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Imagination, Individual Will, Difference and Democratic Politics



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As I have worked to understand our nation’s deepening democratic crisis, one of the issues with which I have been wrestling is the relationship between the will and the imagination of individuals supporting the Republican Party’s transparent lies concerning the nation’s debt, virtually non-existent voter and voting abuse, and embrace of the Big Lie concerning the 2020 national election. The Party’s leaders have offered their supporters an obviously untrue narrative, which millions of those devotees have adopted as their own through a fusing of their individual and collective wills and a surrendering of their imaginations. At least a share of them have adopted this false stance with a rancorous and often cruel fury, as evidenced by the demonic energy of many of those who invaded the Capitol on January 6 and searched for then Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to hang them for their “crime” of carrying out their Constitutionally mandated duties.

        Human societies have long fallen prey to mass delusions and groups adopting those assertions have for just as long tended to reinforce such claims in ever more inflammatory ways, and that is surely the case in the present instance in the United States within the GOP. I reflected on this question recently in an essay for the Institute for Policy and Governance’s quarterly newsletter.[1] I want to address here specifically the phenomenon of how today’s Republican Party has employed a narrative rooted in race and in a related, but paradoxical claim concerning appropriate human hierarchy, to prompt its supporters to sacrifice their intellectual will and personal and collective imaginations. It is contradictory because, far from providing sustenance to most of those who have willingly surrendered to it, that story has led not to the uplifting of those acceding to it, but to their domination by a small cadre of individuals with no interest in serving their followers’ rights or interests. I consider this scenario by first reflecting on an essay by the Protestant theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, and thereafter pondering works by perhaps two of the most Catholic and most gifted writers of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor.

        Niebuhr took up what he dubbed the country’s “Race Problem” in a brief essay in the summer of 1942 as World War II was raging. He offered two principal arguments on that concern that remain relevant today. First, Niebuhr contended that the issue of race in an otherwise heterogeneous society was not absolutely soluble, since that matter had existed across cultures and time. In his view, that fact was not a reason to accept racial or any other form of discrimination. As he observed:

There are, in other words, no solutions for the race problem on any level if it is not realized that there is no absolute solution for this problem. There is no absolute solution in the sense that that it is not possible to purge man completely of the sinful concomitant of group pride in his collective life.[2]

        In developing this point, Niebuhr cited the then recent U.S. government decision to abrogate the rights of Japanese Americans via their internment in camps and of African Americans generally across the country’s history and contended:

We cannot deal with our injustices to either the Negroes or Japanese adequately because we dare not confess to ourselves how great our sins are. If we made such a confession, the whole temple of our illusions [of false superiority] would fall.[3]   

        The upshot of these twin realities for Niebuhr was the view that, despite being able to identify humankind’s repeated willingness to oppress individuals and groups on the basis of perceived differences:

This does not mean that we ought to capitulate to aggravated forms of evil, merely because we know ourselves to be tainted with them. We may deal more resolutely with them if we understand. … it [the propensity] as a perennial corruption of man’s collective life on every level of social and moral achievement.[4]

        One corollary of this argument is that in ethnically, religiously or racially pluralistic societies that aspire to be democratic, such as the United States, each generation must ensure afresh that its citizens develop the necessary acceptance of individual freedom, and diversity and acquisition of empathy to secure against humankind’s in-built potential to embrace discrimination on the basis of what Niebuhr called Racial Pride. Another implication of the theologian’s essay is that one might reasonably expect nominally democratic leaders to work assiduously against such corruption, rather than seek to pander to the worst potential instincts of their populations. Such a stance would demand that those individuals value democratic institutions and civil and human rights more than power, whether for themselves or a delimited group, an important connotation.

        G. K. Chesterton addressed a similar question as it related to higher education, and thereby to society more generally in his country, in his collection of essays, All Things Considered, published in 1915.[5] In one chapter of that volume, Chesterton contended that England’s finest universities had become playgrounds for that society’s wealthiest citizens and were perpetuating a classist society that nominally offered the possibility for human and social growth and achievement, but actually stultified it for all but a small number. Indeed, he went further and observed that such was occurring too often, even for those few. If universities were ever to play vital democratic roles, in Chesterton’s terms, they would need to abandon their determined efforts to dispossess the poor man of his “angles” on the rare occasions when those individuals were permitted access to such institutions:

… (which means, I suppose, his independence), he may perhaps, even if his poverty is that highly relative type at Oxford, gain a certain amount of world advantage from the surrender of those angles. I must, confess, however, that I can imagine nothing nastier than to lose one’s angles. … Reduced to permanent and practical and human speech, it means nothing whatever except the corrupting of that first sense of justice which is the critic of all human institutions.[6]   

        Just as race or other specific characteristics should not be permitted to control human will and imaginations if democracy and justice were to prevail in Niebuhr’s terms, Chesterton warned that neither class nor wealth should be accorded that standing either.

        Freedom amidst pluralism inheres in successive generations in a society working to ensure that a majority of affected citizens does not seize on any human characteristic, whether individual or social, in the name of assuring themselves a false security or ascribed superiority. Democracies must rely on their leaders and citizens to discipline themselves in this way and not to permit their insecurities, ideologies or fears so to dominate their reasoning capabilities as to allow them to overcome and control their imaginations and result in the diminution of freedom and civil rights for individuals or groups targeted for opprobrium. This enduring fragility is at once a profound challenge and a reminder of the deeply significant role of human will and imagination in the preservation of freedom.

        Flannery O’Connor explored the question of the relationship of will and imagination, which surely underpins this social concern, in her masterful and complex short story, “Good Country People,” first published in 1955.[7] She set her tale in the rural South on a farm occupied by a wealthy divorcée (Mrs. Hopewell) and her 32-year-old daughter (Hulga) who had lost a portion of one leg as a result of a shooting accident as a child. She walked thereafter on a substitute artificial stump and while she had earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, she was deeply embittered and unhappy with what she saw as her mother’s simplistic and cliché-ridden view of the world and the emptiness of daily life on the farm. The story’s characters also include Mrs. Hopewell’s tenant farmer’s wife, Mrs. Freeman, a shrewd and guile-filled individual; her two daughters, whom the property owner viewed as idealized types, even though neither was anything like ideal; and an itinerant door-to-door Bible salesman, Manley Pointer, whom Mrs. Hopewell invited to dinner while refusing to purchase his wares. Mrs. Hopewell saw the Freeman daughters and Pointer as “dull and simple,” “good country people” on whom she could look down in her superficial way. Following dinner, Hulga agreed to meet the salesman the next day for a walk and he set out to seduce her as they rested in a barn during that walk, against which effort she finally rebelled after first acquiescing to his advances.

        When Hulga resisted, she declared him the opposite of all that the identity she had ascribed to him had supposedly implied:

Her face was almost purple. ‘You’re a Christian!’ she hissed. ‘You’re a fine Christian! Just like them all—say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian, you’re …’

The boy’s mouth was set angrily. ‘I hope you don’t think,’ he said, in a lofty indignant tone, ‘that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I am going.’[8]

        The story concludes with Pointer leaving Hulga in the hayloft where this scene unfolded, taking her partial artificial limb as he went, and telling her as he did so that he used a different name at every home he visited and that he had “gotten a lot of interesting things. … One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way.”[9]

        While this tale has generated reams of thoughtful analyses and criticism, I want to use it here to underscore three points. First, as both Niebuhr and Chesterton emphasized in their essays, the prideful and ugly perspectives these characters ascribed to one another were all erroneous, even as they allowed each a false sense of grandeur and presumed superiority. Second, reality was more complex and leavened than the assumptions of the short story’s protagonists, and it left each vulnerable in ways they had not fathomed or even yet imagined. Finally, the two essays and O’Connor’s tale all resulted in profoundly anti-democratic outcomes. In the case of the short story, a con man not only had persuaded Hulga to yield her will to him and to allow him to see and hold her artificial leg, a privilege that in both cases she had extended to no one else, but also thereby had captured her imagination of self and possibility falsely. The same could be said of those willing to discriminate against Blacks in the U.S., or any but the elite in England’s universities in the Niebuhr and Chesterton essays.

        More generally, I can offer at least three lessons for our current governance crisis that arise from studying these sources. First, individual choices mediate outcomes, so it is important that analysts work to understand as fully as possible the factors that animate millions willfully to believe obvious and contempt filled lies directed to others as well as, perversely, to them. One possible partial explanation that must be considered in those efforts is that those targeted who adopt untruths are being animated so to behave by corrupt leaders. One may imagine charitably that those individual officials, too, are themselves misled in the ways these three works reveal. Or, one may see many of them as working to secure power for themselves and a small allied class of the sort whose smug vileness Chesterton so aptly described. Indeed, both of these forces may be at work.

        Second, these compositions highlight the fact that individuals are not islands, but are themselves ensconced in social norms and views, and these will inevitably mediate their choices. Mrs. Freeman’s platitudes were surely partly the province of the South of her time, even as they were likely exaggerated by her personal willingness to embrace a vicious vacuousness. Those shaping forces can involve perceived insecurities or false ascriptions of supposedly enduring human characteristics. Indeed, all three of these works illustrate this very human proclivity.

        Finally, and ironically, as O’Connor’s tale illustrated, one may surrender one’s will and imagination to utterly untrue propositions that may at once rob one of dignity, freedom and possibility. This surely happened to Hulga. It likewise appears to be occurring for those today in the United States who, suspending reason and ceding their imagination, are providing support to demagogues set only on undermining their freedom and acquiring desired ends for themselves and a small cast of allies. O’Connor’s character, Manley Pointer, might serve as an architype for such officials—mostly, but not exclusively GOP leaders—in such terms. The overarching question is how to make sense of why millions are relinquishing their will and imaginations to charlatans and how that terrible phenomenon may be socially addressed before the general citizenry’s democratic way of life is lost.


[1] Stephenson, Max Jr. “A Democratic Crisis Rooted in Mass Delusion,” Tidings, October 1, 2021. Available at:

[2] Niebuhr, Reinhold. Major Works on Religion and Politics, “The Race Problem,” New York: Library of America, 2015, p. 652.

[3] Niebuhr, “The Race Problem,” p. 652.

[4] Niebuhr, “The Race Problem,” p. 653.

[5] Chesterton, G. K. All Things Considered, “Oxford from Without,” The Project Gutenberg EBook, 2004 (original edition 1915). Available at:, Accessed October 10, 2021.

[6] Chesterton, G. K. “Oxford from Without,” pp. 115-116.

[7] O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People,” in Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1982, pp. 271-291.

[8] O’Connor, “Good Country People,” p. 290.

[9] O’Connor, “Good Country People,” p. 291.

Publication Date

October 18, 2021