The political and the personal

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A sure sign of a failing culture is the expansion of the realm of the political. Areas of life which were once politics-free become political. Practices and institutions which were once independent and autonomous become politicized. And our lives are much the poorer for these changes.

One problem which arises is that, as a consequence of seeing everything (or almost everything) in political terms, we develop unreasonable expectations about what political action can achieve. The tragic history of attempts at radical social reform illustrate the dangers. But even political moderates can have unrealistic expectations.

In a recent piece at The Electric Agora, Kevin Currie-Knight, a moderate libertarian, expressed what I see as an unrealistic view of what democracy might be or might achieve.

He didn’t vote in the recent U.S. presidential election, he explains, because no candidate adequately represented his own, nuanced, personal views and values.

“I feel,” he wrote, “like the atheist watching every religion and sect say with full and equal confidence that theirs is the only God, and if you can’t see it, you’re just blind.”

If his point is that for many people politics is a matter of blind faith – in effect a crude religion-substitute – I would agree with him.

But he almost seems to be making politics into a religion-substitute himself. At the very least, he is making demands on politics which politics cannot really fulfil.

There is nothing wrong with not voting or voting for a non-viable candidate. This goes without saying. It is a choice which may – or may not – signal a protest against the system. But Currie-Knight’s reasons – as articulated in his article – for making such choices strongly suggest that he has an idealized image of what politics is or could be.

I see politics as an unfortunate necessity. It is about practical matters – like constraining entrenched interests or power elites with totalitarian tendencies. Currie-Knight, however, talks about sincerity and personal values.

Clearly, personal values motivate us to act in the political sphere (as they do in other spheres of life). But it is a serious mistake to expect that our personal values could ever – or should ever – find direct political expression.

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