Friday, March 26, 2010

...a picture of a death spiral

Politics has one basic rule: it exists to govern. This rule has a corollary: governing takes real work, and politicians drift away from governing.

Governing means taking ideas, imperatives, limit, and crafting them into structures both legal and customary. These structures form the framework of our public lives: rules of commerce, employment, and personal conduct. The shared principles we live by, if they work well, keep us at peace with one another, and foster sustainable and just interactions between people, communities and nations. It takes very hard work. Sometimes, it lays intolerable burdens on people.

Particularly when a political movement reaches maturity, when it has either achieved all it set out to do or else decisively failed, a sclerosis sets in. This syndrome has appeared in enough situations that we can describe it fairly well. Where a governance aims at specific ends, whether justice or freedom or prosperity, a declining government or movement focuses on power and structures as an end. Then the focus on power shifts to a focus on strategy, and then on tactics as ends in themselves.

The Left fell into this trap at the end of the 1960s, when the rush of doing an action, getting media coverage, and daring the police to react with violence on national TV replaced a coherent way forward to a more just society. We see it now in the American right. Ann Coulter has shaped a minor incident in Ottawa. Her supporters hope, as her detractors fear, that donations will pour in. Clubs will form, offices will open, and then what? Without a coherent end, or an effective path to reach that end, what do Ms. Coulter's admirers hope to achieve? Ms. Coulter and her fellow conservative ideologues, of course, can expect to make a lot of money out of all this. But without any real ideas for governing, they can't accomplish much more. The danger exists that all of the energy poured into movement tactics comes at the expense of a serious effort to formulate and promote ideas useful in actual governance. This has one good effect: a focus on tactics will leave the formulation of new ideas, and the future, to the Left. It also has one bad effect: the absence of a real, viable, and thoughtful challenge from conservatives will leave the solutions implemented by the Left less rich, less effective, than we could otherwise have made them.

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