political divisions, more likely to succeed. The members of our intelligence services are in my prayers day and night.

It would be hard to run for Congress this year on just the existential threats, of course. One may be tempted to run as an independent and emphasize the threats, but any attractive third-party movement based on such a strategy may split the vote and result in a Congress that would ignore the president’s threats to our government and Constitution as much as the current Congress does. Countries with united oppositions against would-be tyrants are much better at ridding themselves of them, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt report in their new book How Democracies Die.

One doesn’t have to wait for this fall’s elections, though, to hear the resurgence of the old partisan issues. Over the past few months, it has been difficult for certain “resistance” groups formed in response to the president’s election to maintain a crisis-era focus. In league with the political left, many of these groups now indiscriminately mix unravelling-era issues with crisis-era ones.

Besides, if we think our unravelling-era political opponents are worse than our crisis-era foreign enemies, then we may allow a would-be tyrant to use what James Madison ruefully calls in Federalist 48 “some favorable emergency” to consolidate power – for instance, to make the Justice Department and the FBI loyal to him alone. However, it may not take that much. Given our country’s preference twenty years ago for a strong economy over the well-founded accusations brought by Kenneth Starr against President Clinton, good economic times may give the administration as much cover as an emergency to quash the investigations into its Russia ties.

I acknowledge that, unless things get a lot worse, meeting the crisis probably won’t solve the problems that got us to this point. Indeed, if we don’t resolve our underlying problems, we may face a worse crisis in the future. But avoiding today’s crisis can’t help matters. Politics in the best sense is speech and action. We must practice what we can of politics, or it won’t exist.

I’m not suggesting a choice between the crisis and the merely urgent. It’s a matter of precedence: political existence comes before policy debate. Jesus once castigated the scribes and Pharisees for tithing “mint and anise and cumin” while omitting “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” Jesus made clear that he wasn’t asking these religious leaders not to tithe: “These [weightier matters] ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” We neglect the weightier matters, too, by involving ourselves only in matters that in a less dangerous political age would be of the first moment.

Right now, political practice involves triage. We’re in need of political triage and the discernment it requires.