On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine a moment in our nation’s history where the two parties were worse. We’ve had lots of ugly moments in our nation’s political history, but even at our low points you could pick out reasons for hope, reasons to think that the status quo would change. I don’t see any reason for hope in the mainstream of either party right now. Both sides do have dissident voices that independents can rally to, but there’s little reason to think that non-statist communitarians will gain any traction with the Democrats or that the localist/traditionalist faction will gain much ground in the GOP. But the second layer to this is that there isn’t a way to live apolitically. What’s needed, then, is a new way of approaching politics. And that way won’t preclude supporting one of the two main parties when those parties deserve to be supported, but neither will it be defined by a default posture of acceptance and sympathy to one party or the other.
The difficulty here is that we struggle to imagine non-partisan forms of community involvement. I’ve quoted it before, but Barney Frank’s quotation cited in a Ross Douthat column earlier this year should give you a migraine: “Government is simply the name we give to the things we’ve chosen to do together.” You won’t find a more devastating indictment of our nation’s lack of communal imagination than that. Indeed, the first step toward healing may well be opening our eyes to the myriad forms of communal identity and communal activity that don’t involve the magistrate (that’s the word the Reformers favored for describing the state) in any way whatsoever.
A few examples of this sort of community…
You’ll have to read the whole thing for those examples. I wonder whether the late Vaclav Havel’s idea of “anti-political politics” has any relevance to this discussion? Havel, of course, wrote of this from the heart of a totalitarian nightmare. Normal politics were not possible in communist Czechoslovakia, not only because the Communist Party maintained a monopoly on power and public discourse, but also because the very language of discourse had been thoroughly corrupted by communism and the lies necessary to maintain it. In the 1980s, as a dissident, Havel wrote:
One such fundamental experience, that which I called ‘anti-political politics’, is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long term and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience and subconsciousness and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development. It is, however, becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters. It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the ‘innocent’ power and to unmask its guilt, as the author of The Gulag Archipelago has done. It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power. The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can, though speaking to themselves. It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakeable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honouring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.
Yes, ‘anti-political politics’ is possible. Politics ‘from below’. Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the ‘rule of everydayness’ we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.
When Jan Patocka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term ‘solidarity of the shaken’. He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity. Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power—the phenomenon of human conscience?
Again, it’s important not to read too much into this. Havel was talking about building an effective resistance against a totalitarian system that lived by lies and brute force. It would be almost an obscenity to compare our situation in contemporary America to what the Czech dissidents faced.
Nevertheless, might there be some similarities, notably in the sense that the normal means of political activity have become so corrupt — by money, by power, by ideological rigidity, etc. — that there is little or no reason to hope that politics can effectively address our common problems? It seems to me Jake Meador, in observing how impoverished we are to think that all politics has to take place within government and party structures, is trying to ease us toward imagining an American version of Havel’s anti-political politics.