The Road Not Taken

For several years now I have been examining a critical philosophical concern that is integral to the possibility of democracy: creating conditions for the effective exercise of agency or choice by those formally assigned authority to exert it (individuals, directly or indirectly, in democracies), or who seek to attain that status and standing. I have explored this subject in a number of domains, including democratization, international development, community development and post-conflict peacebuilding. Creating and sustaining conditions for the exercise of individual political freedom are innately difficult undertakings. Human societies often wantonly discriminate against members of various groups in their midst and abrogate their rights on all sorts of grounds, including gender, race, religion, ethnicity, tribe and more, and they do so in ways majorities not only countenance, but often consider sacrosanct to how they organize their lives and views of the world. To this reality one must add the fact that when faced with difficult circumstances, including, historically, economic and fear-inducing trials, humans have repeatedly discovered new bases on which to loathe their neighbors, even those to whom they had previously been closest. I am reminded, for example, of the behavior of Serbs and Croats in the war in their nations during the 1990s, in which thousands of individuals disowned their neighbors of many decades overnight as economic conditions worsened and bloodshed loomed over their communities. This Balkan illustration and many others, suggest that human beings are capable of the most vicious forms of discrimination and hatred when influenced by norms allowing them so to behave and/or prompted by fears of various sorts.

Yet, the fact that such decisions ultimately turn on human will, and that individuals are not automatons, but live in communities in which they make choices, implies that there is always an indeterminacy about how such decision-making will occur that depends not only on how particular persons behave, but also on how their families, peers and leaders act and react to change and to their decisions. Slobodan Milošević, like many autocrats before and since, deliberately fanned the flames of fear, rage and hatred and promoted social division in the former Yugoslavia to accrue personal power. Those individuals supporting his course embraced the worst forms of depravity imaginable as they backed his ugly rise and rule. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that these were choices, and there was no special reason a priori to suppose that those who took them would adopt the heinous course so many Serbs did. There are always many ways one may choose to address changing circumstances and concerns, and none are pre-ordained. When individuals possess agency, they may adopt the path they wish, and do so for reasons, well or poorly considered or justified, they elect.

All of this comes to mind as Donald Trump continues to lead in his quest to gain the Republican presidential nomination this year, and daily offers a horrific amalgam of violence, hatred and empty narcissism as the proposed antidote to his supporters’ very real sense that their party’s past choices have too often robbed them of genuine agency and economic possibility. That frustration and existential angst have found those voters willing to undo democracy and freedom itself, and to support, apparently unequivocally, a completely unprepared and unqualified individual who daily preaches a bigotry that does little other than tear at the sinews that bind the nation as nation.

All of this is well known, but I find myself musing on it afresh, and not only because it represents a crisis of our politics. I recently read a book by Cornell University professor David Orr examining Robert Frost’s century-old iconic poem, “The Road Not Taken.”[1] Like millions of Americans of my generation, I read and analyzed a substantial share of Frost’s oeuvre in high school and college. I also recall seeing him read when I was a small child as my family gathered before our black-and-white television set to watch the inauguration of President John Kennedy. Kennedy, shortly after his election in 1960, had invited the fabled New Englander to participate in that event, and the poet did so in a now legendary way.

Orr recounts that many people today read “The Road Not Taken,” which contains only 20 lines despite its continuing resonance, as an evocation of American individualism and capacity to exercise personal agency. That apparently dominant interpretation surprised me, as I have never read the poem that way. But I can see how such a view could become so widely adopted that it now appears commonly in our popular culture and is often commemorated and celebrated on coffee mugs, calendars and in television shows.

Nonetheless, Orr concludes that the power of the poem does not rest in its supposed celebration of individual agency, but instead in its evocation of the indeterminacy of its exercise. As Frost observed:

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.[2]

 

Orr’s interpretation has it just right, I think, as the traveler in the poem can no more return to his or her original state, once having selected a course, than you or I could. Like the individual in Frost’s poem, we are always changed by the implications of the decisions and paths on which we settle and by the forces that play roles in leading/shaping us toward them, sometimes to an unexpectedly profound degree. If this is so for individuals, it suggests that the Republican Party and our nation, too, will likely be changed significantly should the GOP actually nominate and legitimize Trump as its standard bearer. While we cannot know if such will occur, as I write, we can be sure of what sort of individual this businessman is, and we can say definitively that his brand of politics is both supremely anti-democratic and authoritarian. We can also say that those supporting him appear to be so angry about their present state, for whatever complex array of reasons, that they have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to jettison the principles of human rights and freedom on which the country is founded. For his part, and like so many demagogues before him, Trump has shown himself willing to play to that resentment and its associated fears, and to exploit social divisions to acquire power. As I have remarked in previous commentaries, if this is a classic scenario for the emergence of democratic tyranny, its occurrence is no less dismal for that fact.

Indeed, as Frost’s poem highlights for the traveler, while the exact implications of the willingness of these citizens to accept a narcissist’s empty claims, xenophobia, nationalism and racism as salve for their perceived woes cannot be known now, they will surely be consequential for our governance and institutions, whether their favorite is ultimately selected or turned aside by their party and nation. That is, while we cannot know with certainty just what will follow from the turn in our politics that Trump’s rise represents, it appears very likely that we will collectively continue as a nation to suffer the consequences of some among us choosing to support his brand of demagoguery.

James Madison, among the most brilliant of our country’s remarkable Founders, spent virtually his entire career exploring the central question of how to preserve democratic possibility against the vicissitudes of human capacity for evil, self-absorption and rationalization. It seems fair to say that he was more than ingenious in devising ways to secure the former against the likelihood of continuing assaults by the latter. We have now entered a time when many Americans appear willing to discard even the strongest of Madison’s defenses to support a demagogue out of a combination of economic insecurity and dread of possibly diminished social standing. As America’s fourth president surely knew, such bulwarks are always breached when freedom is lost, and the choice, in retrospect, is always a poor one. That fact rarely prevents the purveyor from destroying the proverbial wall, however.

Frost was doubtless correct that we cannot always know when we make choices what their consequences may be for ourselves and for the many others we do not realize will be affected by our decisions. But those choices will be real, and in the present case, as a major political party flirts with nominating a xenophobe, they look set to do great and enduring harm not only to our nation’s democratic institutions, but also more deeply and tellingly to the culture that must sustain them. The great irony of our present situation is that so many Americans appear willing voluntarily to give up their hard won democratic agency by employing it to undermine its genuine future exercise.

 

Notes  

[1] Orr, David. The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong New York: Penguin Press, 2015.

[2] Frost, Robert. Selected Poems New York: Gramercy Books/Random House, Inc., 1992, 163.