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A Return to Classic Politics

Does anybody know what a political argument is anymore? Or a political principle? Or even a political idea?

There was a time within living memory (at least for some of us geezers) when ideas and arguments were the proper business of political life. There were philosophical debates about the power of the state versus the freedom of the individual, and on how much government should intervene in the creation and distribution of wealth. 

It was always thought to be necessary for serious contenders to make it clear where they stood in this great discourse. There was even a profound, and dangerous, dispute between international powers about whether the "temporary dictatorship" by the working class might be necessary to deliver social justice. Not anymore.

What began with the revolutionary republican movements of the 18th century - the notion that governing must be based on a set of moral principles instead of the fickle whims of a monarch - had become, by the middle of the 20th century, the ONLY acceptable motive for political activity.

Political parties and their leaders had to be about something larger than personal ambition or inherited power. World wars - both hot and cold - were fought on ideological grounds and justified on the basis of moral precepts.

We are supposed to believe that this rule still holds; that no one running for office (or trying to seize power without an election) can be credible without offering a doctrine of beliefs and idealistic objectives. Political parties and their members should expect to be judged on how consistent and rigorous their basic convictions are. 

That is why "managerialism" - the idea that the only requirement of governing parties is to tinker with the running of an existing system - is such a damaging accusation. Politics is supposed to be about more than this.

You may have difficulty reconciling this picture of political life with what you see around you at the moment. While talk of moral principle has never been bandied about with more aggressive gusto, there is still a bizarre absence of any apparent understanding of the logic of argument: of the consequences, for instance, of supporting an idea which is diametrically opposed to the other issues for which you stand.

Absurdly contradictory positions like "Gays for Palestine" are endorsed by all-purpose rebels for whom civil disruption is a self-indulgent hobby. In the name of entertainment, authoritarians financed by the uber-wealthy are supported by free citizens who know nothing about the mechanisms of finance or mesmerism in which the charlatans and showmen so easily fleece the masses. What exactly are pro-Republican activists defending? Nationalism. And what are pro-Democratic activists defending? Populism.

But most importantly, do these activists ever ask themselves these questions? Do they even understand what it means to examine the consequences of a political action? Would they, in other words, be prepared to engage in logical argument, or be capable of a rational defense of their position if they did? If not, then this is just demagoguery, and they have left rational politics, as we have known it, far behind.

Even more insidious, how can parties supposedly dedicated to one cause effectively become fronts for entirely different causes which should, on any rational grounds, be anathema to them? There isn't any substantive disagreement between the Old Parties (and their adherents) about principles and goals: there is only a difference of opinion on the policies that will be effective in achieving those goals.

But our petty domestic troubles are insignificant on the global stage where the failure to engage with what would once have been considered genuine political debate will be catastrophic. In the United States, Republicans in Congress put up a relentless campaign of resistance against arms shipments to Ukraine which might have irreparably damaged its resistance to the Russian onslaught. But they reacted furiously against President Biden's threat to stop providing Israel with weapons for its fight against Hamas in Gaza. Don't they see that Russia's assault on Ukraine and the threat that Hamas poses to Israel are part of the same anti-Western campaign? That while Israel, Palestine, and Ukraine are all defending their individual rights to simply exist, Iran and Russia, along with China and North Korea, are now allies in a new Cold War, and must be seen as aligned in their collective interests?

No, obviously they don't. Because they do not understand - and are not actually interested in - politics. Their only concerns now are for economic self-interest and the opportunities for trade which that involves.

Maybe the 20th century was an anomaly with its grand pretensions to clashes of ideals and competing value systems. Certainly, international conflict is not about ideology anymore: socialism vs capitalism, or totalitarianism vs liberal democracy. It has returned to a darker past. The confrontations once again are between blood-and-soil nationalism accompanied by a sense of mystical destiny, and a crass commercialism which turns government into a merchandising opportunity.

The most important insight of the modern era - that politics and economics were inextricably intertwined - is evaporating. Economics has now simply become a matter of useful fiscal arrangements, and political differences are a sham. And "We, the People" are beginning to suspect some of what it is that we have lost.


Committee to Elect Darren Hamilton
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