How important is the Supreme Court?

In 1831, two young Frenchmen visited America, charged by their government with investigating the American prison system. They finished in nine months. They also spent those months months investigating “all the mechanisms of this vast American society,” as the leader of the pair, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it (Tocqueville vi). The result is Democracy in America, a book that implicitly critiques the French government and society of Tocqueville’s time through its largely favorable review of American government and society.

One American institution that struck the twenty-five-year-old de Tocqueville as quite different from anything in Europe was the United States Supreme Court. He was amazed: the Supreme Court can tell the rest of the American government what to do. By contrast, all European governments, no matter their form, show “the greatest repugnance to allow the cases to which it was itself a party to be decided by the ordinary course of justice” (123). He pointed out that, unlike European tribunals, when the Supreme Court hears cases between, say, New York and Ohio, it “summons sovereign powers to its bar.” And although Tocqueville didn’t mention it, he might have added that the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison settled early on that the Supreme Court has the authority to declare acts of Congress invalid if it finds that they are without Constitutional basis. In Tocqueville’s time, this kind of authority in the hands of an independent judiciary was unknown in other modern societies.

Tocqueville was so taken with the Supreme Court’s role that he felt that its reputation and preservation were more important than that of the other two federal branches of government, the presidency and Congress. Yet, more than the other two branches, the court was also more subject to injury from popular disdain. The justices are the “all-powerful guardians of a people which respects law; but they would be impotent against popular neglect or popular contempt,” he claimed, pointing out that the Supreme Court must act consistently with the nation’s understanding of the rule of law (124). We, on the other hand, often see our Supreme Court as the least important of the three branches and, because of the justices’ lifetime appointments, the least subject to adverse popular opinion.

We have some good authority to support our view. Tocqueville’s equally famous countryman, the political philosopher Montesquieu who lived a century before Tocqueville, thought courts were inherently powerless. Montesquieu influenced the framers of the American Constitution by updating the Roman notion of separation of powers, giving us the executive, judicial, and bicameral legislative branches we recognize today. In so doing, however, Montesquieu claimed that the the judicial branch is “in some measure next to nothing” (Huntington 392). After all, nobody (we would say today) comes to a game to see the umps.

Which Frenchman is right? Is the United States Supreme Court the most or least important branch of American government?

In exploring this question, it may be helpful to make two distinctions. The first is between power and function, and the second is between power and authority. Clarifying those three terms may suggest how the framers understood sovereignty and the rule of law as well as the Supreme Court’s role in maintaining this understanding.

We generally think of the Constitution as balancing three primary governmental functions. The Constitution separates functions, however, only to the extent that such a balance of functions achieves the document’s greater goal — a separation and balance of powers. The Constitution is designed to keep sovereignty away from any single part of government, whether it be a branch of the federal government or whether it be the states vis-a-vis the federal government. For instance, as American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington pointed out, “the judicial power to declare what law is became the mixed judicial-legislative power to tell the legislature what the law cannot be” (393 – 394). The Supreme Court also has a quasi-executive role since it can pass on the constitutionality of many executive decisions, such as the suspension of habeas corpus or the issuance of executive orders. The Constitution gives the court more than a judicial function in order to balance some of the powers the Constitution acknowledges.

This sharing of functions to create a true balance of power isn’t a modern invention. In fact, Huntington argued that the American government’s separation of powers is a holdover from the late medieval period before the rule of law began to be replaced by the rule of men. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the nations of continental Europe placed their sovereignty in kings while the English Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution eventually caused sovereignty to be placed in Parliament. The American colonists, however, kept to Tudor-era notions of the supremacy of common and natural law. As British historian Albert Pollard pointed out, “Americans instinctively revolted against the doctrine of the sovereignty of the State” (Huntington 388). At the time of the American Revolution, Americans were still resisting the modern “tendencies toward the substitution of sovereignty for law,” as Huntington put it (386). Americans kept Elizabethan notions of law, just as the the residents of the Chesapeake Bay’s Tangier Island retain certain Elizabethan speech patterns.

It would be helpful to define both sovereignty and the rule of law. Sovereignty, the jurist Jean Bodin says, is the notion that there is “a supreme power over citizens and subjects, unrestrained by law” (Huntington 384). Sovereignty, then, is the assertion of power over others, a concept that political theorist Hannah Arendt said hinders freedom: “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce” (Arendt, Between, 163). The rule of law, however, is the opposite of sovereignty. The rule of law is not to be confused with “law and order”; indeed, the significance of rule of law is in its scope and not its force or strength. Political Theorist Francis Fukuyama defines the rule of law as “rules that are binding even on the most politically powerful actors in a given society” (11). In other words, the scope of law must bind even kings and Parliaments. The American founders held to notions of natural law — law that is discovered by man but not generated by him — precisely to counter modern notions of sovereignty.

This idea of rule of law as exercising something like sovereignty points to the distinction alluded to earlier between power and authority. Power includes coercion, but Arendt said that authority cannot be equated with or rely on coercion — or, for that matter, even persuasion. In fact, she said that “practically as well as theoretically, we are no longer in a position to know what authority really is” (Arendt, Between, 92 – 93). She described where the political idea of authority came from — the founding of Rome — and she described also how the Roman Senate, even when it had no power, was consulted by Rome’s powerful rulers for its blessing on legislative or executive measures. The Roman Senate was the guardian of Rome’s founding, and its task was to measure every governmental action against that founding (120 – 122). That gives us some notion of what authority is even if the West no longer generally experiences it, as Arendt suggested.

Where, then, did authority in the West go when Rome fell? The Catholic Church took on the Roman Senate’s role; Arendt was fond of quoting a pope writing to an emperor at the end of the fifth century: “Two are the things by which this world is chiefly ruled: the sacred authority of the Popes and the royal power” (126). This pope-king tandem lasted in the West for over a thousand years, Arendt asserted, but it collapsed during the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. One can infer this collapse in the preoccupation with governmental legitimacy in the writings of the period’s political thinkers. Political theorist Alexander S. Rosenthal pointed out that Richard Hooker’s question “‘what conditions make the power to rule legitimate?’ became particularly important in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (107). Arendt believed that governments since then have frequently resorted to force — to power — as a tragic means of compensating for their lack of authority.

One modern institution attracted Arendt’s attention because of its authority, however — the American Supreme Court. Its lack of power and its lifetime appointments make it “the true seat of authority in the American Republic” (Arendt, Revolution, 192). She compared the Supreme Court directly with the Roman Senate, pointing out this small distinction: instead of giving political advice, the Supreme Court gives legal interpretations (193). She approved of Woodrow Wilson’s characterization of the court as “‘a kind of Constitutional Assembly in continuous session’” (192). The Supreme Court, then, gives the government and statutes the authority generated by the Declaration of Independence’s signers and the Constitution’s framers at our nation’s founding.

The Supreme Court’s powerlessness and its authority mean, of course, that both Montesquieu and Tocqueville are right. To maintain its authority — and thereby to maintain the entire government’s authority — the Supreme Court must not make mistakes regarding fundamental law that would undermine its standing with the American people. As Tocqueville warned, “If the supreme court is ever composed of imprudent men or bad citizens, the Union may be plunged into anarchy or civil war” (124). He was right: within twenty years of Democracy in America’s publication, the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision helped to bring about the American Civil War.

When the Supreme Court adjudicates, it must consider its function as the source of our federal government’s authority. If it fails to rule in accordance with the Constitution and natural law — i.e., in accordance with the rule of law — it will cause a large segment of the American people to lose their trust not only in the judicial branch but in our entire system of government.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Penguins Books, 2006.

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Penguin, 2009.

Fukuyama, Francis. Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Huntington, Samuel P. “Political Modernization: America vs. Europe.” World Politics, vol. 18, no. 3, 1966, pp. 378–414. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2009762.

Rosenthal, Alexander S. Crown Under Law. Lexington, 2008.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Edited by Isaac Kramnick, W.W. Norton, 2008.

Lost in ironic detachment

When Barack Obama last month came out of his brief retirement, he gave a speech expanding on his famous stump maxim, “Don’t boo. Vote.” His new list of don’ts leading up to “vote” includes “Don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment.” Yet such a loss is one way to understand the Christian gospel. Without it, I wouldn’t vote.

Irony is not cynicism, its lazy first cousin. In the public realm, irony is the essence of justice. The Psalms, the prophets, and the Sermon on the Mount all speak of justice in ironic terms. When Samuel is born, the formerly barren Hannah proclaims that “The bow of the mighty is shattered, but those-who-stumble are girded with strength” (1 Sam. 2:4 Fox). Jesus’ birth leads to similar strains in Mary’s song: “He has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places” (Luke 1:52 NAB). Isaac, which means “laughter,” is named when his old, barren mother laughs at the suggestion that she would conceive him. And God himself laughs: “He who is throned in heaven laughs,” we are told, at princes who conspire against him (Psalms 2:1-4 NAB). Reinholt Niebuhr, quoting this verse in The Irony of American History, hears in God’s ironic laughter the possibility of earthly justice.

All of these birth stories – those of Isaac, Moses, Samuel, Jesus, and others – involve ironic justice precisely because every man and woman is a living irony, or as Hannah Arendt puts it, “man is a beginning and a beginner.” The miracle of each person’s birth, Arendt says, challenges the “automatic processes [that] can only spell ruin to human life.”1 Pharaoh, Eli’s sons, and Herod all seek to swallow the future into the present by monopolizing the public world – as it were, by supressing the vote.

Private man wishes only that a state apparatus not impede the private sector, and he asks the state to impartially adjudicate among private concerns like his own. But this utilitarian understanding of justice could – and did – operate in such realms as the Third Reich, which eliminate the public.

Irony is the first step back to a true public square. Its justice doesn’t merely decide between private, atomized disputants. Instead, it recognizes the claims of entire communities (Rowan Williams’s “trade unions, ethnic and cultural groups, co-operative societies, professional guilds . . . and, of course, churches and faith groups”2; Tocqueville’s “political associations”3) to a public life. A state apparatus alive to irony becomes, in Williams’s words, “a reliable and creative ‘broker’ of the concerns of the communities that make it up.”4 This “ironic detachment” leads me to members of groups I don’t belong to that are neglected or misused by cruel and automatic processes.

Irony is the midwife of the gospel’s second birth. I am David, whose righteous indignation against a rich thief leads the prophet Nathan to charge, “You are that man.” I am the Roman Christian warned by Paul: “You that judge do the same thing.” The second birth discovers my sense of justice contorted and privatized. Christ’s invitation echoes the psalmist’s and Hannah’s ironic justice: “He who seeks only himself brings himself to ruin, whereas he who brings himself to nought for me discovers who he is” (Matthew 10:39 NAB). My discovery of myself is only possible by living for another – for Christ both in God and in others. Biblical conversion, therefore, insists on a public world. Or as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “our discernment of God is at the breaking points in human community.”5

The irony is, had I not left home, the Democrats would control Virginia’s lower legislative chamber today. My parents’ district last year was decided by a coin toss following a tie vote, and the toss gave the Republicans their one-seat majority. To round out my claim to abdicated power: I keep up with my home town’s politics, I always vote, and I was inclined to support the Democrat.

Yet the prevalence of such anecdotes does nothing to increase voter participation. Why? People stay home on election day not because their vote won’t decide an election. They stay home because of “automatic processes.” They stay home because their home is their only world.

  1. Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, at 166 – 169.
  2. Williams, Rowan, Faith in the Public Square, at 49.
  3. Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, Norton ed. at 154-160.
  4. Williams, Rowan, supra, at 80.
  5. Brueggemann, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination, at 16.

This year’s assigned book

I assign all Americans but a single book a year, and they must discuss it with their neighbors as part of an effort to reconstitute the local. I don’t think this is too much to ask. (Past assigned works have included Reinhold Niebuhr‘s The Irony of American History, James Baldwin‘s Notes of a Native Son, James Agee and Walker Evans‘s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Hannah Arendt‘s Between Past and Future.) This year’s book is the first new release ever assigned: Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

I must love this author

I find most of my books while reading other books’ footnotes. Winton Solberg’s 1958 book The Federal Convention and the Formation of the Union, which came in the mail yesterday, is the latest example. I discovered it while rereading Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book On Revolution. Arendt cites Solberg’s book four times in her footnotes.

She sites him enough to tell me that she’s a magpie of a researcher. A main point here, an inference Solberg never made there, and an overall appreciation for the writer in all four notes. Her sources seem fewer and better considered than most academics’ sources. Her appreciation reminds me that all books are commonplace books; some are just better footnoted.

As I thumbed through this first-edition Solberg, which I got for pennies over the Internet (plus shipping), I thought about Arendt’s reading of Solberg. It occurred to me, pacing in my little library, that I was holding a copy of the very edition Arendt had held. And in a sudden bout of reverence, I almost dropped the book.

Displacement

We may be dreaming of great acts of displacement while failing to notice in the displacements of our own lives the first indications of God’s presence.

– Henri Nouwen

When I woke up day after Helsinki, I wanted to act. So I made a sign and took it to the White House.

There I met two women who had woken up the same way. They had met as I met them: their signs had served as signals. The three of us became a fast people.

We would separate, walking along the fences, and return. When things were quieter, we told one another something of our stories. We were heckled a little, not much. Many tourists, mostly from overseas, took pictures of their families standing with us. After a couple of hours, when it started to rain, we turned again to one another. “I’m coming tonight. Are you?” And we left.

I thought of the big tree in whose branches refugees from the town found one another in Capote’s The Grass Harp. I thought of Henri Nouwen: “Displacement is not primarily something to do or to accomplish, but something to recognize.”1 And Hannah Arendt’s concept of freedom in action separated, ultimately, from its consequences.2 And Rosa Parks, and all the Rosa Parks before and after her who were stoned and sawn asunder.

We didn’t see one another at the big rally that night. The big rally was kind of like a big rally. An overseas media outlet interviewed me. There were television cameras, a short speech, chants, a longer talk that, with its pacifying drone, frustrated the crowd. The rally was purposeful and strategic, as necessary in its way as the senseless act of faith.

Then I waited for the train home. Another woman sat beside me on a concrete bench and put her own sign at her feet. When the train came, we walked into separate cars.

  1. Nouwen, Henri. Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, p. 145.
  2. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, pp. 166 – 167.

Being and politics

Paul Manafort helped [former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych] to pursue a “Southern strategy” for Ukraine reminiscent of the one that his Republican Party had used in the United States: emphasizing cultural differences, making politics about being rather than doing.1

– Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom (2018)

If politics is speech and action, as Hannah Arendt claims, then Nixon’s and Manafort’s strategies weren’t politics at all. For Arendt, there is no “politics of being.”

Arendt also wouldn’t like today’s “identity politics,” the liberal version of the conservative politics of being, even though this liberal mix of being and politics demands action instead of inaction.

While true politics (and timely action or inaction) is not being, it must be rooted in being. Politics’ roots are ontological: equality is political identity since it points to each person’s relationship with others before God.

But equality on paper is not what equality leads to, which is suffering and (eventually) maturity. A culture that recognizes maturity generally adopts lively, long-lasting politics and political institutions.

Immaturity is another term for the false self. The immature man puts pieces of himself together to serve as identity much as a child puts pieces of the world together to create generalities. This inductive reasoning eventually succeeds in putting the functional world together but doesn’t lead to maturity — that is, to true identity. Only suffering does.

To bring maturity, suffering must have two components, permission and pain. Both permission and pain were present in the word “suffer” during King James’s reign. In the Bible James commissioned, Jesus bids his disciples to “suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.” Jesus himself is made “perfect through sufferings.” Though both of these uses of “suffer” involve both permission and pain, the former use emphasizes permission, and the latter use emphasizes pain. The opening we give to the universe when it waits at our door, peddling pain, and our long, fitful intercourse with this visitor, bring maturity.

I leave out how love figures in this.

The kingdom of God, like Arendt’s politics, is action. The action comes from maturity (i.e., true identity). God’s kingdom is the model for civil government and the authority for legitimate civil government. Other visions of politics, like Nixon’s and Manafort’s, are groundless imitations that keep us asleep on the couch.

Republican virtues, like private virtues, are important, but only if they get us off the couch and to the door when the universe calls. Virtue only prepares us for transformation.  We have to be not what we thought we were to see the kingdom of God. And we need a few such men and women to lead the rest of us to virtue, which itself is but a path to our own front door.

  1.  Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (pp. 141-142). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

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.

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.

What are we fighting for?

Hannah Arendt doesn’t claim to be a philosopher, political or otherwise. I agree: no philosopher can be such a prose stylist. I read philosophy, too, but philosophy seems to be about tearing down and rebuilding foundations, and I stumble among all the forms and footers. I like the tone of Locke, Kant, and Hobbes, though. For all their precision and rhetorical rebar, I find a passion that gets below the frost line.

I’ve always read for tone even when comprehension escapes me. When I was thirteen, I read The Brothers Karamazov and Tom Jones for tone alone, I believe, because for years all I could remember of them was their respective tones. I liked the passion that pushed Dostoevsky’s tragic pen and Fielding’s comedic one, but I can’t say I could have analyzed them well, for what that would have been worth.

Arendt reads philosophers for tone, too. In a beautifully developed metaphor, she compares the tone in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, and the rest of the big-name philosophers since Machiavelli to “children whistling louder and louder because they are whistling in the dark.” These men are a few steps ahead of us in this darkness, she believes: they understand before we do the ramifications of the loss of tradition and authority (the darkness is this loss) in Western politics due to the separation of church and state, itself due (in part) to the scientific revolution. (This separation ended a successful marriage of princely power and Papal authority that had begun in the fourth century. Of course, this marriage itself was one of convenience, coming as it did when Rome was losing its political authority, and I think for most of a millennium there were separate bedrooms.) In Arendt’s darkness metaphor, the break didn’t scare our big-name philosophers, but the darkness’s silence did. What will life be like when the silence gives way? We live after “the thunder of the eventual explosion” – Stalin and Hitler, presumably – so we can “hardly listen any longer to the overloud, ‘pathetic’ style” in the philosophers’ writing.1

What’s even more frightening for Arendt than Hitler and Stalin is what gives rise to them and what is still not addressed. She finishes her metaphor: the thunderous exigencies of the recent past – and of the present, we may now add – have “also drowned the preceding ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not ‘What are we fighting against’ but ‘What are we fighting for?’”2 We are against bureaucracy, white supremacy, and plutocracy, nationalism and fascism, but confusion reigns whenever we ask ourselves the latter question, as we must. We have quick answers, but they’re the stuff of coalitions, not of foundations. To read Arendt is to join her in exploring the silence.

Arendt has taught me not to blame the philosophers, with the possible exception of Plato. (More on him, perhaps, in another post.) These men intuited the problem and explored solutions, all of which Arendt believes failed. But if one views their proposals as theories, and if one further defines “theories” as that term was understood before the scientific revolution (“a system of reasonably connected truths which as such had been not made but given to reason and the senses,” and not the later “working hypothesis, changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it ‘reveals’ but on whether it ‘works’”3), then the philosophers are helpful. I can’t blame Hegel for Hitler or Marx for Lenin and Stalin.

Nor can I blame Ivan on Smerdyakov, much as I still love The Brothers Karamazov. And I no longer blame Smerdiakov on German historicism, bad as it is. Arendt is a better political theorist than Dostoyevsky.

Arendt – not a philosopher but a political theorist – is the philosophers’ supporter and friend. (She was also, of course, for four years Martin Heidegger’s lover.) She takes in centuries of philosophy – and history and literature, concerning which she’s also no slouch – and explains how the philosophers call and answer one another over time and space. I would be as good at understanding these communications as I would be at decrypting whale talk. She may touch on current events – she may write a book on German and Soviet totalitarianism and another on Eichmann – but all of her books, topical or otherwise, synthesize theory and history and speak to our present political predicament better than do our own commentators.

Our news commentary is, of course, shallow and divided, and it’s worse for having for its never-changing subject such a figure as our president. If today’s political climate were as funny as those desperate sketches on SNL insist it is, I’d read Fielding again. Tom Jones, a protean force, illegally shoots a partridge in one chapter, and the entire next chapter is given over to Tom’s schoolmaster and his family’s friend contextualizing the killing within their narrow, longstanding, competing, and futile political worldviews. In the succeeding chapters, of course, Jones, oblivious to the subtleties of such debates, is off on more misadventures.

William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

Fielding’s two commentators, “Mr. Thwackum the Divine” and “Mr. Square the Philosopher,” roughly represent the views of today’s two-party system. One could read Tom Jones as an early warning about what Arendt calls “the rise of political movements intent upon replacing the party system.”4 And one can read Thwackum and Squire any time on any number of news outlets, left and right.

Arendt is above – or, rather, beneath – all that. She writes in the spirit of Goethe, who compared the West’s political world to a big city:

Like a big city, our moral and political world is undermined with subterranean roads, cellars, and sewers, about whose connection and dwelling conditions nobody seems to reflect or think; but those who know something of this will find it much more understandable if here or there, now or then, the earth crumbles away, smoke rises out of a crack, and strange voices are heard.5

If political philosophers create foundations, then Arendt inspects them. She nods when we’re together and I see more smoke.

I’ve had lots of literary companions over the years, mostly for my private sphere. Now that the night’s thunder is reverberating again in our public world, I’m finding new poets, historians, theorists, and spiritual writers to walk in the dark with me. My favorite literary companion, though, is Arendt.

If you take me up on reading Arendt – perhaps by giving up political commentary for Lent (and to that limited extent re-coupling church and state) – you might start with something more concrete and topical, such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann on Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and On Revolution (mostly about the United States, Arendt’s new home after escaping Nazi Germany). Then move to Between Past and Future, the scariest and most hopeful book I may have ever read outside of scripture. The chapter on education is hardly worth reading, but I’ve read much of the rest of it four or five times so far. I’ve started another collection of Arendt essays cobbled together twenty years ago by Jerome Kohn, Arendt’s literary trustee, entitled The Promise of Politics. Promise serves as an understudy for Between Past and Future, and it fills in a lot of the historical and philosophical blanks the more lively and daring Between Past and Future leaps over.

Finally, I can’t recommend Richard J. Bernstein’s book Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? enough, though I’ve never read it. It won’t be released until June. But considering the title and the author, it should be good. At only 110 pages, Why Read will be on my nightstand, the Lord willing, with Timothy Snyder’s diminutive On Tyranny, not to mention Arendt’s Between Past and Future, the holy scriptures, and by then who knows what else.

[Featured image: “Storm” by rod amaru. Used by permission.]

  1. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future (1968), at 27.
  2. Id.
  3. Id. at 39.
  4. Id. at 91.
  5. Goethe, quoted in Arendt, Hanna, The Promise of Politics (2005), at 41.

Arendt on walking out that door

Why do some recent writers lump Hannah Arendt with the liberals? She castigates liberalism. She thinks twentieth-century liberalism’s wish to further divorce religion from politics works against its goal of freedom. Liberals see any setback to progress as a threat of totalitarianism, she says, while conservatives are more apt to care about distinctions among authoritarian regimes, tyrannies, and totalitarian states — distinctions that she also cares a great deal about.

Arendt is not even a Lockean liberal. She understands classical liberalism as she does Christian and Jewish teaching: life is the highest ideal. But she calls concerns about life “pre-political” — they must be addressed before we walk out the door each morning into a public realm in which “not life but the world is at stake.”

Arendt is pre-Locke, a democrat — small “d” — and she loves democracy in what she considers its purest expression, the Greek polis. She doesn’t advocate a return to the polis, which she concedes would be impossible. (She doesn’t often advocate a return to anything, thankfully, though she wants history and philosophy clearly heard and understood as we move in and out of politics, searching for it, as we do, like a receiver trying to pull in a long-lost signal.) But she understands from the polis that freedom is possible in politics alone, and the best politics involves a public space in which free men and women work at living together.

In such politics wisdom is possible and reason, despite its severe limitations within a given individual, wins over majorities. Her understanding of reason is Madison’s, and she quotes Federalist 49 with approval: “The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated.”

But pure democracy may not be liberal. The Athenian polis, of course, was underwritten by slavery, the system that allowed husbands and slaveowners to leave their domestic tyrannies and walk into the polis as free men, and the equal of other free men, all unencumbered by necessity. Without slavery, is a polis — a community of equals who can dedicate time to political speech and action — possible? And in what sense today can we consider necessity “pre-political”?

Does the first nonpolitical use of the word “freedom” — Jesus’ reference in John 7 to being free from sin — suggest a way to a polis of sorts among those who, like Jesus, have chosen to live a life without fear of necessity? Is this one reason Arendt advocates mining the Gospels for a theory of faith that would spur political action against our grinding world systems? Or are we doomed to put up with our corrupted version of the polis in which only the rich can afford to use our politics as their plaything?

[Featured photograph by Giorgio Raffaelli. Used by permission.]