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On Frame Ambiguity and Democratic Politics



Authors as Published

In the March 28 Soundings, I noted that I had recently read David Orr’s book analyzing the enduring power of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. Orr was particularly fascinated by the levels of ambiguity present in the poem. I have been considering ambiguity, too, since reading his volume, although in my case, I have been pondering its themes in relationship to our nation’s present democratic politics. As in The Road Not Taken and its reflections on the indistinctness of life and choice-making, the question of democratic decision-making in the U.S. today appears suffused with unforeseen and unforeseeable turns and consequences. It seems to me a major share of this is so inherently, but our peculiar cultural characteristics and our current economic moment have heightened the importance of this inbuilt challenge to self governance. I here consider a number of ways in which ambiguity is built into our regime foundations, and then use those considerations to highlight several key concerns that make widespread understanding and acceptance of those broad realities difficult in our current political firmament. That fact has important portent for the character of our present national politics. Perhaps most basically, democracy empowers “the common person” with responsibility to make choices to ensure their individual and collective freedom. This supposes that individuals possess capacity to make such choices (a matter of lively philosophical and scientific debate as I write), and that they will make such decisions with probity and an eye to more than their current whims or perceived interests, or worse. Famously, democracy presupposes the possibility of human agency and deliberation. That is, even if individuals can act with volition, they must do so not only on the basis of their needs or emotions of the moment, but also with a clear view of the requirements of others in their polity, and with prudence. All of these attributes must be more or less robustly realized if freedom is to be preserved, and none is assured in a context that rests finally on individuals making political choices. The subjects of whether such is possible on a long-term basis, and how precisely to ensure such results in any case, have been a matter of debate for centuries. The democratic firmament is an innately ambiguous one.

If this is so for the political foundational aspirations of our regime, that condition is only aggravated by the fact that we have sought as a polity to embrace both self-government and capitalism, and we are deeply confused collectively concerning which of these is or should be architectonic. As for the first point, democracy calls for the political pursuit of equality even as capitalism, left to its actors’ devices, furiously creates wealth inequalities in society. This innate tension is exacerbated in our political-economy because we have never settled on a singular view of equality and what it might mean for the remarkable heterogeneity of our nation’s population. In short, our collective embrace of a politics aimed foremost at individual freedom and equality is in tension with our desire for the goods that capitalism efficiently provides, as the latter innately produces inequalities that have portent for the political agency of those living in our society. The outcome is a complex mosaic of economic, social and political tensions that are ever in play and that typically go unresolved, at least in anything like a definitive way. The result is a democratic politics of contested claims and core value ambiguities.

All of this is made more difficult still by our nation’s embrace, for at least four decades, of a neoliberal public philosophy whose proponents suggest that politics should serve the market (read capitalism) and not vice versa. This stance is more than problematic, as the market has neither legitimacy nor means to govern, nor does it set the conditions under which it may function. Assigning the market this role may also permit capitalist actors an unduly determinative role in political decision making for which they have no special province and even less accountability. That fact harbors the potential to undermine democratic possibility, while also deepening political and economic inequality in society. The result of this enduring situation is not only a politics of fearfulness amidst the roil and uncertainties of globalization, but also one of fierce and fear-filled competition among the nation’s states and localities for any and all economic activity. That condition only provides additional leverage for market actors to exercise political power and influence, which can complicate and worsen an already difficult scenario.

Neoliberalism has also brought with it a vigorous and ultimately corrosive anti-governmentalism that some individuals have fetishized into a rigid ideology that imagines the innate messiness of democratic politics is fundamentally unnecessary, or worse, is evil; with this orientation has come an unwillingness (and often, inability) to act collectively that now pervades our national politics. It is surely a fundamental reason, for example, for why so rich a country continues to allow its public infrastructure to deteriorate at an alarming rate. Convincing the masses that public goods can be provided by firms, apart from vigorous and regulative government action, is a fiction, amply demonstrated by decades of evidence. The market cannot govern or ensure the rights of all citizens, nor should it be expected to do so. Its actors will provide those items from which they may profit, neither more nor less, and nothing further should be expected of them. Firms will act when they can make profits, and even if one supposes that government can harness their capacities in ways that guarantee profits while also producing public goods at a reasonable cost, their capacities are never aimed at governing (and one might argue they should not be), but at specific goods or service provision, with the ultimate aim of providing returns to their owners.

This brief discussion suggests that we are a country now founded on conflicting principles whose meanings we continue to contest, but that we have collectively charged ourselves and our political institutions with securing. There is ambiguity aplenty in that ambition—both in what we may undertake jointly and why and how—and that situation is made still more opaque by the fact that we have decided we should pursue our national aims via a federalist distribution of power and authority. To that situation, however, we (as a nation) have elected to add another level of complexity and increasingly, of confusion, to marry a democratic governance structure and aspirations with a capitalistic economy. Many in our society, at least rhetorically, have gone further to advocate that the market can and should displace politics altogether, as they have imagined that governments do little besides harm citizen interests while markets provide economic goods and growth. The second is to be much preferred in this calculus to the former, which deals with the vexing issues of assuring individuals’ dignity and rights and freedom amidst the enduring reality of humans’ propensity to undermine these.

Taken together, these conditions have created a political context for which the following descriptors appear appropriate:

  • A population beset by the continuing “creative destruction” of globalized capitalist market dynamics, a share of whom are arguing fervently that those citizens displaced by those forces are alone responsible for their fates
  • A citizenry with less and less faith in its collective capacities to create, sustain and manage public goods effectively and equitably
  • A portion of the population willing to accept demagogic claims and scapegoats as a consequence of their ire concerning their treatment by political elites of their political party and fearfulness about their personal economic situations
  • A polity whose self-imposed confusion about how its political and economic institutions should relate has convinced many of its citizens that only capitalist entities should matter, and that political values and institutions should do whatever is necessary to support those organizations, according them a status well above the regime and the principles it serves.
  • A citizenry whose confusion concerning how to marry capitalism and democracy has wrought a significant, bitter and rigid political movement that decries at every turn the complex political and institutional governance politics its own conflicted and errant values have wrought.

In sum, we have a citizenry facing an increasingly complex self governance challenge while being persistently told by a share of its political elites that it need not confront that situation head-on, but may sidestep it by refusing to govern in favor of an alternative that does not exist. To this we must add the fear and anger wrought by swift social and economic change, and the fact that one political party has elected to adopt an ideology that blames those individuals displaced by global economic turbulence for their situations. These conditions would appear to support exactly what we have seen in this year’s nomination politics: one party’s primary candidates offering empty policy prescriptions based on demagogic and ideological fury, while one of the other party’s principal candidates rails against inequality while relying on the thin reeds of anger and a narrow and fast winnowing belief in self-governance as the levers for attainment of his prescription for wholesale change. Oddly, none of these presidential aspirants, it seems, is asking citizens to assume their rightful roles in self governance or in defining freedom in ways that demand that outcome. Since that is so, it is difficult to see how Americans, whatever their partisanship or ideological preference, can be brought realistically and prudently to address the realities of their governance responsibilities any time soon.

Publication Date

April 25, 2016