Introduction to the Study of American Government

(Not counting chickens.)

It is impossible to memorize facts about institutions, assess current events, or recount history in the service of learning about government nowadays. This is the country where we live, and what happens presses us, affecting us in ways we do and do not perceive. Right now, a convincing case can be made that we are falling apart one way or another. Maybe alliances between corporations and government, militarized police, a refusal to let market forces do their work, and a lack of faith and values conspire to oppress the many at the expense of the few. But it could also be the case that we’re more racist, sexist, and hostile to minorities and immigrants than ever before. That in some quarters, unspeakable hatred and fear of others persists, poisoning our whole way of life from the inside out. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.

All this is to say that if I ask you to explain the powers of the Senate, or research a topic like gun control, or tell you to read a letter of Jefferson’s, I’m in danger of substituting a crude caricature that concerns American politics for the real thing. American life, the life you live, is deeply intertwined with politics. That our partisanship is so revoltingly dogmatic proves that. Liberals and conservatives can’t date each other. Awful, generalized statements that demean humanity, like saying “everyone on food stamps is jobless and commits fraud,” abound. Things that are probably not good policy, such as letting Syria destroy itself and then wondering where ISIS came from, are sanctioned by simplistic sentiments left unchallenged.

That you’re put off by what you see of politics, then, is a good thing. You shouldn’t want to participate when the way issues are framed is infantile. But at the same time, politics is not merely a part of your life. We are reminded daily that it can be a matter of oppression, missed opportunities, survival and death. It is almost unfathomable how anyone could be disinterested in it.

Almost. The thing is, you have ambitions, you have moral concerns. You have things you want to accomplish and be good at. I could say this is fantastic, but that’s redundant. What isn’t redundant is shifting perspective a bit and noting that there is an implicit gratitude for what politics can produce. Some relative stability and the promise of opportunity are motivating you to get more out of life. You want to make music everyone listens to or dominate on the football field. You want friends and lovers and family to be healthy and well. You want finances and a job that help you and those you care about, and maybe even do some good for people you don’t know and don’t necessarily care about. These private concerns are not inimical to politics. Indeed, they’re the blood pumping through the veins of political life. Yet politics in the news seems to have nothing to do with what we love or strive for.

I’ll suggest this, and if it is a worthwhile starting point, we’ll be returning to it. What excites all of us is the prospect of freedom and what can be done with it. The funny thing is how that desire to be genuinely virtuous, to be a good human being, creates a more or less exclusive focus on the individual. It shouldn’t be a problem, as we’re supposed to be living in a system which allows individual freedom to flourish. In a weird way, though, it blinds us to public necessities and responsibilities, and I mean really blinds. We say “not my problem” regarding larger issues, as if we were actually exercising responsibility regarding them. After all, we’re not bringing our lack of information or interest to them.

Plato builds to a similar scenario in the fourth book of his Republic. The ideal city, structured into classes expert in their various practices, is just because each class minds its own business. There is no need for justice in the perfectly just city. The best regime, for Aristotle, is where private virtue and public virtue exactly coincide. But there is no best regime. All political systems involve a tension between the individual and the political order.

To go further, that tension does not necessarily occur because a political order is arbitrary or abstract. The problems exist because many political orders are legitimate in the deepest sense. They do provide goods, they do provide a basis for unity, they do manage conflicts. In other words: they are products of what we want as individuals. We are reflected in them, and like all images, we are distorted in them. It’d be easy to say “well, we should go back to being more simple, more natural,” so as to reduce the possibility anything could be distorted, and forget how alone we would become in doing so.

That you love, that you want satisfaction and happiness, shows the scope of political phenomena is far greater than readily conceived. For example, creeps on internet dating sites who show no restraint with their personal problems are not a private issue that gets easily ignored. They raise the question immediately of what is expected of people, how identity and gender are constructed. They raise the question of right, and how self-expression can be preserved while making sure the law points to the good of all.

They raise the question of us, how “we” comes from “I.” I would be stupid to tell you there are easy answers to this sort of question. Oftentimes in my field, a colleague will receive what he thinks is a burst of enlightenment. He’s realized that society is nothing more than conventional expectation, that all philosophy and wondering about things like “love” and “freedom” are moralistic constructs with no scientific, empirical basis. The humanities and social sciences stem from what we make up, and they’re totally artificial. Our problems are all self-constructed, so any prolonged musing on them is worthless.

He does not realize that it is precisely how complications arise that is the problem, that the complications are worth studying, focus, and reflection. That if an implied answer to all human problems were so easy, everyone would have done it by now. We’re not all the same, and it is frightening how pronouns keep that truth clear and distinct while we can’t.