Monday, August 15, 2011

Two Ways of Looking at Politics

It struck me recently and not so recently that one can look at politics in two very different ways, represented by Thomas Jefferson on the one hand and Teddy Roosevelt on the other. Jefferson wrote once, something like, that a little revolution every so often was a good thing in republics, as good as storms in the natural world. Roosevelt, on the other hand, wrote that a little war every so often was a good thing, even in republics.

Now these are two very different ways of thinking about, talking about, and doing politics, it seems to me. Both arguments have in common the thought that political orders require renewal every so often as if they run out of steam or necessarily lose their integrity. But for Jefferson, these renewals are to be, for the most part and primarily, domestic affairs. It would seem that they would necessarily involve political parties and especially political parties that are not concerned with stability or maintaining the status quo. Of course, revolutions might be but need not be bloody, as Jefferson's own election in 1800 demonstrated. But they would involve civil unrest, even if this unrest did not eventuate in violence or bloodshed. And they would involve, it would seem, the existence of a new political vocabulary, a new political lexicon as it were. In other words, these revolutions would involve great debates or would "revolve" around such debates.

On the other hand, Roosevelt's endorsement of war as the necessary means to rejuvenating our political system would be, primarily, a foreign affair or foreign affairs. And it would seem that, necessarily, Roosevelt's rejuvenation would be bloody, involving the killing of other human beings, of "foreign" human beings. Moreover, it would seem that Roosevelt's rejuvenation looks toward the creation or re-creation of unity, especially national unity. And hence it would lead to the creation of a nationalistic spirit among the people, even such a spirit combined with a nation marching into war in order to prove its "manliness."

I cannot quite shake the thought that Jefferson and Roosevelt were seeking very different ends, had very different political agendas. As illustrated by Jefferson's election in 1800, he did not think that unity, especially national unity, was an unalloyed good. It might be accurate to say that Jefferson was concerned with creating "a union" as distinguished from "a nation," the latter being the goal of Roosevelt's political agenda. And at times Roosevelt called his agenda a "new nationalism," whereas we might call Jefferson's agenda a "new federalism." In the best unions, the parts retain their integrity and, hence, in a union, policies would be created to enhance the integrity of the parts. In the best nations, however, the parts are subsumed by or into the whole. The parts are homogenized as it were; they might even be said to disappear, to be assimilated. And policies would be created that sought to accomplish this disappearing act, policies like "a little war every now and again." For when nations go to war, all are "mobilized" for the effort and all are expected to "ask what they can do for their country." Unions require different skills to persist than do nations. Which is better? I don't know but as I get older I lean more and more toward union if only because they seem to be more peaceful.

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