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Good Will, Good Faith, Good Grief

image: esc.ape(d) via flickr

Given an understanding that politics is not much more than war without weapons (usually), it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a lot of ill will involved.

Still, it seems today like all the good will and good faith have been drained from the American political environment. When Nevada Nut Sharron Angle says it’s time to turn to guns if conservatives don’t win at the ballot box, she means it. Her hatred of liberals is so intense she wants to kill us, and she doesn’t keep it a secret. It’s barely even news.

What led us into this awful circumstance? Is it just economic anxiety?

Consider this:  conventional wisdom tells us the Republicans are going to gain significantly this election, perhaps retaking the House and maybe even the Senate. Now, the GOP is the party that caused the economic crisis. And voters are poised to return them to power because they advocate the very policies everyone knows led to the collapse?

That can only happen when there’s a significant disconnect between reality and the political sphere, or what remains of the political sphere. It’s a dangerous situation. Those in charge of the lifeboats don’t even know if the ship is sinking.

It’s the distant and artificial nature of today’s politics that makes shooting liberals and burning Korans thinkable for some.

Jurgen Habermas noted fifty years ago that the public sphere in the west had vanished.

The extent to which the public sphere as an element in the political realm has disintegrated…is measured by the degree to which it has become a genuine publicist task for parties to generate periodically something like a public sphere to begin with.

In other words, it’s the job of political professionals to create an audience – not a conversation or debate. It’s pretend politics, or Disneyland politics as a sitcom or video game where you can just hit reset if too many liberals get shot or too many women’s health clinics get bombed. It’s not real, so what does it matter?

Ultimately, it creates a profound distance between us. We’ve come not to expect good will from others or good faith actions by our leaders or, maybe, even ourselves. I don’t know how our expectations could get much lower, frankly.

What can we do to turn this sorry circumstance around?

I had hoped that the renewed engagement in politics made possible by the web etc. would add a dose of reality and breathe some life into the political sphere. To a certain extent, that has happened.

Bad actors are colonizers, though, and the Drudges and the Bratbarts have helped poison up the blogosphere. In too many instances it’s just another hateful video game in the arcade.

There is, however, one surefire way to counter the bad faith and ill will that marks today’s politics: Bring good will and good faith to the party.

Mass media politics is disempowering. It’s damned hard for many individuals to see how they could possibly make a difference. But they can. There is no political act as profoundly important as the individual acting boldly with good faith and with good will toward those who might be influenced by the act.

This is not “can’t-we-all-get-along” wishful thinking. And it is harder to do than some might think. When all around us are getting ahead through acts of bad faith and ill will, the temptation is to do the same (in the name of justice, of course).

Another way to look at it: unless we restore good will to public life, we’re all likely to come to grief.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith