On Kindness and Democratic Self-Governance

            One of the more theoretically interesting, and vexing, issues in the study of democratic politics, at least for those societies that employ capitalism as the engine of their economies, is how to characterize the relationship between markets and governance institutions. At least since the 19th century, when Karl Marx wrote, many philosophers have argued that, once unleashed, capitalism will determine the course of modern societies. Ironically, while today’s neo-liberals loathe Marx, their prescription for maximizing the role of the market in societies goes far toward allowing capitalism the social space to triumph over the competing claims arising from democratic values (read: equality versus pervasive inequality) that the German philosopher saw as inescapable.

            Not all thinkers concur with Marxist-style economic determinism, of course. Many scholars have argued that both markets and democratic governance institutions are important organizing agents of societal resources and capacities. Many also contend that politics is, or ought to be, architectonic in democratic capitalist societies. In consequence, the most vital issues for mixed political economy nations, including our own, today rest in first establishing clearly within polities that politics is finally formative against ideological claims for the primacy of the market, and second in finding an appropriate dynamic balance between capitalist claims and democratic aspiration. Indeed, this might be said to be the cardinal responsibility of elected leaders at all scales in such societies.

            If the issue of the relationship of the political economy’s key elements is a central theoretical matter for understanding democratic governance, the question of how to regard the role of individuals in the polity is likewise a vital concern. That is, interested scholars must ask how much weight to assign specific persons’ characteristics and efforts as they seek to describe or explain events or actions. Leadership and foreign policy studies, for example, have long debated what influence to assign individual action, agency and discretion in explaining decisions or events. Some analysts have argued strongly that the personalities, traits and behaviors of leaders or statespersons matter profoundly to outcomes. Others have assigned primary importance to contextual conditions and forces, whether external to organizations or internal, or arising from them or their relationships with other institutions or individuals. For my part, I am convinced that individuals matter. Similarly, analytically, I do not believe actors take actions in voids. Contexts matter profoundly, too. The issue is how much latitude public officials and other social leaders have to act and why and how they elect to use it.

            I share this reflection as I recently finished reading a thoughtful memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe (2012). The volume chronicles the last two years of Schwalbe’s mother’s life as she suffered from pancreatic cancer. Mary Ann Schwalbe was an extraordinary woman by any measure. At various points in her long and distinguished career she was an executive with the International Rescue Committee, a prominent humanitarian relief and refugee assistance international nongovernmental organization, the director of admissions for Harvard/Radcliffe University and head of a highly regarded boarding school for girls. And she did much else besides. She and her son, a publishing house editor, began their book club soon after Mary Ann learned of her diagnosis. Together, mother and son read dozens of books and discussed each during the last years of Mary Ann Schwalbe’s life.

            In the course of offering his recollections of that period, Schwalbe reports a discussion with his mother concerning Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book (2008), which Mary Ann liked very much. The poor behavior of a central character put her in mind of her own oncologist by way of contrast:

‘I don’t know what others think¾but I know what I think’-my mother replied. ‘I think everyone needs to be kind-especially doctors. You can be a very great doctor and still be kind. That’s partly why I like Dr. O’Reilly (her oncologist) so much more than the first oncologist I saw-not because she’s a woman but because she’s kind.’

‘But you always taught us that sometimes people aren’t nice because they aren’t happy.’

‘Yes, but maybe those people shouldn’t be looking after other people. And I’m also talking about kindness, not just about being nice. You can be gruff or abrupt and still be kind. Kindness has much more to do with what you do than how you do it’ (pp. 109-110).

            I find this insight profound. Assuming one assigns some measure of agency to individuals in democratic political life, and irrespective of the level of analysis one is addressing, it matters what those people (citizens and elected leaders alike) do and why they do it. Mary Ann Schwalbe argued that individuals should be animated foremost by kindness and not merely by a sort of platitudinous, and therefore empty, niceness. Kindness is closely linked to empathy and to treating others with dignity and respect. Mary Ann Schwalbe knew its significance well from her long experience working with refugees and those afflicted by disaster and conflicts. This she knew well, too, from her many years of involvement in secondary and higher education.

            Kindness is necessary, too, for democracy to flourish. As with debates concerning the political economy or individual agency, however, one must settle first on the view that kindness matters, and thereafter begin to imagine ways and means by which citizens may come to understand its elemental significance for human interaction, development and self-governance. These challenges strike me as ever more significant as many of our nation’s political leaders embrace a cynical politics of avarice, mean-spiritedness, self-regard and scapegoating. Civic capacities, of which kindness must be considered a central example, matter for successful democratic governance as well as for the possibility of attaining a polity that celebrates the dignity on which democratic agency is ultimately predicated. Mary Ann Schwalbe’s simply stated charge looms large for our nation today.