What does it mean to clean up politics?
If all we do is fight, we won’t be able to forge coalitions that are broad, deep and strong enough to confront our biggest problems.
"Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
I cried my eyes out reading the final words of the great John Lewis that were published in the New York Times the day after he died, their quiet magnificence landing a powerful punch to my solar plexus. If you haven’t read them, please do.
Few people can write like that in such a moment, but his essay reminded me of Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 when she captured the imagination of delegates with seven words that quickly went viral: “When they go low, we go high,” she said, reacting to the lowest-common-denominator tactics of Donald Trump and his allies.
Her speech was widely-praised, and just like Lewis’ lifetime commitment to building the Beloved Community it seemed to confirm support for a different kind of struggle that goes way beyond the tribal warfare, mass propaganda and winner-takes-all mentality of most politics today.
The problem is that those who followed her advice lost the subsequent presidential election, ushering in the mirror-image of Lewis’ vision in the shape of an administration that imprisons the children of immigrants in cages, sends its storm-troopers to quell peaceful protests over racism and police violence, and abandons its citizens to a deadly virus.
Over the last four years, President Trump and his enablers have honed the arts of playing dirty to such an extent that they’ve become almost normalized, encouraging a politics that’s rooted in the worst aspects of ourselves like greed, fear, racism, misogyny, violence, personal corruption and the deliberate erosion of democracy and civic norms.
Trump and his tactics may well be defeated in November, but the challenge of cleaning up politics will remain, so what does it mean to ‘go high’ and still have a chance of winning when your opponents have no shame? Even more challenging, could politics ever act as a force to bring people together instead of forcing them apart by building from our better natures?
While much can be done to incentivize good behavior though stronger rules and regulations, this won’t be enough without a deeper change in how we see and practice politics - and how we see ourselves as political actors, especially in the ways we respond to those with whom we disagree.
In general terms there are two ways to approach the settlement of questions that divide people: competition between differences to identify a winner, and collaboration across differences to identify common ground. In starker language it’s a choice between nonviolent warfare and community-building beyond parochial concerns.
Each of these approaches supports a different style and institutional infrastructure of politics, the former fuelling competitive elections and formal representation, and the latter rooted in participation, deliberation and conversation among members of the public beyond party lines. Both are needed to make democracy work, but political systems have come to rely on a particularly virulent strain of war-based strategies and tactics. Transforming politics in the public interest requires that strain to be eradicated, as well as shifting more of the political process into the community-building camp.
Warfare is the default option for both the left and the right, though one could say that the right plays it without anything akin to the Geneva Convention while the left tries to follow Michelle Obama’s guidance for fighting fairly. But in both interpretations one side has to win and the other side has to be defeated. That imperative generates trade-offs and compromises in relation to honesty, transparency, complexity and mutual respect.
Over the last 20 years, Republicans in the USA have taken these trade-offs to new depths by deliberately reducing the ability of democratic structures to operate fairly - gerrymandering election districts, suppressing the Democratic vote, and refusing to allow elected leaders to govern, most recently in Wisconsin. At the same time, information has been weaponized through social media platforms like Facebook, saturating the public sphere with falsity and making unscrupulous behavior by politicians much easier to enable and disguise.
It’s easy to see why the political equivalent of warfare is so popular. War, even of the nonviolent political variety, is cathartic and energizing, and it reinforces each side’s sense of correctness and moral superiority. Exposing and investigating your supposed enemies is much easier than putting your own house in order or reaching out for genuinely new constituencies and solutions.
This isn’t limited to politics of course. The same strategies and psychologies dominate most areas of life including zero-sum economics, combative communications, siloed social media and even advocacy groups in civil society, who increasingly pit themselves against each-other’s ideologies. Onward Christian Soldiers. Us against them. No surrender.
Such approaches work well in the limited sense of aggregating people’s preferences around questions where there are binary choices to be made quickly and at scale. And we already know how to ‘clean them up’ so that they also operate fairly - by outlawing gerrymandering and all forms of voter suppression; removing money from politics by instituting publicly-funded elections and campaigns; and regulating political content on all media platforms. Admittedly that’s an immensely-difficult set of reforms to achieve in the current political environment.
But however much you reform them, warfare-based strategies have inbuilt costs and limitations, especially when the issues are more complex and don’t break along simple lines. War always creates casualties, builds up resentments, and leads to a counter-revolution somewhere down the line when your enemies capture power again and reverse everything that you’ve done.
That’s obviously ineffective as a way of getting to grips with the really big challenges that face the world like climate change, pandemics, rising inequality, racism, sexism and attacks on democracy. All these issues need concerted action over the long term that brings a broad coalition of interests and institutions together across political lines, a task that’s poorly suited to short-term electoral cycles and competitive tactics.
This is where community-building comes in, because communities can’t afford to address their differences though warfare. If they did, there wouldn’t be much of a community left, only another set of competing factions who lack the incentives required to secure enough common ground to move forward on collective projects.
Real communities are also shot through by political and other differences (which are much more enduring and deeply rooted than we often credit), but whereas in warfare difference is seen as a threat to be eradicated, in community-building it’s seen as an invitation to further conversation so that shared interests can be identified and argued through. This allows more time and space for nonviolent methods to work. Once common ground has been negotiated there’s more of a chance that it will be strengthened and protected if people across the political spectrum take collective responsibility for doing so.
But the work involved here is of a different order than conventional politics - messy, slow and careful, one step forward and two steps back, always moving at a pace the community can sustain, and embracing compromises and sacrifices at every turn. There’s a feeling of exhilaration here too, but of a different kind to warfare: in community-building we leave some of the pettiness of competition behind us, and celebrate our larger selves as parts of something greater.
This is the natural territory of ‘dialogic’ politics, of citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting, deliberative referenda and other similar institutions that are growing rapidly amidst devolution and the rise of political entities like city-states. But they aren’t well suited to the demands of urgent decision-making and may leave deep injustices buried beneath a false consensus when an issue proves too divisive for even the most experienced community-level processes to handle. In these situations ‘small-scale wars’ may still be essential, and as history shows, ‘you can’t win a fight if you don’t know you’re in one.’
So ‘going high’ in politics isn’t a case of choosing one of these approaches to the exclusion of the other, but rather getting better at selecting which one best fits the circumstances, and then injecting more honesty and equality into the ways in which they operate. John Lewis and other leaders of the US Civil Rights movement were experts at this kind of blended strategy, fighting mightily for the cause every single day but always rooted in the principles of truth-telling and nonviolence which define the Beloved Community. There are examples further back in time of course (like the Suffragettes), and others that follow the same pattern today, including Black Lives Matter and much of the environmental movement.
In the run up to the US Presidential Election in November - and even more so in its aftermath if Trump is defeated – there’s a strong case to be made that a full-frontal attack must be mounted to preserve the integrity of the vote and establish a new political landscape that protects and enhances the basic institutions of democracy. Community-building can wait.
But in the longer term, if all we do is fight - even fairly - then we won’t be able to forge coalitions that are broad, deep and strong enough to confront our biggest problems. Only a new sense of community can do that - the Beloved Community that Lewis fought for all his life. I can’t think of a better legacy.
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