Nonviolence and The 2020 Election

Fresno Bee, November 1, 2020

recent survey concludes, “22% of Biden supporters and 16% of Trump supporters said they would engage in street protests or even violence if their preferred candidate loses.” The good news is that majorities on both sides say they are willing to abide by the election result. But it is appalling that significant numbers of Americans are willing to consider violence. Now is the time for a primer in democratic values, nonviolence, and the rule of law.

Not everyone loves democracy. H.L. Mencken suggested that democracy puts the monkeys in charge of the circus. But in the U.S., we trust the electoral system as a nonviolent mechanism for resolving disputes and transferring power.

The connection between nonviolence and electoral democracy runs deep. Violent movements tend to be secretive and authoritarian, while nonviolent movements are inclusive and transparent. Violence tends to destroy liberty, while nonviolence affirms it. Violence breeds reaction and animosity, while nonviolence creates solidarity that builds community.

The advocates of violence are impetuous and impatient. Violence is unpredictable. And it rarely works. Riots, assassinations, and civil wars do not produce good outcomes. Political violence provokes backlash. It risks collateral damage. It causes people to dig in their heels. And of course, it is illegal.

Faith in the rule of law is foundational. Thomas Paine explained that in “absolute governments” the tyrant is the law. But in America, he said, “the law is king.” Paine was a revolutionary. The American system did begin in violence. But it was violence directed against the lawlessness of British tyranny.

The aspiration of the American revolution was for a stable, public system of law that would replace the reckless will of the tyrant. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton explained that “mutable” government is “mischievous” and “calamitous.” Instability “poisons the blessings of liberty.” A stable constitutional order can “break and control the violence of faction.” The cure for instability and violence is representational government, regular elections and the rule of law.

This system channels animosity into productive activity. If you did not win this time, get better organized and run again. In the meantime, hundreds of nonviolent methods can be employed. This includes petitioning the government and speaking out in public, as well as strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience. Nonviolence works when it is organized, strategic, creative, and tenacious. The American civil rights movement provides an example.

Nonviolence rests upon fidelity to law. The nonviolent protester is willing to go to jail to mount an internal challenge to the system. She does not seek to evade punishment or to create an alternative system out of the barrel of a gun. Instead she works to transform the system from within.

She also expresses solidarity with her co-citizens, including those with whom she disagrees. Violent law-breaking makes it impossible for arguments to be heard. It also puts co-citizens at risk. Nonviolence opens the door to reasonable discussion. It treats opponents as reasonable beings who can be persuaded. It seeks to convert rather than to coerce.

Ideally the bonds of friendship would hold us together despite our differences. But in this polarized era, it is hopeless to imagine that we could all be friends. We disagree about too much. That’s the reality of liberty. In a free country, we retain the right not to be friends. We are free to disagree, protest, whine, and complain.

But it is the constitutional system that guarantees our right to disagree. So when protests break out after the election, they ought to adhere to the basic principles of a system that allows us to assemble, to petition the government, and to speak freely.

Sometimes it does seem that the monkeys are running the circus. Our differences run deep. But we can find common ground in a shared commitment to liberty and the rule of law. Everyone involved in the electoral process has expressed an implicit faith in this system. To run for office is to agree to abide by the result of the election. To cast a ballot is to affirm that this is a legitimate process. And if you don’t like the result, you can pound your chest and howl and scream, as long as you do so nonviolently.

Impeachment and Enlightenment Democracy

Fresno Bee, December 8, 2020

In this winter of discontent we discover that democracy contains a dark side. We should lower our expectations without giving up hope.

The president suggests that Democrats do not love our country. The Democrats claim the president betrayed his oath of office. Americans are so divided about impeachment that it often seems that we live in different universes.

But this is to be expected. Free people will diverge. Liberty leads to discord and disagreement. We even disagree about what counts as reasonable. The challenge is to accept this, the cold shadow of democracy, without giving in to cynicism.

The ideal version of enlightened democracy is sunny and enlightened. It imagines virtuous citizens meeting together in public to deliberate and reach reasonable consensus. The losing party would graciously concede, while admitting that the process was fair and their opponents were worthy.

Enlightened democracy is republican in the classic sense, where a republic is a government based on the public good (in Latin, the “res publica”). Thomas Paine explained, for example, “Republican government is no other than government established and conducted for the interest of the public.”

The enlightenment dream is of public-spirited and rational citizens sharing a common understanding of the good of the community. They would have faith in the intelligence and good will of their opponents.

A phrase from Thomas Jefferson explains the genteel dream of enlightened deliberation. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson describes the two of them as “rational friends” despite their deep disagreements. Jefferson said, “you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors.”

In these winter months, Americans no longer view one another as “rational friends.” We appear to lack a common vision of the good life. We believe in different facts. We suspect treasonous malice in the other. And we disagree about what is reasonable. This makes public deliberation impossible.

The impeachment hearings are sterile debates, not collegial deliberations. The participants in these “hearings” do not listen. Instead, they talk past each other. Each side has already decided what it believes. There is no effort to find common ground. And each side blames the other for being irrational and partisan.

We are witnessing what is sometimes called “agonistic” democracy. This is democracy as strife, struggle, and conflict (in Greek, “agon” means competition). Agonistic democracy is not about building rational friendship — it is about defeating political foes. The focus is on gaining partisan advantage. The goal is to build power, not to achieve rational consensus.

Agonistic democracy is full of dirty tricks and Machiavellian maneuvers. Fallacious arguments are made. Facts are ignored. And reason is left out in the cold.

President Trump is a master of this game. But he did not invent it. It is an old game familiar to Socrates, Shakespeare, and to the founders.

James Madison warned that people can be “blinded by prejudice” and “corrupted by flattery.” We are prone to error, delusion, and the tyranny of the passions. The system of checks and balances seeks to mitigate the damage caused by the “violence of faction,” which is the “mortal disease” that destroys democracy.

The partisanship in D.C. can leave us disillusioned and cynical. Cynics give up on the dream of rational friendship and public deliberation. When we succumb to cynicism, we sink further into the abyss of Machiavellianism, with violence lurking around the corner as the irrational nadir of a world gone mad in pursuit of power.

Madison’s remedy is the checks and balances of the Constitution. But we also need hope that this dark winter too shall pass. History moves in waves. There are moments of cold-hearted darkness. But the spring will come again — so long as we don’t burn the bridges that can lead us back to rational friendship.

In the same letter that Jefferson wrote to Adams, he noted that he and Adams were both too old to change their opinions. It may be too late for friendship to bloom in the winter years of the Trump-Pelosi generation. But the younger generation can do better. Let’s teach the youth to be better: to be more rational, more republican, and more friendly.

Partisan Division, The Founders, and Moral Philosophy

Search for common ground this Fourth of July

Fresno Bee, July 2, 2016

  • Partisan division is explained by philosophy and psychology
  • Founding Fathers warned against factionalism
  • Solution to partisanship is friendship and respect for liberty

Our country is seriously divided. A recent Pew Center report indicates that we distrust and fear one another. Among committed partisans, “70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”

This crisis of trust threatens the fabric of civil society. But partisan conflict is not new. The Founding Fathers understood its dangers. Ancient philosophers warned against it. And psychologists have explained it in modern terms.

Committee_of_Five,_1776In the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned against “the violence of faction.” He called this a “dangerous vice” and a “mortal disease.” Partisan division inflames us with “mutual animosity.” We would rather “vex and oppress each other” than cooperate for the common good. Madison located factionalism deep within human nature, as a product of self-love.

George Washington agreed. He warned against “the baneful effects” of the “spirit of party.” In his Farewell Address, he said, “This spirit is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind.” Washington connected partisanship with the spirit of revenge and the lust for power.

Two thousand years prior, Plato offered a similar diagnoses of partisan politics. We wrongly think that might makes right. We believe our primary duty is to help friends and hurt enemies. And we lose sight of the common good.

One recent book uses brain science to explain partisanship. In “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt traces partisan zeal to the brain’s pleasure centers. Partisan behavior unleashes a rewarding blast of dopamine. This reinforces preconceived notions and our sense of righteous superiority. Noting that cocaine and heroin operate on those same pleasure centers, Haidt concludes, “Extreme partisanship may literally be addictive.”

Sigmund Freud directs our attention to the power of love and aggression. We love those who are similar and hate those who are different. Our desire to belong to a group of worthy people leads us to exaggerate the positive aspects of our comrades. This also leads us to inflate the negative features of those in the other party.

Partisan fanaticism often occurs among those who share much in common. Freud calls this the narcissism of minor differences. When our differences are minor, we amplify them in order to gain power and prestige.

With this in mind, we ought to note that the differences between Republicans and Democrats are mostly minor. A few differences get magnified. But no mainstream party is advocating a truly radical alternative to the status quo. No one in either party offers a radical revision of the constitutional system.

Republicans and Democrats each represent a different side of the same American coin. But, of course, the philosophy and psychology of partisanship predicts that partisans on each side will deny that this is true. Each side vilifies the other. The result is distrust and fear.

Our nation’s founders realized that you cannot eliminate factionalism without undermining liberty. They designed the Constitution to moderate its pernicious effects. The Constitution prevents tyranny. The rights of individuals are protected. Power is distributed. The nation’s size and diversity makes it tough for any single faction to gain complete control.

This approach is pragmatic. It does not hope for a radical change in human nature. Instead, it seeks to minimize the negative effects of our factional affliction.

Let’s hope the Constitution is strong enough to weather the current partisan storm. And yet, partisan hatred leaves us unhappy. And it causes moderate people to disengage. That’s unfortunate, since partisan rancor is curbed by the common sense of the moderates.

One solution points beyond politics to friendship. The Pew Center report suggests that those who have a friend in the other party are less fearful of the other party.

But our polarization makes it difficult to be friendly. We do not socialize in mixed political company. Our preconceptions are reinforced by a closed loop of one-sided media choices and self-selected social networks. This allows self-love to grow – and with it, distrust and fear.

Here is a suggestion for the Fourth of July. Befriend someone from the other party. Search for common ground. Our disagreements are nothing to fear. We should accept them as part of human nature. And celebrate them as a sign of our freedom.
Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article87055787.html#storylink=cpy