Friday, January 20, 2017

Political sclerosis: the pursuit of perfection

I write this during the final preparations for the inauguration of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. By the time I post this, he will probably have taken the oath of office.

About 4000 people gathered in Minneapolis to protest the election of Donald Trump. They called for building a movement to oppose President-elect Donald Trump. By Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota
By Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota,
via Wikimedia Commons
Today, the day he takes office, marks the end of eight years of President Obama, a man with unusual grace and dignity for anyone who has risen to the top job in the American political system. It also marks the end of eight years of obstruction, always shameless and sometimes blatantly unconstitutional, by the gerrymandered Republican Congress. The redistricting that allowed the minority of voters in the Republican party to command a majority in Congress, and the low turnout in every midterm election, came about at least partly because of failures by the Left to organize throughout the United States, Put simply, the United States, Canada, and indeed the world, has suffered from a sclerosis of the Left for some time now. Conservatives today scarcely need to stand in front of our progress yelling "stop"; at a time the world needs change more critically than ever before, we have slowed ourselves to a crawl.

I propose to offer a look at some of the problems over the next little while. I can propose solutions for some of our problems; for others, I have no real or comprehensive solution to offer.

We have a bad habit of confusing politics with the search for personal perfection. Conservatives have often fallen victim to that habit as well. We on the Left need to stop it. To illustrate what I mean by "perfection", consider this post by the Auburn Seminary: A letter to white Christians. Most of it proposes perfectly reasonable measures, but in the middle I find the following sentence that encapsulates, almost perfectly, a basic problem with the way much of the Left views the world and our work in it:
Have we done the inner work to face and turn away from of our own deep prejudices based on race, gender, racism, religion, and national origin?
Confessional in the church of Sint Elisabethskerk Grave, Nederlands By Vincent de Groot
Confessional, By Vincent de Groot via Wikimedia Commons
My answer: none of your business. Politics stops at my skin. I may strive to grow as a person in many ways, including love and acceptance for all people. How I strive or approach that striving, the exact state of my inner character or soul, has nothing to do with my ability to do the everyday work of politics and political organizing. The word politics refers to the messy and profoundly imperfect business of working out the basic rules that allow millions of strangers to live together in something like peace. Nobody has any right to ask for a window into the human soul, mine or anyone else's, in the name of politics. Every person has the right to find their own path to the light as they see and can find the light. The search for redemption through politics leads to theocracy; it also leads, like a blind alley, to ineffective isolation.

Anyone who tries to use politics, and in particular any notion of political accountability, as a vehicle for personal redemption, or "inner work" will face three debilitating problems.

First, trying to make myself the "perfect ally" will not work, because I have no "perfect" oppressed person to ally with. Members of oppressed "groups" have different outlooks and different priorities, just like everyone else. Not only will I make mistakes, in many ways the whole political process depends on making mistakes: we try things until we reach a state of conflict everyone can live with.

Second, the pursuit of interior perfection distracts in two ways: it takes energy to do "interior work", and it builds up our investment in our own self image as an enlightened person. Most of energy we expend looking for personal redemption through politics will probably end up wasted, and to the extent our investment in a view of ourselves as enlightened makes us reluctant to actually put ourselves into the work, it does active harm. When it comes to political action, only showing up really counts.

Finally, the more we invest in an image of ourselves as redeemed through politics, the less we can effectively reach out to the "sinners" on the other side. Like it or not, some of our fellow citizens have very different ideas of what justice looks like, and political action will accomplish very little of lasting value if it does not produce something that everyone can live with. Doing that requires empathy with our opponents, something practical politicians cultivate, and something a search for purity will hinder, if not prevent.

Our search for purity through political action, or more precisely for purity as a prerequisite to political action has lead to failure. I suggest the time has long come, and gone, for us to roll up our imperfect sleeves over our less than pure arms, and to take on the work we need to do to counter the failures and mistakes of the previous decades. We clearly have a lot to do.

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