Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Self-Governance and the Expansive View of Politics

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Normally I do not put much stock in political polling, especially on deep policy issues after politicians on both sides of the aisle demagogue political talking points with the American people.  However, this recent poll on the front page of The New York Times certainly caught my attention.  Although the poll includes policy-oriented questions, it also includes emotive questions and shows that nearly 70% of Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track; meanwhile, disapproval of President Obama’s handling of the economy has never been higher—57% of Americans.  The poll concludes: “Americans are more pessimistic about the nation’s economic outlook and overall direction than they have been at any time since President Obama’s first two months in office, when the country was still officially ensnared in the Great Recession.” 

I could say a lot about this poll: Americans are frustrated with President Obama, House Republicans, the looming debt crisis, the economy, and the struggle to find a job, inter alia.  I could even say something about how dubious President Obama’s reelection prospects are.  All of this is valid, to be sure.  However, there is something deeper going on here, and the American people are right to be frustrated.  They are annoyed with “politics,” in its most limited definition.

Utraque Unum is the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy’s (Georgetown University) scholarly publication.  In its most recent edition, founder and Professor Patrick Deneen notes, “Etymologically, politics is also related to ‘polite’ (or, in the Latin equivalent, ‘civil’ is related to ‘civility), thus suggesting that there is an intimate relationship between the grand questions of government and the modest but essential ways we relate person-to-person.”  Indeed, the modern conception of politics is a rather limited one—to our great detriment.  Our limited definition of politics relegates the idea of manners and morals to the private sphere, one where the individual remains sovereign.

Yet the Founder’s conception of liberty as self-governance and self-restraint meant citizens did not need recourse to “formal politics” to resolve some problems.  Dr. Deneen goes on, “it’s likely that society is so politically riven because we invest so many of our hopes in the narrow realm of ‘politics.’”  Both the feelings of the American people and Deneen’s argument carry with them a similar implication: we often view the auspices of electoral politics as the best way to ensuring the success of our viewpoints and our visions.  From Aristotle onwards, political philosophers note that democracy requires “self-government” of both individuals and the entire polity (not one or the other).

Thus, when we take stock of this poll showing the country in a bout of deep skepticism, we should not be surprised, and for reasons other than the strictly political ones I enumerated above.  When we view politics in such a narrow sense, hence neglecting the cultivation of civility and individual virtue, we should not be surprised to find frustrating breakdowns of “self-government” and civility on the higher plane of “formal politics” (federal and state government).  Our democratic polity cannot have one without the other.


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