Where is True Political Virtue in Our Extreme Times, Pt. 1

There’s no two ways about it – we live in a time of intense political upheaval. Extremes everywhere dominate words and deeds, and yet are too frequently taken as just the heart and soul of the reasonable and moderate.1

The political professionals (as our distorted system labels them) who inhabit the offices regularly mock the concerns of ordinary citizens. Those, in turn, driven often more by passion and party prejudice than by sound principle and prudence, jump to fiery denunciations of tyranny and dark hints of the approaching necessity of revolution.

Ecclesiocratic theologians and populist pastors dump gasoline on the fire by thundering that nearly every issue on the table is a profound matter of personal conscience and the duty to obey God rather than men by demonstrating a higher loyalty to Church than to Stat(ism).

Yes, extremes everywhere dominate words and deeds. What is the person who is concerned about both real threats to liberty and the duty to preserve tangible social order to think and do? Virtue never exists on the outsides of the spectrum, on the extremes, but is always in the middle of them. Both those who callously mock the position of the ordinary citizen and those who intemperately stoke the flames of revolution are, in a word, vicious rather than virtuous.

Where, then, is true political virtue amidst the dominating extremes of our time?

Alexis de Tocqueville, a keen French observer of the society and culture of early America, put his finger on something crucial for we living 200-plus years later. There is something about the American character, qua American, that is just impatient and imprudent because it is always more interested first in immediate, effectual action by individuals than in making careful distinctions in a slower, more reasoned process of corporate deliberation that might require significant delay. We are a people too hasty to really think, too quick to move just for the sake of movement, too sure of ourselves to engage in much self-reflection when it turns out we were wrong.2

How very interesting, then, that we imagine our deliberatively unprepared, pragmatically unreflective selves to be totally competent identifiers of Tyranny, paragon defenders of Liberty, and all around Good People who just simply don’t deserve the way that dastardly They across the aisle are treating us. (And how dare they!)

Assuming I haven’t lost you already – because as de Tocqueville might have put it, that philosophy gadfly is precisely the thing we Americans won’t abide for long (isn’t there a quick spray can of stuff to take care of such annoyances so we can get back to what really matters?), let’s look at that question: where is is true political virtue amidst the dominating extremes of our time?

Let’s start with a second, more clearly stated iteration of a very important truism I noted above: our governing class these days truly is by and large full of fools whose words and deeds seem always calculated only to manipulate surface appearances in order to maintain their tenuous grasp on the levers of power by which they perpetually interfere with our lives.

As citizens, we have many legitimate reasons to distrust our office-holders. As a class, they generally know very little about the very art they were elected to practice, politics. As a class, they generally confuse that noble thing with a mere Machiavellian power-quest that results more in the aggrandizement of their own vice-ridden lifestyles than in the virtue-promoting activities of true governance.

Who hasn’t heard them mouth hallowed words like “the American people want…” while being almost totally (if not totally) out of touch with those very people? In a butchery of Lincoln’s famous words, “Government of the privileged, by the privileged, and for the privileged” almost seems too nice a way to put the philosophy by which our leaders seem utterly captivated.

Who hasn’t heard them refer to the American Founders and their fantastically rich documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, while demonstrating that they’ve apparently never given such tomes more than a cursory speed-read (if even that)?

Who hasn’t heard them talk about “following the science” in the midst of an unprecedented health danger while consistently proving that their understanding of the history and nature and limitations of science has never advanced much beyond Middle School-level survey classes taken merely to get good grades on a report card?

Who is unaware that they frequently govern by mere executive decree rather than by the careful interchange of balance of powers in which one group makes the laws, another executes them, and another deals with high-level matters of difficult, prudential interpretation? (And let’s not forget that too frequently said executive decrees seem fascinatingly only to apply to the citizens, not also to those making them in the first place.)

But if it’s that bad on the end of those holding the power, it’s worse still on our level as citizens.

For the mass media personalities who provide us with our debased equivalent of the Greek tragic stage by fanning the flames of our populist fears and offering cathartic mantras for us to repeat about “Libs” and “Socialists” and “tyranny” and so on, do get at something true and needful: given the ideals upon which our government was originally based (and to which the sophists behind the desks of power make frequent merely rhetorical nods), our grievances are often both proper and truly due at least serious attempts at redress.

The conundrum is that these “political” entertainers (if we’re honest , remembering such glowing examples as Rush Limbaugh, who didn’t try to hide it at all, we’ll realize that’s what they actually are) say many true things, but they say them in a false way that only contributes to the almost overboiling pot of civic and social unrest. Rather than pointing us back to the sources of our own governing tradition, they urge us to listen every day to their own intemperate rantings and to let their own personal words on some Burning Crisis of the Moment be the spur to immediate action NOW.

Weirdly, it isn’t just the Office Holders who are like Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith – “The power you give me, I will lay down once this crisis is averted!” Weirdly, it’s also those who promise us they are on our side and will deliver us from the tyrants (who are constantly found everywhere!) who themselves talk just like the tyrants, manipulating surface appearances to gain our loyalty (and advertisting dollars). And all this is because, again as Tocqueville might have said today, we Americans are fixated on battling external tyranny because we’re already bound up in chains of our own making that we love and won’t abide anyone else trying to remove.

Having gone on for a while now (dangerously courting the even further impatience that the tl;dr culture of the Internet has ruthlessly imposed on our already impatient American character), I’ve yet to engage the question I’ve posed a couple of times now: where is is true political virtue amidst the dominating extremes of our time?

As this is a large topic of it’s own, I’ll save it for a second post.

  1. As I write these, the world is two years into the great Covid-19 crisis, which has, probably more than anything else in our times, brought into intense focus some of the frighteningly fragile and systemic problems of the Modern variety of the intersections of ethics, politics, economics, and religion. A major thing happening at this moment is the apparently rapacious overreaches of the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, against an apparently mostly peaceful citizen protest of his regime’s policies against Covid. []
  2. These actual words are mine; for the words of de Tocqueville himself on which I base mine, See Democracy in America, Bk. II, Ch. 1. []

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