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What the Coronavirus and Lockdowns Can Teach Us about Politics
Washington, DC, during COVID-19 outbreak on April 20, 2020
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What the Coronavirus and Lockdowns Can Teach Us about Politics

Paul Marshall

The Current Diminution of Politics

For many Americans, the word politics denotes something dubious, perhaps even evil. To say that something is political often implies that it is shallow, maybe reprehensible, and always suspect. To say that someone did something for political reasons suggests that the basic motive is shallow, self-interested, and likely wrong. Perhaps this is best captured in the definition given in Ambrose Bierce’s delightful The Devil’s Dictionary—”Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

But politics, understood as arguing and wrangling to create or retrieve some public policy, is a distinctive feature of, and a vital necessity for, democracies. We argue, campaign, and engage in rhetorical, media, and electoral combat about what we think the government should do. As the great political sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf argued over half a century ago, democracies are not and should not try to be harmonious places in which everyone agrees. They will be and should be places in which we, non-violently, struggle messily with each other about which policy we want.1 Freedom produces conflict, argument, and debate about what the government should do and what the state should be.

Any alternative to this messy and divisive politics would be a society wherein government policy is shielded from disharmonious argument and the variable waves of real public opinion. Such a political order would then inevitably be properly called “authoritarian” or “totalitarian.” In such states, the dominant political powers will make their decisions shielded from argument and consent, and will instead be decided by self-proclaimed popular, expert, intellectual, ideologically correct or, as with Stalin, “scientific” authorities.

Controversies over the Pandemic

Our fraught months with this virus bring these fundamental questions to center stage.

One of our current major issues is when and how much to loosen “lock-down” restrictions. Too much loosening might lead to accelerated infections and increased deaths that could continue for many more months. Too little loosening might lead to further economic destruction that—apart from economically ruining millions of lives, people losing their homes, and all that they have—can increase deaths of despair through suicide and drug overdose. There are contrary, conflicting, and changing recommendations from the White House, governors, and county and local officials. This variance is to be expected. A compacted hot spot such as New York City may legitimately receive expert opinions different from, say, Wyoming. These may simply reflect geographical dispersion and population densities—and different types of dispersion—producing vastly different infection rates. Why should they all have the same expert opinion and then follow the same policies?

There is critique of governors who might be opening too soon, such as in Georgia and Colorado: Do they risk a renewed outbreak in which many more will die, and in which case might future economic activity be further destroyed? There is critique of governors who continue more restrictive lockdowns, as in New York in California: Do they countenance the destruction of businesses—which means in reality that not abstract things called “businesses” but actual real families and individual lives will be destroyed? As noted, increased unemployment and poverty also increase death rates. At what point might economic restrictions cause more deaths than the virus?

Any decisions should certainly rely on expert opinion and estimates of the likely consequences of any decisions. But, finally, it is not a scientific decision: usually epidemiologists do not know about economic fallout, and economists are not usually experts in pandemics. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the most visible of administration spokespeople on the virus, when testifying before the Senate on May 12, pointed this out: “I’m a scientist, a physician, and a public health official. I give advice, according to the best scientific evidence.” He continued, “I don’t give advice about economic things.”

Even more chastening, politicians usually know little about either of these complex fields. But they are charged with the responsibility to decide between and include these competing experts, and so it is, inevitably, a political question that we must face. Please, let us not pretend that there is some clear, undisputed good side and wicked side to this debate. In fact, the sides probably and properly differ depending on where we live, and whether we still have a job and income or not.2

An Illustration

Three decades ago, Western hostages were imprisoned by Hezbollah in Lebanon, and there was a death sentence, which still stands, against Salman Rushdie, who was accused in a fatwa by the then ruler of Iran, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, of blasphemy because of his novel The Satanic Verses.3 On a TV discussion program, a group of civil libertarians was aghast at any suggestion that no one should publish a paperback version of the novel. Even though the book obviously pained many Muslims very deeply, they thought that this could not be a reason to censor free expression, especially by surrendering to death threats.4 They said that this was their political position.

A second segment of the show involved relatives and friends of hostages then being held in Lebanon. They felt that the government was not doing enough to secure the hostages’ release—too afraid of losing face and of giving up too much. The relatives felt that the governments should not stand on abstract principles but should be willing to negotiate to obtain the flesh and blood captives’ release. They said that this was their political position.

A third segment brought both groups, civil libertarians and hostage supporters, together in the same discussion. The interviewer then asked the hard question (i.e., the real political question): “If the terms for the release of some hostages was the suppression of a paperback version of The Satanic Verses, would you do it?” “What if the hostages would be killed if the book were not withdrawn?” Such a demand had actually been made.

This question produced a rare, for television, silence. The civil libertarians hemmed and hawed. No one was willing to accept the death of a known person to further his or her cause (especially if that someone’s spouse was sitting opposite him or her), or at least none would say that they were willing to, especially on television.

The discussion continued, but now in a wayward fashion. The diamond-hard moment had come and gone. Briefly, the question had been no longer some abstract, even moral, demand but the real-life question, a genuine political question. It was no longer a debate about one single ideal, one single demand, one single good, or one single assertion. It was not even two ideals, demands, goods, or assertions. It now addressed many ideals, many goods, many demands, many assertions that must be addressed together. And these differing demands of different people were not all achievable at the same time. Someone, perhaps everyone, would necessarily have to be bitterly disappointed.

This is what should properly be called politics.

The Difference between Politics and Ideals

This confrontation illuminates one of the central facts of politics and government. It is the difference between politics and governing, or simply dealing with interest group pressure. It is the difference between politics and ideals. It is the difference between governing and demands. Those governing a country or a state or a school board must out of necessity deal with many results, many demands, and many ideals all at the same time. This is true not only of selfish demands but even of legitimate, proper demands. Many of these demands—even if they are good, and even setting aside those that are not good—are simply not compatible, or at least not achievable simultaneously.

Wrestling over these competing demands, and their competing constituencies, is politics. It is an ongoing and often uncertain matter. To put it in its most demanding form, Michael Oakeshott writes, “In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.”5

The hardest political choices are often not between good and bad things, but how we deal with the relation between two or more good things that are not achievable at the same time. As G.K. Chesterton writes:6

When a system is shattered it is not merely the vices that are let loose, and they wander and do terrible damage. But the virtues are let loose also, and the virtues wander more wildly. The modern world is full of the old virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wondering alone. Thus, some scientists care for truth and their truth is pitiless. Thus, some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.

The virus presents these choices in a radical way.

I am continually struck that there is still so much that we do not know. There are differing projections for infections, cures, deaths, and “herd immunity.” Our projections vary not only between different agencies but even within agencies, depending on estimates of rates of infections and death. There are differing projections about the effects of easing or not easing our lockdowns. All these are obviously vital and necessary information to provide for policymakers, but in the nature of things, they cannot in themselves make public policy. Public policy—real politics—necessarily must balance these projections with other projections and with economics and other demands, and with balancing the projected and multivarious, very often unknown, consequences of any decision.

How Do We Respond?

What are the bottom lines in all of this?

Politics is inevitably judging between not only legitimate and non-legitimate demands but also between legitimate demands, which are usually much harder to dismiss. And we are often, probably usually, judging based on uncertain information, even ignorance—akin to Clausewitz’ description of military decisions necessarily made in the blindness of the “fog of war.”

Do not be too hard on politicians who struggle with and differ on their answers to these questions. These are very hard things, and there is no indisputable right answer. I could list many politicians whom I think are doing stupid things, which we should criticize, and please always oppose stupidity. But rest assured there is no right answer to these complex issues lying out there in some neo-Platonic universe waiting simply to be found and implemented.

Politics is itself hard: it is arguing and competing and fighting over contested, often differently valued and often underinformed, issues and policies.

But if you want to abandon the jarring messiness of politics, then Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, and Xi Jinping would be happy to suggest some alternatives.

Read in Providence Magazine

1 See Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (New York: Forgotten Books, 2018) (originally 1959). Dahrendorf argues that contestation not harmony is the mark of free and democratic societies.
2 On this see Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962). Crick was, as far as I know, a rare Aristotelian in the British Labour Party.
3 This draws on my God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), pp. 74-76.
4 For my views on this matter, see Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, Silenced: How Blasphemy and Apostasy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) pp. 177-182.
5 Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010) (New, Expanded Edition. Original 1962), p. 60. In a note Oakeshott adds “To those who seem to themselves to have a clear view of an immediate destination (that is, of a condition of human circumstance to be achieved), and who are confident that this condition is proper to be imposed upon everybody, this will seem an unduly skeptical understanding of political activity; but they may be asked where they have got it from, and whether they imagine that ‘political activity’ will come to an end with the achievement of this condition? And if they agree that some more distant destination may then be expected to disclose itself, does not this situation entail an understanding of politics as an open-ended activity such as I have described? Or do they understand politics as making the necessary arrangements for a set of castaways who have always in reserve the thought that they are going to be ‘rescued’?”
6 G.K, Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 1924), pp. 30-31. See also my Heaven is Not My Home: Learning to Live in God’s Creation (Dallas: Word,1998) pp. 201-203.

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