Hope and Politics
Fostering a healthy democracy
By Reed Davis, Professor of Political Science [firstname.lastname@example.org]
As he lay on his deathbed, the legendary speaker of the California Assembly, Jesse Unruh, summed up a life devoted to politics in these words: “Who knows? Who cares? Why bother?” Now that’s pessimism.
Unfortunately, it is the sort of pessimism to which citizens in a democracy are all too prone. Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French thinker, once observed that the clamor and tumult of liberal democracy can be so overwhelming at times that many citizens come to believe that their political actions are ultimately of little import or significance. However, Tocqueville argued, in order to flourish, democracy requires more than the simple acceptance of rights; democracy also requires the metaphysical conviction that people can make meaningful choices and that those choices can make a difference in their personal lives and in the life of their country. Otherwise, if a citizenry comes to believe that its destiny is controlled by vast, overarching historical forces beyond its reach — another proclivity of democracy according to Tocqueville — then people lose all determination to assert themselves and, as political scientist James Ceaser points out, “become weak and phlegmatic.”
A democratic politics, then, cannot long survive apart from a certain kind of hope, namely, the hope that politics and political action can, to some degree, be guided by what The Federalist termed “reflection and choice.” One of the fundamental preoccupations of democracy, therefore, should be how to keep this sort of hope alive. Tocqueville, perhaps the most profound student of democracy the West has ever known, suggested three ways in which democracies should do so.
First, Tocqueville argued that democratic governments must be guided by a “new” political science. In fact, Tocqueville set for himself the task of creating “a new political science for a world itself quite new.” By this, Tocqueville meant simply that American democracy must by guided by a new sort of political knowledge. What Tocqueville had in mind here was not the creation of an ideology or a body of dogma by which citizens would be led so much as the fostering of that critical capacity by which citizens would think. In other words, the institutions of American democracy should be constructed and arranged in order to teach Americans how they could learn to think and reason for themselves.
To Tocqueville’s way of thinking, this was the value of local government, the jury system, the legal profession, and a free press, among other things. These institutions were important to Tocqueville’s strategy because they taught citizens to reason from experience and not from first principles. In order for a citizenry to govern itself, then, it first had to learn to think for itself. A society given to ideologies, inspiriting rhetoric, and intellectuals — France’s historic mistake, according to Tocqueville — could not long remain free.
Second, one keeps hope alive by participating directly in the political life of the country. This is why Tocqueville held such a high view of political parties and the institutions of local government. Active partisanship, to be sure, “sets neighbor against neighbor,” as Tocqueville recognized –– but “only for a time.” In the long run, active partisanship teaches a citizenry that political involvement does indeed make a difference.
It has long been axiomatic in political science that participating in some sort of ongoing political activity — yes, protests and demonstrations count — dramatically increases the sense of what social scientists call political “efficacy,” or the sense of meaningful contribution. For that reason, citizens should deplore the ongoing weakening of political parties, especially in Washington state; no other institution provides ordinary citizens with a greater opportunity to participate in politics and hence a greater sense of efficacy.
Finally, Tocqueville declared religion to be of paramount importance to the health of democracy. Human beings have a natural “taste for the infinite,” he argued, and if religious freedoms were constricted or abolished, people would displace their religious feelings onto political activity, thus creating — quite literally — a religion of revolution. This is precisely what had happened in France, Tocqueville declared, where the French revolution “though ostensibly political in origin … assumed many of the aspects of a religious revolution.” Religion also tends to reinforce a sense of moral responsibility and public obligation and so counteracts the natural democratic tendency to “individualism,” which is the proclivity to ignore all political and social concerns and to retreat into a private life preoccupied exclusively with the well-being of one’s self and family.
In sum, Tocqueville recognized that the deepest needs of a democracy were spiritual and moral, not material. In its efforts to engage a democratic culture and change the political world, then, Seattle Pacific University makes its greatest contribution by doing what it has always done, namely, spreading the Good News by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
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