The Politics of Perplexity in Twenty-First Century America

In the context of twenty-first century America, “politics” is perhaps one of the most curiously irritating words in the English language. I know from personal experience – whether from observing others, or from paying attention to myself – that there is a visceral reflex to feel something between annoyance and disgust upon hearing the word. If politics rears its ugly head, you may think something along the lines of “I’ve had enough of that, thank you!” before rapidly extricating yourself from an unwanted intrusion into an otherwise perfect day. Alternatively, I suspect many of us know people who hear the word “politics” or some related term and can immediately launch into an ambitious lecture on what is wrong and what should be done that somehow promises (implausibly) to solve all our social, political, and economic problems in one fell legislative swoop. We’re surrounded by bitter disputes – online and on television, in print and in person – over political issues, to the extent that it can be hard to stomach contemplating (much less discussing) politics without feeling a little irritated, even disgusted, with both our neighbors and ourselves.

These powerful emotional reactions should give us some pause for reflection. In theory, if not always in practice, the United States of America is a democratic republic, ruled by representative officials in the name of its citizenry. Even without considering the matter deeply, it should be clear to us that such a government cannot function if its citizens are entirely disengaged, as radical factions across the political spectrum will be left to do the politicking on our behalf. Whether we like it or not, our nation’s political life will likely remain interested in us even if we are uninterested in return. We might as well make the best of it, and get down to the business of figuring out where, exactly, we went wrong, and what might be done to repair the damage.

Since the early twentieth century, the predominant approach to teaching American students about their form of government has been in the form of what is known as political science. This perspective is primarily (though not exclusively) concerned with educating students about the practical mechanics of their government and the political dynamics of the American electorate – in short, the branches of the United States government, their differing roles and jurisdictions, group behavioral dynamics, and so forth. All of these political institutions and phenomena are generally treated as abstractions that can be measured and predicted with some degree of accuracy using scientific methodology and data analysis.

The meaning of political science must be carefully qualified and defined. Science is derived from the Latin scientia, or knowledge. The majority of ancient, medieval, and early modern political thinkers used the term political science to refer to the study of politics as a domain of the humanities. They studied politics in light of inquiries in philosophy and history: they did not, as a general rule, conceive of the art of government as something that could be understood as an institutional abstraction that operated independently of the deepest human needs and desires (such as for law and virtue), or the eternal problems that confront every human individual and society (what is justice and truth, and how de we find them?). Above all else, classical political science aimed at cultivating self-governing (moderate) individuals that would be capable of wielding political power responsibly while refraining from tyrannical injustice. Hence, in the conclusion of Plato’s Republic, Socrates teaches Glaucon that the highest end of political science is to teach the soul to bear “all evils and all goods… and practice justice with prudence in every way.” (Republic, Book X, 621c).

Modern political science operates on an entirely different basis and different assumptions about human beings and political life. It begins with the premise that human beings, like all natural things, are subject to mechanical laws that render them predictable. Once these laws are understood, the political life of human beings can be mastered and directed towards progress (understood as material comforts and technological innovation) to a degree that was never remotely possible in prior eras of human history. This view of political science emerged first among certain thinkers of the Enlightenment, and became a close companion to the development of the entire field of social science in the late nineteenth century. Both modern political and social science emerged from a common intellectual project that aimed to apply modern scientific methods and insights to the study of very nearly every aspect of human communal life – economics, social dynamics (sociology), religion, sexuality, psychology, and politics, among others.

This application of human technical knowledge to endemic social problems, economic systems, and political institutions (among other domains of human life) was expected to deliver unprecedented advances that would mirror and eventually surpass the tremendous technological and intellectual achievements of the Scientific Revolution. Max Weber, a social scientist of incredible imtelligence and one of the most brilliant minds of the early twentieth century, fully expected that the complimentary discoveries of both natural and social science would ensure that human “progress goes on ad infinitum.” For many intellectuals in Europe and the United States in Weber’s day, human social and political life had become like a machine that could be kept in a perpetual state of inexorable forward motion. This view remains a powerful one within certain spheres of the social sciences and general public, and has been articulated perhaps most eloquently in the public sphere by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, among others, even if it is gradually declining in popularity among the greater mass of the American citizenry.

Academically, this modern scientific approach to understanding American government had many apparent advantages that explain both its widespread acceptance and its continued influence within the academy. For one, it enabled teachers to focus on explaining the structure of U.S. government with a focus on the technical mechanics of government that can be mastered intuitively by most students, regardless of their particular political views and prejudices. Similarly, it relieves teachers and students of having to focus on tiresome historical minutia or obscure philosophical debates that bear no obvious relevance to contemporary issues: students can study their government based on recent experiences that are more easily comprehensible for them than those of, say, two hundred years ago. Above all else, contemporary political science treats the study of American government in utilitarian and mechanistic terms, thereby minimizing occasions for awkwardly passionate or unsolvable confrontations over thorny issues that touch on moral as well as historical and philosophical complexities. What many students will learn from this education is that the American form of government is perfectly reasonable, orderly, and balanced, with predictable mechanics that ensure its stability and perpetuity; in short, it makes sense. And not only does the American government operate like a well-oiled machine, but it also leaves individuals tremendous room to define themselves and act within an ever-expanding horizon of freedoms. Government exists mainly to resolve practical matters of policy and administration, leaving moral questions largely to the domain of the private sphere.

Many may rightly ask: if this model is true, then why does the American government function so poorly in practice? And why are Americans so remarkably inept at finding common ground for resolving pressing political issues? Indeed, there are alarming trends that should inspire us to doubt the viability of this interpretation. Polling conducted over the past decade consistently shows that Americans of all political persuasions are increasingly distrustful of both their governments and of their fellow citizens who hold opposing views. Rigid ideological voices have emerged among both liberal and conservative parties that insist that dialogue is impossible and compromise on any issue is a sign of political weakness, and that a candidate’s quality should be determined by ideological considerations rather than by competence and experience. As electoral politics have devolved into brutal slugging matches between increasingly extreme views, the actual levers of political power have gradually shifted into the hands of a theoretically subordinate but frequently unaccountable and inefficient bureaucracy.

The fruits of this widespread culture of distrust has been the breakdown of civic life and political order amidst frustration and mutual recrimination throughout American society. Many are understandably frustrated with a system of government that seems incapable or unwilling to fulfill its most basic functions. For that matter, generations of young Americans have now grown up in the shadow of a dysfunctional government that leaves them with little incentive for acting as responsible and engaged citizens. It should be no wonder that there are now voices who now ask questions such as the following: if our current Constitution is a product of eighteenth century political circumstances and ideals, should we not perhaps craft a new political system that is better adapted our contemporary needs and values?

Perhaps these are all passing fads, and some bearable equilibrium will return in short order. I am doubtful that such an event is likely in the near future. Recent events have shown that contemporary Americans of all political stripes are divided not merely by petty partisan differences over policy decisions and electoral contests, but even more importantly by fierce disagreements over fundamental questions about the nature of political life and American civic identity that transcend mere partisan disagreement, and we are not remotely close to resolving these disputes. What is it to be a human? What is freedom? What is justice? We do not have common answers for any of these fundamental questions, nor do we seem (at least, as of this writing) to have a clear direction for amicably resolving these disputes in the public sphere.

Yet these disputes, however unpleasant and acrimonious, provide us with a hint of where, exactly, we may have gone wrong. Far from liberating us from antiquated concerns, our modern political education (and the novel mode of thought that created it) may lie at the heart of our perplexity. Modern political science has worked tremendous wonders in allowing us to track the chimerical shifting of public whims in opinion polls or understand the psychology of group dynamics, but it has also obfuscated our ability to grapple with and comprehend problems that are part of the permanent condition of our species. Political institutions and policy alone cannot solve America’s most vexing problems. And we should remember that representative government depends ultimately on the qualities of both officeholders and voters to function properly; institutions abstracted from the body politic cannot rule themselves. Our government, as John Adams observed in 1798, “was designed for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Adams thought that republican government could not exist without some degree of self-government among the citizenry, or else it must devolve into a mass of petty tyrants; we are, perhaps, in the process of proving his point for him.

I suspect that the root of modern American political dissatisfaction is not so much in our continued subjection to an apparently antiquated form of government, nor merely in our frustration with the peculiar idiocies of our political parties, but rather in our own failure to accurately comprehend and utilize our form of government. In an era of change and tumult, we would do well, as the American novelist and essayist John Dos Passos put it in 1941, to “look backwards as well as forwards” as we attempt to extricate ourselves from our current political predicament. While we may face many distinctly twenty-first century problems in certain respects, our most pressing problems – justice, love, truth, goodness, and so forth – are as old as the human species. We live in troubled times: but so, too, did prior generations of Americans. I hope that, if we can find it in ourselves to turn back and reconsider the first principles of American government, its deep roots in English political life and philosophy, we may yet discover a firm foundation that will give us a lifeline from our current perplexity, and enable us to engage more fully in a life of dutiful, informed, and responsible citizenship that can be passed on to future generations.

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