For those of you poll-watchers out there (and who’s not, at this point?!), the presidential election is a nail-biter that has yet to be decided, though I’m sure the news will continue to surge our way throughout the day. But, what can we learn about our political life from this particular election?
At times like this, I’m comforted by the Stoics and other philosophers who acknowledged the ephemeral nature of temporal politics and encourage a good dose of personal reflection and improvement, along virtuous lines. As Seneca says, “He is most powerful who has power over himself.”
And, while the news media weighs in on what has transpired, I find myself more interested in what this election season reveals about the divisions between so-called Red and Blue America. In an age of sound bites and fairly facile political rhetoric (I.e., not much substance), what are we really disagreeing about?
Broadly speaking, today we have a handful of notions being bandied about as Left and Right “issues,” without much clarity on definitions, let alone recognition of the tensions within those ideas: social justice, individual rights, economic systems, government social services, policing, etc. Any one of those topics could serve as the subject matter of a college course (or a major!), involving at least a semester of study to critically appraise the underlying ideas. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, close study of any of those topics would reveal numerous ways that a given idea involves various paradoxes, contradictions, and inherent difficulties.
In short, the answers are not easy. Yet, we, the American populace, have come to prefer quick answers and simple solutions. Slogans are the preferred mode of political discourse. And, while slogans may help to produce mass movements, they do not provide the necessary rationale for clear thinking and careful deliberation. Placard-carrying protesters—Left and Right—present their messages in stark terms, and expect observers to decide: Are you with us or against us? As sociologists like Jonathan Haidt have demonstrated, this is old-fashioned tribalism—and it does not produce a healthy political life.
After all the ballots have been counted and any legal disputes settled, we will still be a nation founded upon a handful of principles enshrined in our Constitution and the Declaration that frames it. Principles that require us to think deeply about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as we act to sustain our national identity as a Republic that pursues an ever “more perfect Union.”
As our colleague, Josh Arbogast, reminded us, yesterday, a good liberal arts education equips our students to take the long-view of politics, to think carefully about the many competing interests and ideas, and to weigh the immediate activities of public life through the lens of moral action: “I hope that [my students’] decisions are governed by thoughtful, reasonable discussions with peers about moral action.”
In the end, I believe that the Stoics have it right: life boils down to the kind of person I am becoming. No matter who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, my moral nature—more or less vicious, more or less virtuous—is what really matters. And, that personal moral formation ultimately affects my civic duty, for, as Plato proposes, society is a projection of the individual (soul) writ large.
In short, I need to develop ever-greater clarity about the often-opaque political issues that are masked by slogans, in order to determine what I can do to increase justice, promote liberty, and foster greater unity among my fellow citizens. At the same time, I must become the kind of person who is developing ever-greater skill with virtues like justice, self-control, courage, and prudence.
Which means, regardless of who gets into office, this American has some work to do…