Given the magnitude of the problems facing our country, it is no wonder that people cast their votes on behalf of hope the last two elections. We seem to need an antidote to despair. But we may also need to recognize that the politics of hope cannot succeed without taking account of those aspects of human nature that got us into this mess to begin with.
It is striking in this regard, then, to consider visions by progressives and conservatives for getting the country on track. James Gustave Speth, author of the forthcoming book America the Possible, sets forth a vision in which Americans shift values from consumerism to prioritizing relationships, from seeing humanity as separate from nature to seeing it apart of nature, from discounting the future in favor of taking the long view, from individualism to a powerful sense of community, and so on. He argues for a unified progressive community mobilizing to institute these values, as well as the social and political reforms that follow from them. The society he envisions abounds with jobs, equality, security, environmental sustainability, citizen-based democracy, and widespread prosperity. Speth bursts with optimism: [quote] “This recitation seems idealistic today, but the truth is we know how to do these things.” [end quote]
The conservative vision seems to boil down to this: If you want hope, get government out of the way. Less government and fewer regulations equal greater freedom for individuals and markets, and this clears everything up. Let families and religions handle moral education, and let people stand or fall on their own. Virtually unregulated corporations and small businesses will pony up the jobs to give us prosperity and drive down the debt. The market will take care of our needs and protect us from our ills.
While both visions tap into a fundamental human optimism about our capacities to create positive social change, they fall short on accounting for the greed, lust for power, and self-satisfaction that has created the world we live in now and medicated us into passivity and acquiescence.
But if these visions deny human nature, Derrick Jensen, in his essay “Democracy of Destruction,” gives it to us in spades. Jensen argues that we continually make choices that privilege our own comforts with little regard for their destructive consequences. For example, people choose rechargeable batteries in electronic devices despite the fact that they’re made from resources that finance wars and atrocities leading to the deaths of millions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jensen believes that most people don’t even acknowledge they’re making such choices, which seem more like economic imperatives. Further, he concludes [quote] “It’s hard to make people care about something they receive tangible benefits from not caring about. This destructive democracy we share is a democracy where most people vote . . . with and for entitlements. . . . It is a democracy of, by, and for those who benefit from the wholesale destruction of the planet.” [end quote]
Perhaps it’s not as simple as that. But Jensen challenges us to look in the mirror and ask whether what is reflected there gives us any reason to believe that the progressive or conservative visions of hope make adequate concession to the darker side of human nature—those traits that led our nation’s founders to believe that a government of checks and balances was necessary to counter the selfishness of the people, both in and out of power. Drawing the implications of our human nature for government seems out of fashion. As columnist David Brooks notes, [quote] “Leaders today do not believe it is their job to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it.” [end quote] Voters, meanwhile, largely demand entitlements for themselves, but not for others, without sacrifice.
So just at the time when we’re experiencing the devastating results on a planetary scale of human greed and passivity, we’re being offered visions that pretend such faults don’t exist, while we tolerate a kind of government that is no longer enabled to check our selfish impulses. Conservatives seem to want government to enable greed, rather than check it. Progressives want government to transform society without acknowledging our failures to care.
So when a political candidate offers you empty slogans such as less government, more jobs, tell them it’s not so simple. If they tell you they can give you what you want without asking anything from you, tell them that’s where our problems came from. Brooks is right: Only a reformed government built on restraining our worst impulses will offer us a way out. Only a government that is enabled to foster our best impulses can offer us real hope. As you vote in the upcoming primaries, fill in the oval for the candidate who at least offers the best chance to give us the government we need, if not always the government we want.
Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.