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The Politics of Dignity

By       Message Robert Fuller     Permalink
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Woody Allen joked that relationships are like sharks: they either keep moving or they die. Democracy is a relationship between those in positions of authority and the citizenry, and if we're not continually saving it, we're losing it. The reason for this is that new forms of power are constantly emerging and democracy has to keep pace with them to guard against potential creeping transgressions--that is, new instances of rankism. One example of this is the way television has transformed the political process, giving an advantage to candidates with the financial resources to purchase the most broadcast time.

This makes it easier for the wealthy to acquire and wield power, and as many commentators have pointed out, it moves nations away from democracy toward plutocracy. In response, some European governments are striving to reduce the role of money in politics by attempting to equalize what candidates spend on media campaigns.

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But television has also had another effect on politics, one that serves the weak. Like the printing press before it and the Internet later, television informs, and insofar as it's accurate, information is empowering. Although technological innovations may at first benefit the authorities, who are usually quicker to exploit them, citizens eventually get their hands on new advances and over time, this strengthens their position vis---vis those in charge.

Television has made of the world a global village in which everyone knows how the other half lives. The Internet, cell phones, and text messaging shift power away from the governors toward the governed. The growing use of blogs on the Internet is another example of how technological innovations bring change to government, in this case by amplifying the voices of citizens and weakening the traditional media's control over the news. The Internet is a democratizing tool that offers vast numbers of people affordable ways to publish, make videos, produce music--in short, to communicate, contribute, and gain recognition.

As such it is a dignitarian bulwark against rankism. Democracy evolves as a majority of citizens realize that eliminating identified forms of rankism benefits society as a whole. A government's legitimacy rests on its capability and willingness to put the interests of the citizenry as a whole over those of any subgroup, no matter how powerful. Decisions that favor an elite rather than the country as a whole are quite literally unpatriotic.

Navigating the Ship of State

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The partisan divide into right and left, conservative and liberal, stems from the ongoing and unavoidable choice facing all societies over how much authority to vest in rank. The right has traditionally been the party that defends the authority and prerogatives of power-holders, the left the party that limits them. These identifications can reverse, however, depending on which party is in charge. When the left overthrew the Czar and took over during the Russian Revolution of 1917, it quickly abolished all limits on governmental power.

Since both right and left orientations have a vital role in good management, it's not surprising that democratic electorates tilt first one way and then the other. They are like the captain of a ship who makes a continual series of course corrections, to starboard and port, in order to avoid beaching the ship (of state) on the shoals (of extremism).

This simple model of left-right complementarity is complicated by the existence of multiple levels of authority: national, regional or state, municipal, and individual. Both the left and the right may try to use the power of one level of government to weaken or strengthen that held at other levels or by certain people. Examples include progressive support for, and conservative opposition to, national civil rights legislation during the segregationist era and the present-day federal protection of abortion rights.

Another current example, in which the attitude of left and right toward federal power is reversed, is conservative support for, and progressive opposition to, a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage. Generally, conservatives view governmental regulation and taxation as restrictions upon individual authority and autonomy and thus oppose them, whereas those on the left see these functions of government as fairly distributive of power and are more willing to support them.

Which party fulfills the progressive or conservative role is secondary compared to the overarching need to maintain social and political stability. A society that doesn't trust anyone with authority loses its ability to coordinate and execute complicated tasks in a timely fashion.

Systems of governance that cannot "stop people talking," to use Clement Attlee's phrase cited in chapter 3, are vulnerable to what the women's movement in the 1960s called the "tyranny of structurelessness," which groups that govern by consensus will recognize as the interminable, indecisive meeting. On the other hand, a society that doesn't limit the power of its rulers (such as in the USSR and Nazi Germany) will find individual initiative stifled and liberty eroded. In this case, the threat is the tyranny of conformity.

What's imperative for civic stability and civil governance is that both upholding and circumscribing the power vested in rank have earnest advocates and that partisans be aware of and have some appreciation for the validity of the role played by their opponents. This duality is so important that even in one-party systems dedicated to some ideological principle, the divide between conservatives and liberals soon reappears in the form of "hard-liners" and "democratizers."

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Navigating the ship of state between right and left reflects the need to avoid absolutism and anarchy, either of which can be the undoing of a government and a people. Systems of governance that lack such a steering mechanism are prone to self-destruct. Without its opposite number to serve as a counterweight, either party, unrestrained, will eventually run a nation aground. To paraphrase an unknown pundit, we have lunatic fringes so we know how far not to go.

An individual's political orientation is influenced by his or her own personal relationship to rank. For a variety of reasons--psychological and political, and, recent studies hint, even genetics--some tilt conservative, and an approximately equal number tilt liberal. As Gilbert and Sullivan put it in their play Iolanthe:

I often think it's comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal,
That's born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!

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Robert W. Fuller is a physicist, a former president of Oberlin College, and author of The Rowan Tree: A Novel. He has consulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president's Commission on World Hunger, worked in the (more...)

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