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Can Politics Be Beautiful?

"Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom" (photo: Atelier Teee)

In his soulful book, Beauty: the Invisible Embrace, John O’Donohue writes:

“The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere – in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion and in ourselves.”

Politics is conspicuously absent from the list. And that made me think, can politics be beautiful?

Following the ideas of Hannah Arendt and martyred Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, I think of politics as simply the public negotiation over our shared problems and opportunities. Politics emerged when life became too complex for an individual or family. Patocka believes that’s when history began. Arendt ties public engagement to freedom (“Men are free…as long as they act.”).

There is, obviously, great potential for beauty in the public negotiations and cooperation of human beings. Whatever the particular political arrangements, humans have certainly worked together to create beauty. I suspect that in many cases participants would have recognized the creative process as beautiful.

American politics today is ugly. It’s as if we’ve returned to a prehistoric time before self-awareness dawned and we recognized self-awareness in others. We grunt and groan, whine and threaten, steal and accuse others of stealing. Like apes, we pound found bones on the floors of cable TV studios in displays of aggression that look more and more like the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A real democracy, of course, is bound to be rowdy, clamorous and unpredictable. But beauty is just not about order or conventional aesthetic symmetry. When lovemaking becomes orderly and predictable, it ceases to be beautiful. Why should politics – or human relationships of any sort – be different?

There was nothing beautiful about the Third Reich. What was beautiful about Rome predated Augustus. What was beautiful about Christianity predated Charlemagne. No, enforced order is, from any viewpoint, repugnant.

Politics is ugly is because we no longer bring an intention to create beauty with us when we enter a public sphere already darkened by Hobbesian gloom. It’s a zero sum game. If you win, I lose.

I think the American Founders had an eye for political beauty. Thomas Jefferson clearly did. George Washington’s refusal to make the American presidency little more than a king with a different name – that was beautiful. The Constitutional Convention of 1787, despite the rancor, the compromises, the oversights, was beautiful. The recent non-violent revolution in Egypt was beautiful. So was the 1989 dismantling of the Berlin Wall. So are our ongoing struggles for universal suffrage and civil rights, although they are marginalized by the media obsessed with ugly.

An ugly room attracts few guests, and today’s public sphere is an ugly room. The authoritarian right, of course, has uglied it up on purpose. In the infamous 1975 report to the Trilateral Commission, The Crisis of Democracy, historian Samuel Huntington said:

Increased political participation leads to increased policy polarization in society.

Huntington provided the authoritarian right with a road map to power, and he makes it clear that authoritarian order is threatened by too much political participation. The right has always understood that authentic beauty is its enemy. It wants ugly because ugly produces demoralization, fear, timidity and apathy. The elite need to be left alone to run things; the rest of us should shop and shut up.

We can mock the Ann Coulters and Rush Limbaughs all we want, but they succeed in creating an uncomely commons, an ugly place few dare go. And that is all they really want to do.

They want to make politics such an ugly thing that fewer and fewer people want anything to do with it.

Because demoralization and citizen suppression are key tactics of the Right, I believe effective political mobilization is our most urgent task. Our success depends upon recognition that the right is engaged in a massive, well-funded voter suppression effort, creation of our own ongoing voter engagement effort.

But I also think we need to at least announce our intention to make politics beautiful again. This doesn’t mean we capitulate or compromise in thin, self-serving, “bipartisan” ploys. There’s nothing beautiful in that.

It does mean that we actively seek the beauty that comes from authentic relationships and from human solidarity. Political beauty is in the intentions of beholder and beheld alike.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith