If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that boring politics are the best politics. A staid political culture is a sign of a healthy society, as it allows humanity’s passions to flourish outside of the coercive and violent realm of political power. Those who say we should look to our leaders to inspire us, or that politics should be the engine of “progress,” are unwittingly calling for the destruction of civil society.
The Joy of Boredom
Since the end of the Cold War, for example, the political climate of northern and western Europe has been characterized by the yawn-inducing push and pull between liberal democracy and social democracy (with a side of Christian conservatism here, a dash of old-school leftism there). Both sides share a broad commitment to stability and market economics, but may have marginal scuffles over the size of the welfare state and the extent of government regulation. Political factions are more likely to fight about numbers and the wording of a law than engage in grand, sweeping oratory over revolutionary manifestos. Prior to the migrant crisis, this order was rarely disturbed – even by the troubles within the Eurozone.
Political factions are more likely to fight about numbers and the wording of a law than engage in sweeping oratory over revolutionary manifestos.While this doesn’t get the blood rushing in the way that romantic mass-movements did in the past, it’s also a good backstop against the bloodletting that those movements produced. People here exercise their passions through sports, music, and entertainment. Nods to historical glories and national myths are safely cordoned off in powerless, symbolic royal families, rather than ecstatic throngs yearning for a “dear leader.” While political life in this “end of history” scenario doesn’t make for epic storytelling, it helps to produce the world’s happiest societies.
For the most part, this reality exists in the “Anglosphere” as well, as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia all enjoy a situation similar to that of the Eurasian peninsula. And yes, even Great Britain and the United States broadly share this state of affairs. We can tell when this order has been disrupted in the wrong way. I remember hearing pundits and journalists decry the 2012 election as “bitter” and “divisive.” Well, here we are in 2016. We’ve seen America’s own centre-right party swallowed whole by a candidate’s cynical campaign of nationalism and a narcissistic cult of personality. Meanwhile, factions of our centre-left party have shown an affinity for unilateral executive power and ideologies that should have crumbled with the Berlin Wall. The most awful political campaign of our lifetimes makes 2012 look like the pinnacle of sane, democratic discourse.
Inspired into Misery
By contrast, look at the countries with the most passionate, ideologically-charged and “inspirational” political cultures. Chavismo-style socialism has led Venezuela into a grave economic crisis and turned one of the most resource-rich countries on Earth into a humanitarian disaster. There’s no need to exaggerate the effect of the Kim-dynasty cult in North Korea, with its toxic mix of Marxist-Leninism and the legacy of the Japanese Emperors: famine, malnutrition, and the stultification of the mind that comes with any closed society. Theocratic societies may do a great job at fulfilling humanity’s need for spirituality and transcendence, but are abysmal in terms of civil liberties, women’s rights, and any sense of pluralism.
To the extent that life has improved in places like China, it is due to the regime moving away from its motivating ideology, not a misplaced loyalty to it. Ideas like property rights, limited government, and sovereignty of the individual may seem mundane to those in the West who’ve been conditioned to take them for granted, but once people abandon these ideas for the sweeping romantic ecstasy of leader-worship, national supremacy, or prostration before a man-made god, they become more willing to see their fellow citizens as numbers or a means to a political end. It’s this ecstatic frenzy that makes people comfortable with deportations, torture, show trials, and mass murder.
Libertarians and classical liberals would do well to read the advice Alan Wolfe gives in The Future of Liberalism. Though Wolfe is a liberal more in the New Deal/Great Society sense of the word, he still provides valuable insight for maintaining a stable political culture:
On matters of the heart, romanticism touches on the deepest emotions, expands the human imagination, and produces world-class music and art. But however much romanticism can serve as a corrective to liberalism, it ought never to be a substitute for it. “Politics,” Max Weber wrote, “is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” That does not sound very dramatic, but its undramatic quality is what makes politics a blessing in disguise. When liberal politics works – either at home or abroad – fewer people are killed in the name of a cause, and fewer lives are disrupted to serve as characters in someone else’s drama.
He’s right to note that romanticism can be a corrective, as ideas are still important, but he wisely splits the difference in showing that proceduralism must still prevail over lofty notions of “getting things done.” He goes on to say that liberals
... ought to be aware of the powerful attractions of militarism, nationalism, and ideology, and they ought to be strong enough to resist them. Let the passions reign in the museums and concert halls. In the halls of government, reason, however cold, is better than emotions, however heartfelt.
In much the same vein, Robert O. Paxton wrote in The Anatomy of Fascism that
Fascism rested not on the truth of its doctrine but upon the leader’s mystical union with the historic destiny of his people, a notion related to romanticist ideas of national historic flowering and of individual artistic or spiritual genius, though fascism otherwise denied romanticism’s exaltation of unfettered person creativity. The fascist leader wanted to bring his people into a higher realm of politics that they would experience sensually: the warmth of belonging to a race now fully aware of its identity, historic destiny, and power; the excitement of participating in a vast collective enterprise; the gratification of submerging oneself in a wave of shared feelings, and of sacrificing one’s petty concerns for the group’s good; and the thrill of domination.
We’re right to be worried at the impulses at work in this election cycle. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker earlier this year, “The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak.” When examining the two major party candidates, the American electorate is indeed left with a terrible choice. Still, we can survive, resist, and undermine the inevitably bad outcome.