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The Politics of Dignity

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One determinant of personal political orientation can be compensatory: we may give our support to the party whose predilection we wish to strengthen within ourselves. Thus, the people who fear their own indiscipline may champion the party of law and order and leave telltale hints of their underlying motives by expressing excessive disdain for liberals, whom they perceive as libertines. And those who seek to dispel guilt for a history of domination or prejudice may do so by becoming proselytizing champions of the weak, thereby expiating their sins and gaining a sense of moral purity.

Another factor in party preference is that each of us carries within, to different degrees and at different times, a sense of being both a somebody and a nobody. Those who identify themselves with their inner nobody are more apt to sympathize with those whom society casts as underdogs or second-class citizens. Contrariwise, those who align themselves with their inner somebody are more apt to support the "law and order" party.

Regardless of political orientation, aversion to abuses of power can blind partisans to rank's legitimate functions. Likewise, excessive loyalty to power-holders can turn partisans into apologists for rank's misuse. Tracing peoples' political orientation to their relationship to authority helps explain why political argument is so rarely persuasive. A good deal of partisan dispute stems from our gut feelings about whether increasing or decreasing the power of officeholders, especially as it may bear on a current issue in which we ourselves stand to gain or lose, is the greater threat. Once that choice has been made, the "facts" can usually be spun to support it, and reciting them to someone in the other camp has little effect.

A Dignitarian Model of Politics

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To sum up, fair and effective government requires balancing the need for some centralization of power with concern about its proper use. That in turn requires a political model in which both parties acknowledge the legitimate functions of power and are conscientious about limiting it to the proper sphere. In the dignitarian model, tension between liberals and conservatives is regarded as a natural part of working out the appropriate use of authority in a given situation. Instead of being locked in stalemate, the parties engage, without fear or malice, in an open process of give-and-take until a common understanding is reached.

As rankism, like racism, falls into disrepute, the partisan insults, put-downs, and smears we have become accustomed to will find less favor with the electorate. Sneering at opposing views, contempt for nonbelievers, and personal attacks will all backfire, discrediting the purveyors and not their targets. There is no reason to expect dignitarian politics to be less argumentative, but there's every reason to believe it will be more civil.

The message of detachment common in Eastern religions provides a useful antidote to the rancor and self-righteousness of partisan politics. It encourages us to witness and acknowledge our reactions to a situation and see them as part of a larger picture. Activism is not conceived of as directed against an evil foe, but rather as part of a dynamic in which one's opponents also have a valid, if perhaps misguided, role.

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Detached activists, while putting their strongest case forward, take pains to protect the dignity of their adversaries in what is, after all, a struggle to identify and expose whatever specific ignorance is sustaining the conflict. If you lose sight of the dignity of your adversaries, it's a sign that you're intoxicated by your own ideology. According to a Mayan saying: Tu eres me otro yo (You are my other self).

A dignitarian politics, while allowing for partisanship, would be inhospitable to the ideological extremism and dysfunctional incivility that undermine many modern democracies. The most effective thing one side can do to win the cooperation of the other is to discover what it is that's right about the opponent's position. Once a party to a conflict feels that some kernel of truth it defends has been appreciated by the other side and incorporated into a broader model--one that transcends the starting positions of both adversaries--it becomes easier for that party to cooperate. The day often goes to the side that takes the lead in figuring out a way for its opponents to hold their heads high while both sides abandon some of what they've been fighting for. Dignitarian politics is not so much nonpartisan as it is transpartisan.

Confronting Bureaucratic Rankism

Rankism is the malady of bureaucracy. Regardless of state ideology, when bureaucrats put their interests above that of the public they're meant to serve, trust is eroded. Bureaucratic rankism is an equal opportunity disease afflicting communists and capitalists, fascists and democrats, liberals and conservatives alike.

But despite its endemic nature, rankism can indeed be overcome, one step at a time. Not that there aren't good grounds for cynicism. The rankist dysfunction that plagued FBI operations prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has been identified by numerous investigative bodies. In hindsight, the success of the attacks was widely attributed to the rankist culture of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The consensus is that on that fateful day America paid a tragic price for deeply ingrained habits that caused the FBI and CIA to put their institutional interests ahead of public safety.

In contrast to these high-profile instances of bureaucratic rankism are success stories that exemplify the opposite. Perhaps the most noteworthy recent example of overcoming the rankism of U.S. government officials is the Watergate scandal. A less publicized, closer-to-home example that directly affects every American taxpayer involves the Internal Revenue Service.

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In 1997, during hearings of the Senate Finance Committee, it came to light that IRS agents and auditors were using the power of the agency to harass political dissidents, various religious groups, and certain other citizens by subjecting them to punitive audits. A whistle-blower named Shelley Davis, former historian for the IRS, described the "intransigence, arrogance, and abusive patterns of behavior that [are] common inside...the IRS" in her book Unbridled Power: Inside the Secret Culture of the IRS. In testimony to the committee she described the agency's Special Services Staff as a secret, cloistered unit of list-keepers. Anyone it considered "of questionable character," as determined from newspaper articles and their FBI files, was targeted for auditing even if they had no known tax problems.7

In this case the system of checks and balances worked as the Founding Fathers envisaged and the rankist agency practices at issue were identified and largely eliminated.As a result of the congressional hearings, the discretion of individual agents was removed from the equation.

Rather than allowing them to target people based on their own opinions, a system was instituted that flagged returns for audit by computers programmed to pick up patterns of probable underpayment. This new arrangement eliminated personal discretion from the audit selection process and has gone a long way towards curbing abusive IRS power and quelling public concerns about it.

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