Is Democratic Moderation Sustainable?

Bishop (now Saint) Malachy, an 11th-century Roman Catholic Church leader in Ireland, famously summarized the stages of human progress:
Spernere mundum, Spernere sese, Spernere nullum
(You begin by despising the world, you go on to despise yourself and you end by despising nothing and nobody).

            The good bishop’s brief for growth to courageous moderation also might be read as a metaphor for individual maturation, as a summons to tolerance in a nation’s democratic politics, or as a call to the possibility of a deeper and broader human harmony. For present purposes, I shall consider its second possible meaning and explore the portent of Malachy’s insight for understanding the relative immoderation and self-contradictory tendency now evident in American politics.

            The Tea Party movement is the current symbol for a widely reported disaffection among Americans with their leaders and with politics. This populist group surely draws its energy from a raw negativism toward government, especially the nation’s government. As such, it seems reasonable to inquire into this negative attitude’s origins. This orientation certainly has not arisen because a majority of citizens actually believe the wild rhetoric offered by Glen Beck and others of his ilk, who argue a closet Muslim Extremist Socialist President is seeking soon to turn America into a Marxist state. Whatever else may be said of this sort of speechifying, it is manifestly and factually incorrect. Nonetheless, it is clear such parlous extremism mobilizes at least some people and certainly garners widespread media attention, which may be the point since much of it comes from talk radio or TV talk-show hosts seeking attention for ratings. Their rhetoric may ultimately be pernicious and worse, but it seems unlikely that it explains the widespread negativity now being reported by journalists and pollsters alike.

            That is, while some may actually believe such rhetoric, such does not explain the broad restiveness of the electorate, which appears to be demanding that Washington act, and at once, on its behalf to overcome the economic difficulties now confronting the nation and also to do so despite a thoroughly divided and partisan composition. Indeed, if trends hold and voters “punish” the President and Congressional incumbents this fall as widely expected by pundits, we are likely to witness even deeper ideological gridlock in Washington, D.C. Many voters report they will vote to make it happen because government cannot “do anything right.” One might caution: “Be careful what you wish for” as an ideologically riven government is unlikely to act with the resolve for which many apparently pine.

            I have lately been in a to-and-fro with a colleague at the Institute as we have sought to discern the roots of this current negative ferment. In that colloquy, I have observed how struck I am that media sources report that citizens are “angry at government,” but rarely ask why or whether such is even reasonable before delving into explorations of its possible partisan or political implications. My colleague, as I understand his argument, has suggested the rancor is likely not aimed so much at government per se as at government as symbol of gigantic and increasingly impersonal institutions whose workings are somehow both uncontrollable and unfathomable. How does one conceive of the nation’s, or for that matter, the Defense Department’s budget? Or, even of how to know where to go to make a claim against so imposing an edifice?

            Voters want relief from the torpid economy, but all in government seems complex and complicated. Meanwhile, even as they feel somehow weak and ineffectual before government, voters perceive the possibility of individual agency via the decentralized and largely privatizing opportunities of mediated communication. These permit the instantaneous conveyance of emotions and concerns while also permitting a thoroughgoing privatization of those matters. These contradictory tendencies create vexingly tension-filled attitudes: citizens distrust institutions they cannot understand and believe they may not access even as they demand those selfsame entities act with unprecedented capacity and speed to address their immediate-felt needs. Emotions, whether of alienation or of anger born of unfulfilled demands for immediate fixes, rule the day.

            What is lost in this scenario is any reasoned deliberation of the concerns at hand, or measured reflection concerning alternate ways to proceed. What is lost in this willingness to assign blame and to consign those who disagree with one’s individually adopted aims of the moment to hate or opprobrium, is the possibility for reasoned and tolerant deliberation. What is lost is the possibility for a maturity approaching Malachy’s wise “Spernere nullum.” Instead, we see a politics of infantilizing and childish rage stuck in the saint’s “Spernere mundum.” The result is a recipe for reckless and feckless demands. It is ultimately a path both to an undemocratic community and an anti-democratic politics. These are not results a freedom-loving citizenry can or should countenance.