Obviously, I cannot convince all of you that political science is worthwhile. Some of you will think that no matter what I say, I’m out to indoctrinate you. And I can’t lie, I do have an agenda. So if people having agendas bothers you, do yourself and the rest of the world a favor and never read anything, watch anything, or talk to anyone. After all, the mindless accusation that everyone is out to manipulate you assumes you are some paragon of innocence who deserves to be treated like an extra special flower by everyone else. It accuses before ever asking whether the accuser has done anything to manipulate others.
Ok. Not a lot of you have left. Great. I think you see that the problem posed is pretty specific. Politics does not pretend; it is openly about power and control. And you’ve got parents and relatives and friends and random people shouting at you about it, telling you that if you don’t think this specific way the world will end. So you react by moving away from politics, seeing your ideals realized another way culturally. Maybe through religion, punk rock, service, sports, etc. To be honest, it’s a weird situation America is in. The polls don’t really adequately describe the lack of interest in civics; they just show we hate Congress. Every time Glenn Beck gets up there and starts yelling about the Founders, I know another student who might have been interested in reading the Federalist decides it isn’t worth it. A high school teacher of mine asked our class one day if we had any interest in being President. 2 or 3 hands shot up. He remarked in his day, in the 70’s (not exactly a time of conservative nostalgia), every hand in the room would have gone up. Not because everyone wanted to be President, but because it was considered an honor worth having and striving for. I’ll bet that anecdote tells more about the current state of U.S. politics than anything else.
So let’s go back a little bit. At some point, Americans more or less believed they had a real hand in their own governance. They didn’t just go through the motions or resign themselves to fear of the other party. To think being President is a good thing shows some belief in the effective power of politics. And it is true, for all the evils that are ascribed to politics, there are many goods that have emerged from it. I don’t think you can say politics alone created racism, but it was a politician who, in proclaiming Emancipation, made it clear that a reunified America would never again tolerate slavery. We just celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela, who promised no retribution on the part of his party after enduring years of second class citizenship and made good on that promise. South Africa isn’t perfect by a long shot – it needs much more competitive elections – but it is primarily white supremacists who falsely insist there is “white genocide” in South Africa. People like Churchill, Jefferson, and Gandhi are remarkable precisely because of their political greatness.
Something about politics, then, can’t just be manipulation. Not if great leaders sacrifice, not if people invest hope and trust in them and receive something – freedom, justice, a better life – for it. Something about the very concept of politics is transformative. And whatever that something is, we’re blind to it.
To make a long story short, we’re blind to it because contemporary approaches to politics are successful. They’re successful because they’re reductive. My prime example: the American Constitution. It’s a pretty successful set of laws, it seems – America’s not exactly weak. So why didn’t people, say, 2000 years ago come up with the idea of a President, a Congress, a Judiciary? Were they too busy riding dinosaurs to work?
The truth is that civilization, if not technology, was relatively advanced in the ancient world. For Aristotle, the city aims “at the authoritative good of all.” This, in the very opening of his Politics, cannot be overthought. First of all, we emphasize individual liberty, typically implying that it is our individual right to not give a damn about others. Here’s Aristotle saying that if you want what is best in life for yourself, it is going to probably involve something social. Your happiness is at stake. “Authoritative” also speaks to what must be agreed to be good: virtues speak louder than vices.
Now the Aristotlean approach is not dogma, despite linking politics with happiness and virtue. Aristotle is a philosopher outlining an inquiry; the Aristotlean polis never existed. The best regime had to be laid out, as only in the best regime can the good citizen be squared with the good man. All of us recognize that there is a distinction between our obligations as a citizen and who we are as simply human. That distinction existed for Aristotle, too, only with the caveat that our political and personal obligations had to reconcile somehow.
The distinction exists for us a more severe way; the political feels almost unnecessary to us. The arrival of Christianity did not do away with pagan thinking about virtue entirely. But it took happiness and set it in the next life, casting doubt on all attempts to rule properly in this life. God is the only judge, the Church His bride. True Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God; true Christians are in the image and likeness of their Maker. The consequence: in the Middle Ages, politics was practically a topic of no importance, though many words were spent on law and virtue. The height of this reasoning is the idea of natural law: the moral law is known through reason. What need is there for deliberative bodies or wise rulers? What need to enforce the law?
When serious thinking about politics reemerged, it did so against both medieval and classical concepts of politics. The medieval concepts had to be overthrown sharply: they were license for the abuses of the Church, warfare between Christian sects, and terrible institutional planning. But pagan thought, since it had been synthesized with the Church, had to go too. Pagan thought did not just limit thinking about politics; inasmuch “Aristotlean physics” is a phrase with currency, it was necessary to attack to have science. The thinking that underlies American Constitutionalism embraces Enlightenment, making all of humanity smarter in ways immediately useful to them. This means an emphasis on scientific progress, which is not strictly the same thing as aiming for happiness or virtue. Education was redefined to be more about utility than character.
In fact, happiness – except in the phrase “pursuit of happiness” – drops out as a necessary end for the citizen. What matters is not so much if we are happy, but we are stable and secure. Machiavelli declared that a Prince is better feared than loved. While he does not mean this to say that we should embrace tyrants that make us all scared, he does mean that our fulfillment in the government we create is not to be had. Government is a necessary evil, devoid of virtue. In Hobbes, who witnessed the religious zeal that drove England into civil war, the primary reason we create government is self-preservation. We cannot trust a “state of nature” where anyone or groups of people could attack anyone. Our individual safety is why we contract to set up a sovereign. It is a far lower concern than happiness or virtue, or conformity with the rational order of God’s Creation. It is a concern centered on fear.
Locke, writing shortly after Hobbes, makes this sort of reasoning palatable to a broader audience. Locke was preached from pulpits in Revolutionary America. Central to Locke is that government respects “life, liberty, and property” – the last famously replaced in the Declaration by “pursuit of happiness.” A government that does not respect these things is violating the rights of man and should be rebelled against.
One can see how more than the right to be safe emerges from property rights. Property really is the key to the Constitution, as well as seeing how much political thinking over the years changed. Neither ancient nor medieval thinking cared much for acquiring property. A virtuous citizenry, for the pagans, would be self-sufficient and diligent in their work. For the medievals, fasting was an obligation. But now, acquisition becomes the heart of things. This is partly because of the need to have useful science and technology, partly also because commerce and trade are less destructive than religious warfare. The big reason, though, comes up in Machiavelli. If a ruler under false pretenses executes one man’s father, that grudge may cause one man – the son – to take up arms. He might get support. He might also decide that his dad was a troublemaker and let it go. But if that ruler takes the father’s property away, the whole neighborhood, anyone with property, is alerted and angry.
Property is a material alarm system which warns everyone if the government is getting tyrannical. For Madison, in Federalist 10, the products of liberty are not just a factional conflict that the sheer size of the United States will never allow to be problem (too many factions, therefore never a majority faction). Our liberty also creates a diversity of properties which are important to us in different ways. This is not Madison being glib; this is the logical consequence of trying to not directly address happiness or virtue. Security, stability, and a view of freedom as what government should not do characterize the American regime. Property rights are integral to all of that. But how exactly does this unite us as a people? Give us moral purpose? It is much easier to say under an ancient view of politics that government is the possibility of collective moral purpose. Lest you think we do not need any such idea – that we can fight for freedom alone – remember that this country tore itself apart less than a hundred years after it was founded over whether slavery was wrong or not.
I don’t think we’re successful in spite of ourselves. For years, we’ve had people willing to look into difficult questions and accept hard answers. To me, the real problem with our deemphasis on studying things like politics or history or literature or philosophy is that, at best, we want to conduct studies to get easy answers. Oh sure, the studies are hard work, the methodology is difficult to defend, the implementation is never quite perfect, and the results do affirm what we’re working with as fundamental concepts. But let’s get real: we want easy answers. We want to know 60% of people will vote one way or another if we tell them something. That reasoning would not have been important 2000 years ago, and is fatal to a republic where our purposes are open. The biggest sacrifices our leaders make involve telling us things we don’t want to hear in order to make sure we have a country 20 years later. At least, those are the sacrifices they made.