When I returned to school, after drifting for a not insignificant time, I wanted to be sure that the topic I chose to study possessed a powerful personal internal interest.
For this reason, I chose to study government at New Mexico State University. Anyone unfamiliar with the study of government should know that it is basically a study of political science with a qualitative and historical emphasis.
Studying government in 2010 was inspirational and interesting in one critical way: I was fascinated by the agitations and machinations of the state of the American democratic system. Quite simply I wanted to discover, or partially discover the reasons for the profound complexity, and dissension towards a system that was established to allow citizens to exercise self-rule.
It seemed the best way to examine the problem was to start at the beginning, understanding the arrangements and systems that humanity has used through millennia to live together, to understand why Aristotle posited that “man is a political animal.”
My Political Theory professor, Dr. Gregory Butler once posed a very simple question to the class that serves as the founding reason for political philosophy: “How do we get people to behave in the way they ought to behave?”
Obviously this singular interrogative contains many assumptions, suppositions, and implications; yet, the question basically holds true for all political theorists. All political theorists attempt to answer the question in a satisfactory or at least novel way.
Political theory classes naturally attracted my attention with exciting course descriptions and thought provoking summaries. My gateway into this world, Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzche promised (in my mind) to contain some semblance of understanding that could be applied to address my original inquiry. Instead, throughout the study of the Modern political philosophers there could not be found a satisfactory answer to the most basic implication of our question.
In order to provide an answer on how to “get people to behave the way they ought to behave,” implies that there is some singular or multifaceted way that people should behave. Philosophically every thinker had to grapple with the question of human nature, and by extension the purpose of human existence. Even the most pragmatic, and materialistic philosophers, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were forced to examine or address the “problem” of human nature. Locke and Hobbes both essential “punt” on the question and instead focus on how large groups of people may live together and limit instability, injustice, and violence as much as possible.
The Modern thinkers that shaped the 19th and 20th centuries most significantly: Rousseau, Nietzche, and Marx all approached the question of human nature with a gnostic vigor (they felt they had discovered the hidden truth that universally drives humanity). Rousseau felt that the human in a natural (pre-societal) state was in essence a noble being, one bereft of the flaws of greed, jealousy, spite, vengeance etc… Rousseau imagines an idyllic singular “savage” free to pursue and survive according to the individual’s desire. Nietzche ultimately concluded (somewhat tragically) that humanity has no inborn nature, and therefore, no reason to exist. This left Nietzche with only the “Will to Power,” an existence in which humans persist simply through the force of their own will. Marx determined that the secret the basis as he called it, of human nature was to labor creatively. Doing and making good and wonderful things is central to the human condition in Marx’ view of human nature.
These three thinkers through their gnostic approach to knowledge inadvertently led to the establishment of the three most repressive, violent, unjust, and unstable regimes of the 19th and 20th centuries. The hunt for Rousseau’s “Great Legislator,” that would undo the laws removing humanity from its noble state throughout the French revolution created a veritable merry-go-round of coups, leaders, and executions. Nietzche’s misrepresented philosophy fed directly into the foundation of Nazi Germany. Finally, Marxist thought via Lenin and Trotsky led to one of the least economically productive, most unjust and most entrenched power structures in Europe.
I left out Locke, and Hobbes because as I stated earlier, they basically “punted” on the implication of human nature. Instead, Hobbes viewed human existence famously as, “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short,” unless subjected to the “awe” of a singular leviathan. It is no coincidence that Hobbes was writing in reaction to the French revolution. Locke also largely punts on the question of human nature; however, in the brief instances in which Locke does address human nature he points to singular rights that all men possess: life, liberty and property (not happiness as Thomas Jefferson would later change with flourish). It is this focus on the material world that classifies Locke as a materialistic thinker.
So, if I was to examine where American government went wrong and I needed to begin by answering the basic assumption behind the question of government: “how do you get people to behave the way they ought to behave,” the major modern thinkers had nothing compelling to offer.
Classical thought provided much more satisfactory conclusions, all of which are somewhat similar and resemble in many ways religious meaning structures. Among the classical thinkers, Aristotle is widely credited with the creation of the “Great chain of Being” to classify all forms of life, placing beasts at the bottom and beings of divine nature at the top. Aristotle furthers this assessment in the Nichomachean Ethics and translates it to the nature of humanity roughly arriving at the following argument on the nature of humanity. Human nature is not one thing, but rather an experiential state of being. Being human involves striving to avoid the bestial nature of humanity and the attempt through the pursuit of logic, ethics, and pathos to become similar to divine, perfectly virtuous beings.
Reviewing it now, the experiential nature of being human resonates particularly strong. It is only in our unique experiences, tribulations, victories, defeats, and recoveries that we begin to understand what it truly means to be human. Our identities, shifting, fluid, and dynamic as they are, all derive from our personal experiences.
Why do I take such a detour to establish my adherence to the classical philosophy that humanity’s nature is experiential? I take this detour to establish that individuals claiming to possess secret knowledge about the deeper truth of human nature, that these gnostics, are dangerous, and are incorrect. Beware thinkers selling an easy way out of current problems, or a singular solution to complex realities. Human nature, and by extension, the nature of many people living in one group is incredibly diverse, contradictory, and continually changing.
Fundamentally it is also this experiential reality that lies at the heart of a plethora of issues that plague the current American representative democracy.
Lets begin by addressing Congress. Currently RealClearPolitics places the Congressional approval rating at 14.5% this is near a historical low; yet, the American people elected every single representative and senator. This contradictory fact illuminates one major contemporary reality. Congress is collectively despised, but individual members gain the approval of their constituencies at least every six years, and in most cases every two years by winning popular elections. Why do Americans almost universally disapprove of the federal legislative body? In most polls the leading reasons for disapproval is the view that gridlock, partisan bickering, and an inability to “get anything done” are the leading reasons most Americans disapprove of the Congress.
What is the experiential reason for Congress collectively and Congressmen individually to fall victim to gridlock, engage in partisan bickering and generally be unable or unwilling to accomplish any agenda? Quite simply, a desire to win the next election and continue holding their position. It is the experience of an elected official that any action they take will displease a group of people. If these displeased people are large enough, or wealthy enough, a Congressman’s actions will lead to them losing their position in the next election.
The rules, and regulations of the House and Senate also provide a ready-made justification for having taken no action or made any progress towards policies that a candidate claimed to support to win their election. The vagaries of House rules and procedure, and the even more arcane rules of the Senate allow an individual representative to claim that they are continually being blocked and countered by the opposing party.
This frames the problem as an identity struggle, an “us v. them” affair in which political parties become increasingly divided and increasingly unable to come to compromise. In this climate of adversarial politicking we have witnessed the death of compromise. We have reached, and allowed ourselves to be led to the point at which large, or wealthy groups are able to manipulate politicians into hard-line positions and require candidates to sign pledges for certain policies before receiving funding or support. This is dangerous. It assumes that conditions will never change, and assumes that progress can be made through sheer ideological purity and single-minded will. Ideological purity is similar to gnostic suppositions about human nature. Ideological purity prescribes concrete policies that would in an almost mystical fashion, ameliorate every current ill in the American system.
The Presidency represents an even greater degree of our granulation and indoctrination into an “us-vs-them” identity, and a striving for ideological purity so compartmentalized that no less than 20 major candidates at one point were vying for the nomination from either the Democratic or Republican Party.
The Republican party primary in particular has begun to resemble a (thankfully bloodless) French revolution of sorts, as the party continually searched for that one “Great Legislator” figure that will finally be ideologically pure, and willful enough to make the policies changes necessary to return America to its correct order.
Why has the Presidency become such a prominent political office? Through necessity. As Congress, and Congressmen grew to understand that the safest way to win re-election was to do nothing, the office of the President began to take on the slack Congress created. The “First Imperial President” FDR redefined the Presidency in an unprecedented manner recognizing the need to take action both to end the great depression and to face fascist aggression FDR shifted the office of the President from a more passive executive of Congressional law to an active shaper and crafter of policy and legislation. Americans now expect the President and candidates to have clear legislative goals, and to take not just a role, but the leading role in crafting legislation.
There are a plethora of other reasons that the American democratic system is currently failing its constituents. The root of these issues all involve the experiential divide between our leaders and our citizens. Central to our humanity and our shifting identities is our set of experiences. How then does our political system account for our diverse and shifting nature? We must allow our representatives room to compromise. We must share our experiences with our elected officials and even more critically, with each other. We must engage one another and allow ourselves to experience empathy with our fellow citizens, humbly approaching and learning from each other. We must be more dialectic in our understanding and less singular. Finally, we must continue to be engaged, involved and dialectic with our leaders when they are leading and not simply when they are asking for our approval to keep leading. Exercising self-government is not a part-time job. It is not one vote every two or four years. It is a daily conversation, evaluation and participation in life and in our communities.
The information age, and the advent of the internet and mobile technology have driven interaction and engagement in new and incredible directions. We can now accomplish so much from our connected, mobile devices, why can’t we leverage our devices to become more actively engaged in our self-government? Why can’t we use this connectivity and communication to facilitate dialogue and understanding? Why can’t we use technology to empathize and experience each other? Why can’t we leverage technology to be better citizens? Why can’t we use this technology to revive the compromise?
Zeall would allow us to communicate in the political arena in new and powerful ways, it would allow potential leaders to engage their constituency in novel and exciting ways. Citizens would get to experience the reality of running for elected office, guiding policy and critically, citizens would more directly and intimately experience the reality of self-rule.
This is why I work to help make Zeall a reality, and why I continue to argue in favor of pragmatism, compromise and understanding.