Politics as Associated Living

When I consider ‘politics’ as a field, I’m generally referring to something much broader than simply electoral politics.

‘Electoral politics’ is a relatively narrow field, concerned with the intricacies of voting and otherwise selecting elected officials. Politics is much broader.

John Dewey argued that ‘democracy’ is not simply a form a government but rather more broadly a way of living. Similarly, I take ‘politics’ to mean not merely electoral details but rather the art of associated living.

The members of any society face a collective challenge: we have divergent and conflicting needs and interests, but we must find ways of living together. The ‘must’ in that imperative is perhaps a little strong: without political life to moderate our interactions we would no doubt settle into some sort of equilibrium, but I suspect that equilibrium would be deeply unjust and unpredictable.

The greatest detractors of human nature imagine a world without politics, a world without laws, to be a desolate dystopia; where people maim and murder because they can get away with it or simply because that’s what is needed to survive.

But even without such horrific visions of lawlessness, I imagine a world without thoughtful, associated living to be, at best – distasteful. It would be a society where people yell past each other, consistently put their own interests first, and deeply deride anyone who with different needs or perspectives.

Unfortunately, this description of such a mad society may ring a little too true. It certainly sounds like at least one society with which I am familiar.

And this emphasizes why I find it so important to consider politics broadly as associated living. In this U.S. presidential election, I’ve heard people ask again and again: are any of the candidates worthy role models? Before the second presidential debate Sunday night, the discomfort was palpable: how did our electoral politics become so distasteful?

Those are good and important questions. But I find myself more interested in the broader questions: are we good role models in the challenging task of associated living? Do we shut down and deride our opponents or try, in some way, to understand? If understanding is impossible do we must try, at the very least, to finding ways of living together?

In many ways, the poisonous tones of our national politics is not that surprising. It reflects, I believe, a general loss of political awareness, of civic life. Not that the “good old days” were ever really that good. Political life has always been a little rough-and-tumble, and goodness knows we have many, many dark spots in our past.

But we should still aspire to be better. To welcome the disagreements which come inherent to hearing diverse perspectives, and to try, as best we can, to engage thoughtfully in the political life that is associated living.


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