The word politics comes from polis, the Greek word for city, or state. Politics is the art of living amongst people. It is, at the root, and in practice, a project of collaborative problem-solving. In its broadest sense, it is a way to describe our process of learning how to talk about value with those around us; it is the study of what happens when people make choices, relying on free will and individual expression. Cynics, with either too much or too little immediate access to power, often argue there can be no real freedom and little cause for faith in humanity. That has never been the case. We constantly exercise our power of observation, our judgment, and our freedom to choose; this is how we relate to every person we know.
In this sense, politics is what Jacques Derrida referred to as peri-philías: an examination of the nature of friendship. We form affinities, friendships, families, communities, alliances; we apply our vision, our judgment, our imaginations, and our best use of shared language, to hold the world together. It is to our benefit that choices lead to consequence, so we can choose better, improve outcomes, redress our failings. The question is: Do we build on each other’s strengths?
On January 21, 2015, the United States Senate voted 98-1 to approve a resolution recognizing that climate change is “real and not a hoax”. Lawmakers who had previously opposed even the mention of the words “global warming” or “climate change” recognized that the Earth’s climate is changing and that the scientific process is legitimate. This was a clear vote for reasoned investment in the principle that it is better to build bridges between truth and action than to “play politics” or speak against one’s own understanding. This is common sense. The implied message is: Instead of politics as play, this is for real. We have a shared challenge, and we have work to do, and we can build on that shared recognition to achieve what will actually do the most good for the people, the nation, our sustained liberty, and for future generations.
As we enter the certain-to-be-intense opening legislative season of 2015, we feel the psychic tension coiling around itself. We want leaders who can use common sense, find common ground, and serve the common interest of the citizens they are sworn to serve. Yet those same public officials experience, coming at them from all angles, constant pressure to “draw clear distinctions”, stand against opponents, even to avoid using words and phrases that rivals might appreciate. This is why we hear, with merciless frequency, complaints that our democracy is dysfunctional, that you can’t trust Congress, that our process is broken. It is common sense that if politics were the seeking, identifying, and confronting of enemies, we would always be at war, and the polis would always be insecure. We would be lying to ourselves about our civic dexterity and inviting dysfunction, instead of laying the groundwork for a smart future of shared prosperity.
Blaise Pascal challenged the logic of entrenched rivalry, asking: “Is there anything more ridiculous than that I should have the right to kill you, because you live on the other side of the water?” Ethics cannot be brushed aside for reasons of local or personal preference. More good is better; amplification of harm is failure. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that a society cannot allow any of its citizens to thrive in the whole of their selfhood, or be genuinely free, if it degrades, does violence to, or limits the liberty or opportunity of any. Climate is the matter of common interest that Pope Francis has said is the most urgent and threatening right-to-life issue of our times. Escalating climate costs are a threat to human liberty.
The 98-1 bipartisan vote says that on matters of existential crisis, we can work together for a smarter future. Though differences remain, this should stand as bedrock principle and begin a new chapter in our history. Recognizing that the system that supports life on Earth is being destabilized, we should come together and do all that we can, as intelligently as we can.
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