The Work Ahead - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

The Work Ahead

Michael Mosher is a professor of Political Science at the University of Tulsa. In this piece, he discusses the theme of democratic renewal through various political philosophers, connecting those ideas to America’s current social and economic challenges.

We sometimes lose our balance. Instead of stumbling, most of us, most of the time —like athletes of the everyday—just recover our balance and renew our form. It’s a mystery though how we do it.

In this new year as we worry about the Greek letter omicron, the theme of renewal or recovery recalls memories of the preceding year’s disasters in dealing with the global pandemic. However, we are not without cause for celebration. For instance, the New York Times reports that one of the effects of massive Covid-19 relief funding has been to reverse the decades long disinvestment in science and engineering. As one Times commentator put it, “The message there is, you don’t know what’s coming, so you had better be prepared.” For the Rapid Application Group, a small manufacturing firm in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, new investment means they now have the capability to “pivot”—another good term for recovering one’s balance.

Reinvestment in the economy is small potatoes, however, compared to democratic backsliding in the United States and in many of America’s democratic allies. Globally people are less convinced that America is a model. There is declining confidence in democracy itself.

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, attributed to Santi di Tito, 2nd half 16th Cent.

Decline and the possibilities of renewal are among the themes of my academic field: the history of political thought and political philosophy. There are lots of reasons to dive into this rewarding literature, but one of them is political redemption. What one might plausibly look for in these works is practical advice about which forms of government, which norms, which social skills, which habits of heart or mind and which histories promise to create ways of life that possess, so to speak, built in levers for course correction.

For instance, Machiavelli thought that the ancient Roman republic was such a model, but not because it demonstrated social harmony. Just the opposite. Class conflict “made the Republic “free and powerful” (fece libera e potente, Discourses I, Ch. 4). From time to time, the Romans fell into “corruption.” They nevertheless remained “free” because they had the capacity for “new laws and new institutions” (nuove leggi/ nuove ordini). For Machiavelli, Roman democracy possessed a kind of grandeur in its capacity to reform, to renovate (rinnovare, I, Ch. 18). It was the actual history of continuous recovery and renewal.

In the long letter that became Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke reverted to this theme when he urged a French correspondent to remember that while their old constitution was in disrepair, it was the only plausible road to rinnovare—the only a way to avoid the chaos that then enveloped France and Europe in revolution. Nor was this a theme ignored by the American founders, though perhaps they drew the restraints of the separation of powers too tightly for any likely nuove ordini to get around the blockages it has caused in American history.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville picked up Machiavelli’s theme and wrote that the Americans knew how to recover from bad decisions. In Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, this was true for ancient Athenian democracy, at least initially, when the citizens knew how to recover from the bad leadership of Cleon and to rethink unwise decisions.

Maybe polarization is just the kind of rethinking of Machiavelli’s virtue-driven class conflict that might result in compromise, new laws, and new institutions. Or maybe not. Even Machiavelli had to admit (Discourses I, Ch. 37) that class conflict did not always end in the right sort of compromise. The cause of failure was always excessive inequality. The result was slow moving civil war, which in Rome lasted for a century.

The promise of America is apparently Roman class conflict writ small in the intimacies of personal relationships. Several of the earlier blogs and other participants in this seminar have stressed the importance of focusing on care of the self, and on community or the integrity of personal relationships. A romance of conciliation at least describes more concretely than Machiavelli ever did the attitude that could transform class conflict into (at least partial) class agreements and happier endings.

The philosopher John Rawls—his great Theory of Justice, 1971, is fifty-one this year—identified that attitude as a feeling for democratic reciprocity.  Democratic necessarily since the ideal is always equality in freedom, however much actual circumstances deviate from this target. In addition, reciprocity requires that parties thinking about the terms of cooperation they want others to accept should show that they have first thought about putting themselves into their shoes. That engagement may not reduce disagreement all that much; but it might create at least a grudging trust, more than exists at present. Likely one needs to add the frankly political requirement that neither party should place excessive demands upon the other. Failure means distrust, bitterness, resentment, and go-for-broke sentiments, which more or less describes America’s current situation.

There is work ahead if we are to renew our form, recover our balance. Not only do we have duties right now in the present to folks around us, we may also have duties in two directions of time, backward and forward—a dizzying prospect. Polarization is, in part, the divisions caused by these potentially conflicting debts to past, present, and future generations. It is also, in part, the consequence of a new kind of political economy, which has produced new winners and losers in the present.

Image of the Tulsa Race Massacre, 1921. University of Tulsa/McFarlin Library Special Collections

Speaking as citizens of Tulsa, we can say that duties to the past begin in thinking about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. It probably does not stop there since the past haunts the descendants of victims and dispossessors alike. What to do, why, and how are duties of civic reflection. Naturally it is not just our locale: festering memories and unreconciled peoples multiply in every jurisdiction. From the past we seek restorative justice, meaning the credible acknowledgement of the aggrieved past as a rite of passage into a future of renewal and recovery.

Looking forward we see the broad ranging catastrophes that lurk on the horizon of the not-so-remote future. We speak of paralyzing cyber wars, dangerous new disease vectors, and above all, unimpeded global warming.

Here is the temporal rub. In the perspective of the future, nothing counts except creating national and international coalitions to mitigate disaster before it becomes a human extinction event. In the perspective of the past, nothing counts except the conciliatory moves that will heal old wrongs.

Addressing the past requires that we respond to group memories and identities that were formed by other people’s wrongs. To take two examples, the wrongs of discrimination towards peoples of color and bigotry about gender and sexuality have created, among other things, the Black Lives Matter Movement and LGBT organizations. It is not incidental to add that, by imitation, many troubled Trump voters also cry out for recognition of grievance. The question of legitimate grievance is always with us. Whatever settles that question, it may be the case that we cannot act for the future without also conciliating the past.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, 1981. Directed by George Miller.

However, it may also be the case that we can’t deal with the threats of the future while being endlessly divided over the wrongs of the past. Right now a commitment to humanity can be represented as the need to rearrange the building blocks of the world order just to avoid planetary disaster. As a consequence, looking backward with differential adherence to one or another aggrieved group identity may appear in the future as though it had been a particularly unlucky stumble into an archaic world of partialities and divided loyalties. What applies domestically also applies internationally. There are reasons for loyalties to the nation state, but these same reasons may stand in the way of mitigating future injustice to those about to be felled by global warming.

After testing myself this autumn in thinking through the issues of Tulsa in 1921—and the issues of Indian Territory generally—I turn in my teaching this spring to the future: to what climate change will demand, what justice will expect and what politics might require in order to avoid falling into a Mad Max movie. The science is now obvious, and we are getting closer to what the U.S. Army Command has officially long held: global warming is a massive national security threat. So what kinds of economies and politics will be in place “the day after tomorrow”?

I have three intuitions that I hope to explore.

Map of US urban, metro, and rural areas. 2010 Decennial Census, U.S. Census Bureau.

First intuition. We are in the grip of a new political economy characterized by the growth of highly specialized, innovative, knowledge-intensive cities creating a geography that offers a contrast between these cities and everywhere else.* This almost certainly includes the countryside where we find people who feel left behind: a populist tinged, resentful folk who were once on top and now are not. It’s a geography of new winners and losers.

The new economy creates a three body problem, namely, a society with  (1) a new class of the more highly skilled, college educated and those who aspire to join them; (2) the old middle class whose once secure manufacturing jobs have disappeared and who now find themselves or their children joining the “precariat” in unstable, badly paid service employment; and (3) the urban and rural poor along with immigrants (at least the immigrants who have not joined the highly-skilled class)—and further down the line, perhaps a fourth category, the homeless which one sees everywhere in these cities of tomorrow. Once there were strong social democratic parties– in the U.S. the New Deal coalition– capable of enforcing a social contract that mitigated the disadvantages between the rich and poor. Today, the highly skilled are simply indifferent to the old middle class. In turn, the constituencies of the old middle class, which could make a democratic coalition with the poor, are instead contemptuous of those “beneath” them.  Perhaps this resentment is anger at being left behind or ugly racism. All of it is counterproductive.

“Infamous Three-body Problem…” from article in New Scientist, 2017.

Second intuition. One spies the political equivalent of the three-body problem. In many democratic states, the political parties of the left have changed.** They now bend in the direction of the new winning elites and their poorer large city allies, which is why the older middle classes, in the United States–white, small city or rural, and non-college educated–increasingly feel left out, and in nearly every country have moved to the right. Their feelings of alienation obviously compete with the claims of others, discussed above, who were also dispossessed but usually further back in time—giving those of us who are more fortunate our duties to the past. These folks also felt and feel the pain of alienation and dispossession. We are left with few resources—only mutual vituperation and the claim you are with us or against us—that would allow people to weave a narrative of recovery around both the claims of Black Lives Matter protesters and the claims of the white (sometimes opioid-addicted) old middle class studied by Anne Case and Angus Deaton in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism

Third intuition. Political philosophers Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes put it well: “we feel that something deep has shifted in the global political architecture,” (The Light That Failed, p. 141). Like much thinking in the tradition that follows the canon of books with which we began this discussion—Machiavelli to Rawls—this blog is tied together conceptually by the universal claims of liberal values and human rights and as well by the idea of democracy. When push comes to shove, where does democracy stand? That is to say, what happens when the zero sum games between “us and the others” keep piling up?  Whatever one might have said about the compatibility of democracy with internationalism and with volatile markets—and may say again if tensions are reduced—there is a fragility in democracy that makes it incapable of sticking with universal values. To put it telegraphically: democracy requires a bounded national territory. It is inherently nationalist if not always actually so. A comfortable nation might accept liberal universalism, but its existential situation may require a narrower loyalty. Boundaries count, which puts both democratic nations and group commitments in conflict with the cosmopolitanism (and sacrifices) we may need for long term survival.

You might suspect that I have left “renewal and recovery” far behind. True enough for renewal, unless it means a renewal of confidence to face up to conflicts between past and future. True enough as well for recovery, unless it means a renewal of the skill set that will allow us to recover our balance in the present. We have work to do.



*See for example Iverson & Soskice, Democracy and Prosperity

**Piketty, Capital and Ideology exhibits a wide range of cases