This series has argued that egalitarian, democratic practices are made possible in part by the human biological capacity for empathy and that democracy emerged tens of thousands of years ago, long before the ancient Greeks and long before notions of austere, unemotional reason took hold of the Western imagination. As a longtime Democratic consultant, activist, and writer, I am searching for a coherent historical and moral grounding for resistance to the anti-democratic, right wing assault on voting rights, civil justice, public education, and the separation of powers. This series is part of that search.
Because you and I are blessed with the ability to recognize one another as human beings possessed of similar hopes, fears, strengths and vulnerabilities, we make a promise to protect one another from harm and to give to one another the opportunity for free, happy and fulfilling lives. We take responsibility for ourselves and for each other. Millenia ago, long before the Ten Commandments or the ethical codes of the East, we came together, shaken, hopeful and uncertain, and made a promise that we would insist upon our dignity and equality in the face other, less beneficial qualities we knew were also present within the hearts of some: an unscrupulous lust for power and authority over others.
This is The Promise, and it emerged in overt political practices from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago among Late Paleolithic people. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm said the effort created the human moral community. D.H. Lawrence called The Promise “a recognition of souls, all down the open road.” Philosopher Jan Patocka called it the “solidarity of the shaken.”
The Promise is exactly opposite of what many claim Thomas Hobbes meant in his discussion of promising. Hobbes, they say, holds that our promises to one another are empty and unenforceable unless a sovereign authority, unbound by promises of any kind, can enforce them. Whatever we may think of Hobbes’ view of human nature (and many, like James R. Martel in his new book, Subverting Leviathan, think the neo-conservatives have gotten Hobbes all wrong), The Promise – and the earliest democratic aspirations and practices it inspired – was anti-authoritarian from the very beginning. We promised each other freedom, equality and fraternity in our mutual hostility to abusive or absolute authority.
Lyndon Johnson, in his March 15, 1965 address to Congress urging passage of the Voting Rights Act, called it “The Promise of America.” Johnson’s historic speech came four days after a Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb, died after a brutal beating in Selma, Alabama, where he had gone to join the march led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here, in part, is what Johnson said:
I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy…
At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed…
This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal” – “government by consent of the governed” – “give me liberty or give me death.” Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries…
Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man…
Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in 50 states, are the people that we serve. Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their hearts tonight as they sit there and listen. We all can guess, from our own lives, how difficult they often find their own pursuit of happiness, how many problems each little family has. they look most of all to themselves for their futures. But I think that they also look to each of us.
Empathy, the ability to imagine others as humans like ourselves, the capacity that led to humankind’s greatest gift to each other, is invoked by Johnson in his demand that we renew The Promise.
The Promise, as the Basis of a State?
As we saw in Part II, The Promise was realized by the Iroquois long before Europeans arrived on this continent. It was invoked by the earliest colonists, too. John Winthrop, aboard the ship, Arabella, that brought him to America, urged his fellow passengers to remember, “That every man might have need of others, and from thence they might all be knitt more nearly together in the Bond of brotherly affeccion. . .” James Madison spoke of the “intimate sympathy” that must bind a people together. The letters exchanged by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, recently celebrated in the HBO Series, John Adams, are a testament to the power of empathy and friendship among the very founders of the American democracy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The power of love, as the basis of a state, has never been tried.” Empathy no doubt plays a role in love, but they are, of course, quite different human capacities. Setting aside the serious concerns I have about “love-is-all-you-need” politics, such was the overwhelming cultural and philosophical force of the Age of Reason that Emerson was unable to see clearly that behind democracy was The Promise, and that such a covenant was unthinkable by the most exalted rationality unless there was already an empathy-born recognition of our mutual humanity and responsibility for one another.
But Emerson was right about the consequences of the failure to recognize the force of empathy in political, social and economic affairs. He wrote, later in the same essay, “Politics”:
What is strange too, there never was in any man sufficient faith in the power of rectitude, to inspire him with the broad design of renovating the State on the principle of right and love. All those who have pretended this design, have been partial reformers, and have admitted in some manner the supremacy of a bad State. I do not call to mind a single human being who has steadily denied the authority of the laws, on the simple ground of his own moral nature. Such designs, full of genius and full of fate as they are, are not entertained except avowedly as air-pictures. If the individual who exhibits them, dare to think them practicable, he disgusts scholars and churchmen; and men of talent, and women of superior sentiments, cannot hide their contempt.
Emerson’s word, “disgusts,” may be too strong, but not by much. In his new book, Loser Take All, Mark Crispin Miller and the authors whose work he’s collected in the hard-hitting anthology, detail the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans and the subversion of democracy successfully undertaken by Republicans from 2000 through 2006. Illegal purges of voter rolls. Hundreds of thousands or even millions of American votes destroyed or uncounted. Armed thugs intimidating minority voters on their way to the polls. Hackable (and hacked) electronic voting machines. New restrictive voter i.d. laws like Indiana’s. The U.S. Supreme Court’s approval of the Indiana law confirmed a ruling by federal appeals court judge like Richard Posner, who admitted the law will inhibit voting. Posner, of course, is a strong advocate for elite rule, and believes (I’m not kidding about this) that the nation is better served if citizens are not distracted from their first duty – shopping – by political issues that are beyond our ability to grasp.
What is just as alarming as the assault on democracy, however, is the meek and mild response the attack elicits from Americans who ought to know better, Americans who care about democracy and believe in its principles and institutions. Miller shames the mainstream media, which I noted in my 2004 book, The Politics of Deceit, had consciously and irresponsibly ignored decades of voter intimidation and suppression efforts by the anti-democratic right wing.
Miller suggests that the “sheer enormity” of the subversion of democracy has paralyzed progressives, including Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and a large number of Democrats who lost local races even in an otherwise good Democratic year, 2006. Leading Democrats don’t challenge the assault and defend our disappearing voting rights because their minds “cannot go where the appalling truth” would take them, Crispin writes. He continues:
Such deep paralysis is complicated. First of all, the hard truth is a violent affront to our most cherished notions of America; and so it’s far more comfortable to say, or act as if, it’s not the truth-a sort of blindness that afflicts not just the families of alcoholics and the wives of batterers but the citizens of “democratic” nations that are gradually succumbing to the iron fist.
The Promise Forgotten
Contributing to the blindness and paralysis is something much deeper – a deep forgetfullness. We have, collectively, forgotten The Promise. Our political theory and practice instead rely upon unworkable and mistaken notions of unemotional reason, as we saw in Parts I and II. We can’t adequately defend universal suffrage because we have forgotten the values that make it necessary to democracy. After the Enlightenment, the Left by and large adopted materialist and rationalist theories that diminished the importance of empathy. Marxism, socialism and democratic liberalism all based their plans and actions on rational control of the means of production, the distribution of wealth, or the levers of the government machine. Believers assumed technical planning and technological upgrades would slowly and inexorably lead to liberation and, of course, along the way eliminate barriers to full suffrage and authentic self-rule.
Hanging chads cause votes to be miscounted or uncounted? Democrats and Republicans stampeded to embrace electronic voting machines as the solution, machines that can be easily hacked to falsify election outcomes. The problems grew worse, not better, but the solutions seemed to fit a rationalist viewpoint that placed a premium on procedure while forgetting The Promise altogether.
Back in 2002 when I headed up a major statewide election, I called a meeting of attorneys, activists and consultants to begin planning for the voter suppression campaign from the other side. Election workers brought some of the newfangled electronic machines to the meeting. Some of us expressed immediate alarm. One line of code could be installed (and made to disappear just after the polls closed) that could alter the vote count. But there was a consensus that to go public with the concerns would seem paranoid.
Publicity about voter suppression and fraud might also suppress the Democratic turnout, it was feared. Perhaps it was the horrible enormity of the wholesale theft of elections that silenced so many. But there was a deeper problem as well. Without the articulation of the value that makes us want fair and open elections, a value carried in a narrative that has existed as long as human political organizations have existed, it’s hard to know where to begin to defend against a frontal assault on democratic institutions.
One of the American people’s great strengths is our refusal to be cowed by “realist” notions of the possible. We are a people of ideals and optimism. But, in the matter of keeping The Promise at the center of our political lives, the idealism, combined with the thin, rationalist political theories of the Left, make us vulnerable to the subversion of democratic practices. We don’t see our rights erased, because we believe them to be ideal, unassailable, transcendent. We are as convinced by myths of our democratic exceptionalism as we are that George Washington refused to lie about chopping down a cherry tree. The narrative is powerful – and blinding.
The Ancient Narrative
Somewhere in the deep past a group of humans discovered that their solidarity with each other was necessary if they were to protect themselves from upstart, authoritarian bullies who took and kept too much control of their lives. And so democratic practices were born. In the Ancient Near East, long before either ancient or classical Greece, people met to cast ballots. Councils of citizens checked the power of rulers. Even Gilgamesh had to get approval from not one but two citizen councils before taking his city to war.
But these origins were lost in a Myth of Democratic Origins that privileged classical Greece. European chauvinism obscured our deep, democratic past. Descartes divided mind and body, emotions were seen as in need of discipline by authoritarian reason, empathy became a weak or troubling quality that threatened autonomy or infected pure reason with an impure sentimentality that could not be trusted. The Enlightenment did liberate Westerners from preening princes and abusive religious authority that manipulated and oppressed whole populations. From the Enlightenment grew magnificent dreams of freedom and justice. But the rarefied notion of reason that prevailed – exemplified by Kant’s explicit rejection of empathy from moral deliberation – left progressive thinkers with a hole in their theories – and in our lives together.
It was conservative, Hobbesian thought that preached man’s essential evil, that said the state of nature was a war of all against all. The authoritarian state was necessary to protect us from ourselves. Progressive thought has been hobbled from the beginning because it either argued its case within this frame or followed rationalist and determinist thought which preached the ultimate liberation of man by macro historical forces of a scale that dwarfed the human.
How the Forgotten Promise Undermines Progressive
Values, Thought and Action
Is it any wonder that there remains a persistent, nagging deficiency in progressive political thought and speech? Let’s take just one example. More than a decade ago George Lakoff published Moral Politics. In that book and in subsequent work, Lakoff presented theories based in brain science about our two dominant political worldviews. Political language, Lakoff found, was metaphorical and was mapped from family organization onto the larger, more complex social and political world. Political conservatives generally followed a strict, authoritarian model which privileged discipline and obedience. Progressives followed a more nurturant, egalitarian model which privileged individual and social responsibility.
Isn’t it the case that those of us working to advance progressive ideas have found it much easier to diagnose what is regressive and destructive in conservative, authoritarian thought than advance values and ideas that flow naturally from progressive foundations?
I believe one reason for this is that a distorted view of rationality has hidden from us The Promise. Take two great, liberal, humanist thinkers, John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas. While there is much to be gained from their wise studies of human justice, both suffer from a focus upon bloodless abstractions.
Rawls imagines a just society would result from our imagining that we must devise systems of justice from behind a veil, without knowledge of where we might be born into the systems. This sounds a little like sympathy, or the imaginative projection of the plight of others. But when we pause a moment, we find there is no one behind the veil, no flesh, no love, no life, no death. Habermas imagines universal access to a transcendent realm of rational communication. He forgets, though, that love can be inarticulate, that it is imperfection and mortality we share, that solidarity is much more likely to arise from our shaken, awed and hopeful experiences with one another than from imagined ideal speech acts.
Some American philosophers, John Dewey for instance, have tried to bring notions of empathy and solidarity back into political thinking. Richard Rorty rejects overly rationalist thinking in favor of a kind of earthy, lets-forget-the-distracitons-of-theory and get on with the messy engagement with one another. But Rorty missed the human yearning that lies behind the possibility of solidarity. Essentially, he said that since we could never agree about the terms of The Promise, which smacked of discredited “foundationalist” thinking anyway, let’s not fret about it. For Rorty, freedom, equality and fraternity were replaced by contingency, irony, and, at least, a gesture towards solidarity.
Such a cursory glance at these great thinkers, of course, overlooks the powerful insights they gained while grappling with issues of life, death, justice and freedom. Their thinking can’t be dismissed in a couple of paragraphs, and I only wish here to show how The Promise, and the biological capacity for empathy that makes it possible, eluded their vision.
The Promise of Popular Democracy
I have focused primarily on what The Promise might mean with regard to voting rights. Of course, the implications run much deeper. Even universal suffrage cannot save us if unrestrained capitalism and a widening gap between rich and poor give a dominant elite class total control of critical information. The right wing assault on public education, if allowed to continue, will only feed suspicions that people simply aren’t smart enough for self-rule. Of course, that thought also hides The Promise. Human beings in social relations with others like themselves are going to learn things about one another, and their wisdom needs to be heeded by all of us. Still, isn’t it remarkable that the very same rulers who privilege rational control overtly deny others access to the rational knowledge they claim is so important? Of course, once they’ve consigned all but themselves to the category of the ruled, the elite see little need to educate them to be citizens. And so, college tuition costs rise beyond the means of many Americans, public school education deteriorates, and the elite clamor for the use of everybody’s tax dollars for the private schools only the children of the elite will attend.
The promise of popular democracy cannot be realized unless these social, economic and political barriers are weakened or eliminated. That sure is easy to say. As difficult as it might be to accomplish, it will be easier if we recall The Promise, if we understand the deep human bonds and the values that lie at the very foundation of progressive thought.
I am suggesting the reframing of democratic practices as the enactment of human solidarity. Currently, they are framed as rationalist procedures or machine-like structures or factories intended to produce democracy. Efforts at reform, then, appear more like remodeling projects than fundamental efforts at fulfilling a human-to-human promise.
These kinds of incrementalist, proceduralist undertakings are bound to fail. They also separate ideas from values. Most progressives agree with the ideal of universal suffrage, and they can point to the steady extension of the franchise: first to all white men, then women, then African-Americans. The value, they assume, is shared by all Americans. The rest is procedural. Tinkering like rationalist remodelers with voting systems or other political procedures and practices should iron out any difficulties. Witness decades of so-called campaign finance reform. Can anybody truly say that the power of Big Money in elections has been reduced by all the bureaucratic disclosure requirements, the arguments over the kinds of political committees and the kinds of reports that must be filed and re-filed by all these kinds of committees? The answer is no. If anything, wealth is more easily translated into political power than at any other time in American history.
When we forget the promise of equality and shared responsibility we have made to one another, the ancient promise that gave birth to the first human steps toward democracy, we fail to articulate the value that drives the progressive spirit. We wind up arguing in frames set by the conservative opposition about details that won’t matter much even if we win the argument.
If viewed in the light of The Promise, however, the ongoing betrayal of our responsibilities to one another becomes much easier to identity – and maybe easier to eliminate. Marriages aren’t often saved when a couple, desperate for any way of restoring their faith in their mutual promises, remodels their house, though such incremental changes are often tried in failing relationships. But the problem is never the house. It is usually that the promises are forgotten. And much the same is true in the wider social and political world.
Another negative consequence of the failure to acknowledge The Promise is the relegation of politics to a dirty-handed, ugly business many wish we could do without altogether. How many Americans view politics as an dark and dangerous alleyway populated only by confidence men and selfish manipulators? If we reframed political practices as our mutual enactment of trust and solidarity, as covenantal rituals, we might begin to rehabilitate the reputation of the political sphere. It’s also likely that the real con men and selfish manipulators would be more easily recognized.
Empathy and the Global Road
Many will argue that an empathy-based covenant is much easier to create and maintain among an intimate group, say, early hunter-gatherers. As we saw in Part II, the empathy-at-a-distance displayed by and learned through early novels, dramas, even paintings and engravings, helped fuel the 18th Century democratic revolutions. The Promise has always been present in our democratic aspirations. Lyndon Johnson could not have so eloquently spoken of it if the narrative was not available in the public consciousness.
There are interesting issues to explore with regard to the effects of electronic mass media on empathy. For instance, is the need for empathetic connection with others so fulfilled by television and movie melodramas that we grow dangerously content with our estranged, isolated lives in the real world? Or, do the tragedies and triumphs of others we witness through the media work more like Lynn Hunt wrote that novels worked in the 18th Century?
Many believe that globalization will lead to more intimacy among citizens physically separated by oceans, mountains, deserts, languages and national political boundaries. If so, The Promise could become part of a story told regularly among travelers along Lawrence’s open road, now become a truly Global Road. Others believe the alienation that marks postmodern Western civilization will follow fast upon the ubiquitous adoption of media technologies.
What is clear, however, is that the hopeful view stands no chance of becoming a global reality unless we recognize and articulate The Promise humans made to one another so long ago, a promise to recognize our mutual humanity, our dignity and our freedom, a promise to protect one another from the rise of illegitimate, upstart bullies who would strip us of life’s most precious gift, the recognition of our equal humanity and the acknowledgment of our responsibilities to one another.
Just as Lyndon Johnson said, what’s at stake is the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.
First published 04/30/08 at OpenLeft.