So, you’re disillusioned. You don’t want to vote for the lesser evil this election season, and you told yourself that you wouldn’t.
I’m sorry to say this, but if that indeed is your sentiment, you’re straight out of luck (and as Samuel L. Jackson might say, you need to wake the f*ck up). In a fallen world, voting for the lesser evil is the only option available to us. Any political philosopher—or at least any political philosopher operating with a modicum of basic human gumption—would tell you the same. And amongst my favorite adherents to this political/philosophical premise was Reinhold Niebuhr, the mid-twentieth-century American theologian.
As it happens, the president shares this admiration.
Indeed, throughout Obama’s tenure in office, Niebuhr’s ghost could be seen everywhere, from the president’s Cairo and Nobel speeches to his actions throughout the debt ceiling crisis, and America has been the luckier for it. Nearly every page Niebuhr ever wrote is filled with insights relevant to our spectacularly interesting and unfortunate epoch. And in a sad testament to the gravity of the current crisis, it is Niebuhr’s 1944 masterpiece Children of Light, Children of Darkness which provides the best guide to understanding the current dynamics of American politics.
Niebuhr wrote Children of Light, Children of Darkness at the height of democracy’s conflict with authoritarianism. It was aimed at assisting democracy through the ideological struggles of the time.
According to Niebuhr, democratic societies then—and, I believe, now—find chief amongst their supporters “children of light,” people who are possessed of enthusiastic but naïve notions about the ease by which liberal societies can be governed by enlightened reason alone. Niebuhr suggested that the children of light needed to adopt some of the tactical and strategic wisdom of the children of darkness, even while rejecting their cynical approach to politics.
In many ways, this analysis is as relevant today as it was then, and this is cause to be both more hopeful that the fever gripping American politics is on the verge of breaking and more fearful about the consequences if it doesn’t.
The Democratic coalition, at both its leadership and grassroots levels, has, at long last, assumed the strategy, tactics and philosophy of a mature political coalition. After decades of practicing the good-intentioned but naïve conciliatorism of the children of light, the party, including its grassroots (mostly), now shows signs of combining a more clearly defined mission with the hardnosed approach necessary to realize it.
The Republican Party, in contrast, has become increasingly reminiscent of Niebuhr’s “children of darkness.” Having undergone a truly ugly transformation over the course of the last 30 years, the GOP has descended into a continuously more juvenile, continuously angrier and more nihilistic entity.
There are no major parties anywhere else in the developed world that deny the scientific validity of evolution or the reality of climate change. There are no major political parties elsewhere in the developed world that are as intent on breaking down the church-state barrier or that are as hostile to enlightenment thinking in general. And there are no other major political parties that have embraced torture and the reckless application of military force, as Dick Cheney and most other leading lights of the Republican foreign policy establishment have done.
The GOP and its political coalition have become irredeemably infatuated with myths and idols.
And there can be no mincing of words: they have become dangers to themselves and the country at large.
Children of Darkness
The troubling trends in the Republican Party have manifested themselves most clearly in the promotion of Paul Ryan, a man with embarrassingly adolescent views of human nature and economic theory, as a candidate for the Vice Presidency of the United States. Ryan is, we are consistently assured by the punditocracy, the future of the party. So it’s perhaps no wonder that the boyish Wisconsinite is, or “was,” fascinated with the works of Ayn Rand, a corpus which is almost singularly representative of a certain kind of vapid teenage fanaticism.
Still, this is not a takedown of Rand or Ryan—such tasks have been undertaken elsewhere. Rand and her theories are of interest only to the extent that they are representative of the newest iteration of Republican ideology.
Whether the party realizes it or not, the GOP has departed from the traditional defense of their economic ideal. Indeed, for most of modern history, laissez-faire capitalism was understood and defended on the grounds that it was an almost sentimental and universalistic idea. It was seen as a system that organized complex interrelationships in a way that guided individual action toward the greatest good for the greatest number.
With the rise of Paul Ryan, this defense has morphed into a screed, illiberal in origin, which posits a Manichean struggle between heroic “producers” and parasitic “looters.” In this world, even the most basic communitarian instinct, without which the very notion of a collectivity makes little sense, is looked upon with suspicion and scorn.
Indeed, ideas of the community or the commonwealth have all but disappeared from the lexicon of the Republican Party, while the term “collectivist” is bandied about to silence anyone who expresses the slightest concern that uncritical glorification of self-interest may come at a huge cost to society as a whole.
To borrow the language of Ernst Jünger, Randism has been a silently exploding mine, detonating in secret and undercutting a much older, much wiser tradition. It’s been horrible, terrifying to watch the flames spread.
With characteristic understatement, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein described the dynamic in terms of “asymmetric polarization.” However, what’s going on is more than simple polarization, a term which denotes merely a difference of degree, not of kind. The deeper problem stems from the fact that it is now questionable whether or not the parties are even debating each other from a shared liberal democratic tradition.
From the GOP’s embrace of torture, to its devil-may-care attitude adopted throughout the debt ceiling crisis, to its open declaration—in the midst of the most catastrophic economic collapse in generations—that the party’s number one priority was defeating Barack Obama, the GOP has demonstrated that it has become an entirely cynical machine intent only on procuring power. This is not the behavior of a responsible democratic (small “d”) party.
Children of Light
In Niebuhrian terms, there are no purer examples of the “children of light” than Occupy Wall Street.
Unlike the arch-conservative Tea Party, which sent almost 70 members to Congress in 2010, this mostly leftist movement effectively rejected the exercise of power, and eagerly embraced the naïve notion that the current system could be revolutionized through moral suasion alone. During the height of their relevance, Occupiers sought to live out their social ideals in the streets of America’s cities. Direct democracy was put in the spotlight for a few brief moments, and the country rolled its eyes.
It’s a source of some internal pride amongst the Occupiers that they never “sold out.” But, to quote Niebuhr, “it’s an illusion of the children of light that evil can be destroyed merely by avowing ideals.” This is because the persuasive powers of ideals are, to an extent which was underappreciated by Occupy (and children of light in general), intimately related to the power of those proclaiming them.
The children of light are also found amongst the large number of individuals who have come to despair of politics in general, and have largely adopted a reflexive “pox on both your houses” attitude. This attitude is best illustrated by Americans Elect, a “non-partisan” group that sought to put forward a third party challenge in the 2012 election.
Despite offering very little in terms of new policy, Americans Elect ran on changing the “tone” in Washington. Indeed, there was a sweet sentimentality at play here, a sentimentality that assumed that the ups and downs of the political process should be smoother than they, in fact, can be. Rather than helping the situation, the group’s anodyne style of imitation politics exacerbated a trend toward apoliticism and anti-politicism amongst the electorate.
They were enabled, too, by a media that should have known better.
In a very real sense, much of the media are children of light, too. It is all too often the operating assumption amongst our various news outlets that if one political party does something untoward, there must be an analog on the “other side.” And all too often, where such balance does not exist, there is an insistence on creating it.
It takes a studied naiveté to assume that the political and moral universe is always and everywhere in “balance”; it takes a studied naiveté to find any real equivalency between Republican abuses of the filibuster and the actions of their Democratic colleagues.
Tragically, this “view from nowhere” is an explicit boon to those wishing to propagate radical ideas—a fact that has not been lost on those seeking to do just that.
The children of light appear to be learning, however, and they are increasingly less prone to losing sight of the issues at hand. There is little danger of returning to an era where Ralph Nader could convince a crucial element of the electorate that both parties are the “same.” This is progress, as the political conflicts of the day— over abortion, over taxation, over Social Security, over health care and gay rights—are not simply sideshows intended to distract people from broader systemic inequalities; they are real fights whose outcomes affect the lives of millions of people in direct, appreciable ways.
Where the Twain Shall Meet
When he was first inaugurated, Barack Obama pursued an agenda that was extraordinarily bipartisan in intent. From adopting an approach to health care reform hatched in the incubators of a “severely conservative” think tank to keeping on Bush-appointed officials as heads of the Federal Reserve and the Department of Defense, the belief that the two parties could reconcile their biggest differences and come to a mutual accord through dialogue was the default assumption of the administration.
It was a belief born of the children of light, complete with its pretty delusions. Its weaknesses were made apparent very quickly.
The President and his party met obstruction every step of the way. The GOP chose to define itself almost entirely in opposition to the Democratic Party and the democratically elected leader of the United States. And, more seriously, party members sought, through overt and covert avenues, to question the very legitimacy of his presidency. As a means toward this end, they exploited and exacerbated racial and cultural tensions in an alarming fashion, and to an alarming degree.
Partly of their own volition, and partly because their hands were forced by the Randization of Republican ideology, the Democratic coalition has learned to forcefully make the case that the government has an important role in ensuring the proper functioning of a democratic society. We are seeing, for the first time in many years, their enthusiastic support for the Niebuhrian notion that both political power and economic power are independent (if interrelated) pillars undergirding freedom in this country. In contrast to the GOP and its coalition, Democrats have been persuasively arguing that it is precisely the tensions between those pillars that create the philosophical and (more importantly) practical foundations for individual liberty.
We are also seeing an evolution in terms of tactics. Refusing to be Swift Boated again, the Democrats have adopted an astonishingly aggressive campaign strategy in 2012. From Harry Reid’s casual accusation that Mitt Romney is guilty of tax shenanigans to Barack Obama’s direct assault on Romney’s troubling career at Bain Capital, the Democratic Party is showing real derring-do on the campaign trail. The three principles of this year’s Democratic campaign appear to be: Hope, Change, and Pugilism. And thank God for it.
Politics is always limited by human nature, and it is human nature for success and power to contain the seeds of future corruption. However, it’s long past time that the Democratic coalition stopped focusing on the corruptions of power not yet obtained and spent its energy fighting the corruptions so painfully, so apparently, and so dangerously on display amongst its opponents.
The instinct to resist future corruption is good, but, as Niebuhr reminds us, for the children of light to successfully fight the children of darkness, it is necessary that they actually come into contact with them. In the end, this may necessitate learning from them, but it does not mean becoming them.
Thomas DeVito has a Master’s degree in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has traveled to over 30 different countries and spent 2011 living and teaching in Panama. Thomas also writes at Mission.tv.
Editor: Jayleigh Lewis