On Politics and Blame

Perhaps one of the few things that can be widely agreed upon these days is that the state of U.S. politics is less than ideal. Whether your side is winning or losing, it seems, the fight sure is ugly.

Of course, hindsight bias makes it challenging to accurately quantify the depravity of current affairs relative to past political struggles. Things seem pretty bad now, sure, but our vice president hasn’t shot any political rivals, and this isn’t even the first time the world has found itself on the brink of a nuclear showdown.

So perhaps things have always been terrible.

It is both interesting and depressing to read older political science literature; to see the long history of fake news documented by digital humanities scholars, or to read Lippmann’s blistering arguments for why the public will never be capable of taking on the tremendous task democracy has set out for them.

It is remarkable how little has changed; how much those old arguments still ring true.

Lippmann, for example, decried people’s steadfast commitment to their stereotypes – a word he coined. These mental short cuts may serve many useful functions, but they cause deep disfunction in the political domain, as people cling desperately to their fabricated understandings.

Stereotypes offer such familiar comfort, Lippmann argues, that “any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.”

Lippmann would hardly be surprised by the current state of political polarization.

Perhaps most remarkable in all this is that the critiques of our democracy have remained relatively stable over time. The details have changed and the voracity of certain view points ebb and flow, but, in the broadest sense, the contours of the critiques stay the same.

If our democracy doesn’t work as well as we might hope, there is always someone to blame.

We could join with Lippmann in being skeptical of the average person’s capacity to carry out this work. Perhaps the great majority are simply too lazy, stupid, or distracted to properly engage in democracy.

We could blame the media – they are too caught up in ratings, too interested in sensation and not interested enough in the truth.

We could blame the school system – why haven’t they better prepared their students for the work of democracy?

We could blame whichever Others we find most distasteful. Perhaps people like us and the institutions we’re a part of are smart, capable, and doing everything right. It’s just those Other people, the people not like us, who hold us back from achieving the full vision of our democracy.

Note that these criticisms could come from any portion of the political spectrum – no party has a corner on this market.

And the truth, I would argue, is that all these actors and institutions are to blame. If our democracy is broken – and it certainly seems to be less than ideal – it is a collective challenge which we all must address and which we all must accept responsibility for.

Blame gets us nowhere.

Habermas argues in favor of what he calls “discourse theory” as a middle ground between systems theory and rational discourse theory. Our society is neither a hierarchical network of institutions nor an unstructured blob of autonomous individuals. It is something in between.

As Habermas describes:

The lifeworld forms, as a whole, a network composed of communicative actions. Under the aspect of action coordination, it’s society component consists of the totality of legitimately ordered interpersonal relationships. It also encompasses collectivities, associations, and organizations specialized for specific functions. Some of these functionally specialized action systems become independent…spheres integrated through values, norms, and mutual understanding.

“The media” and “the public” – even “the left” and “the right” – are such spheres, internally cohesive with their own norms and grammar, but still very much integrated into the entire deliberative system. We can’t just tell one sphere to go fix itself – the solution requires a more holistic perspective that considers broader network.

The solution requires all of us.

I am not interested in blame. I’m not interested in post-mortems on political campaigns or past policy initiatives. We can learn a lot from history, of course, but ultimately I more interested in the future.

Like it or not, we’re all stuck on this earth together. We have to find ways to work together, to co-create our world together. We can’t put all our energy into passing blame. “Fixing” politics begins with each one of us.

…Or, perhaps, we’re all going to die.

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