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The Politics of Dignity

All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity


Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. –Winston Churchill
All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy. –Alfred E. Smith, former governor of New York
The price of liberty is something more than eternal vigilance…We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children. –Henry Demarest Lloyd, American journalist and reformer

The previous chapters have discussed rankism in our social institutions and what can be done to curtail it. Here we address rankism in our civic institutions. What would politics look like if it were conducted in a dignitarian manner? What is the relationship between citizens and their leaders in a dignitarian government? Must partisan politics lead to ideological extremes or is there common ground that both conservatives and progressives can inhabit and thereupon work out their differences?

Before people take seriously the possibility of building dignitarian political institutions, they need an answer to a question I’m asked at every talk I give:

Is Rankism Human Nature?

In general, it’s a rule of nature to pick on the weak—a strategy that minimizes the chance of retaliation. Since human beings are not unlike other species in this regard, it’s natural to conclude that rankism is human nature and that’s the whole story. But it’s not. Yes, human beings are predators. But we’re also changing rapidly. Numerous observers have made the case that we’re now in the final phase of an epochal transition from predatory behavior to cooperative conduct.

We have also witnessed the rise of organized labor and other mass movements, such as those for civil and women’s rights, in response to discrimination and exploitation by a dominant group. It was long maintained that racism and sexism are indelible parts of human nature, but with every passing decade this belief becomes more indefensible. So while it must be acknowledged that we do have predatory tendencies, it’s also clear that we’re quite capable of reining them in and that this latter-day trend seems likely to prevail as our species matures.

At every point in our social evolution, power rules. Usually it’s imminent and in your face–the police, the army–but every now and then what prevails is a novel combination of lesser forces that, through collaboration, first trump and then tame the existing authority. Sometimes all it takes to persuade those in charge to back down is to convince them that should things actually come to a fight, they will lose. Abuses of power persist until the individuals or institutions perpetrating them realize that they are facing a greater force. That force need not be, and usually is not, entirely material. As Gandhi,Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela proved, an important part of that force can be the moral might of an aroused citizenry.

In any case, once the opposition coalesces the rankist perpetrators either mend their ways or end up being ousted from their privileged positions. The long-term trend of this evolutionary process is the discovery of increasingly effective forms of cooperation that outperform, out-produce, and finally supplant abusive authoritarianism. Examples of this dynamic can be found in the myriad autocracies that have yielded to democracies and in the replacement of companies fueled by fear and humiliation with businesses providing work environments that protect people’s dignity so that everyone, custodian and stockholder alike, reaps the benefits.

It is a goal of this book to make the principles of a dignitarian society palpable enough so the very thought of doing something that subjects others to indignity will provoke the countervailing realization that such a course would, in the longer term, prove self-defeating if not suicidal.

In addition to confronting the abuses that remain in our civic arena and social institutions, we must identify and eliminate those that occur between sovereign states, democratic or not, in the largely ungoverned realm of international affairs.

The DNA of Democracy: Watchdog Processes

Democracy is a strategy to combat the truth expressed in Lord Acton’s oft-quoted dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s the best model of governance we have for ensuring that officials do not misuse their station to the detriment of those they are supposed to serve.

The DNA of democracy consists of watchdog procedures through which we monitor our officials’ actions and systems of accountability that circumscribe their prerogatives. Instead of assuming that authority figures will consistently respect human dignity, democracy assumes the opposite: that they will be tempted to place their personal interests ahead of the public’s, and that if this causes the citizens indignity—well, that’s just too bad. To prevent such self-serving lapses, we erect a system of constant “reminders,” such as multiple political parties, elections, checks and balances including an independent judiciary, free media—all the institutions of democratic civil life—to hold their feet to the fire.

Woody Allen joked that relationships are like sharks: they either keep moving or they die. Democracy is a relationship between those in positions of authority and the citizenry, and if we’re not continually saving it, we’re losing it. The reason for this is that new forms of power are constantly emerging and democracy has to keep pace with them to guard against potential creeping transgressions—that is, new instances of rankism. One example of this is the way television has transformed the political process, giving an advantage to candidates with the financial resources to purchase the most broadcast time.

This makes it easier for the wealthy to acquire and wield power, and as many commentators have pointed out, it moves nations away from democracy toward plutocracy. In response, some European governments are striving to reduce the role of money in politics by attempting to equalize what candidates spend on media campaigns.

But television has also had another effect on politics, one that serves the weak. Like the printing press before it and the Internet later, television informs, and insofar as it’s accurate, information is empowering. Although technological innovations may at first benefit the authorities, who are usually quicker to exploit them, citizens eventually get their hands on new advances and over time, this strengthens their position vis-vis those in charge.

Television has made of the world a global village in which everyone knows how the other half lives. The Internet, cell phones, and text messaging shift power away from the governors toward the governed. The growing use of blogs on the Internet is another example of how technological innovations bring change to government, in this case by amplifying the voices of citizens and weakening the traditional media’s control over the news. The Internet is a democratizing tool that offers vast numbers of people affordable ways to publish, make videos, produce music—in short, to communicate, contribute, and gain recognition.

As such it is a dignitarian bulwark against rankism. Democracy evolves as a majority of citizens realize that eliminating identified forms of rankism benefits society as a whole. A government’s legitimacy rests on its capability and willingness to put the interests of the citizenry as a whole over those of any subgroup, no matter how powerful. Decisions that favor an elite rather than the country as a whole are quite literally unpatriotic.

Navigating the Ship of State

The partisan divide into right and left, conservative and liberal, stems from the ongoing and unavoidable choice facing all societies over how much authority to vest in rank. The right has traditionally been the party that defends the authority and prerogatives of power-holders, the left the party that limits them. These identifications can reverse, however, depending on which party is in charge. When the left overthrew the Czar and took over during the Russian Revolution of 1917, it quickly abolished all limits on governmental power.

Since both right and left orientations have a vital role in good management, it’s not surprising that democratic electorates tilt first one way and then the other. They are like the captain of a ship who makes a continual series of course corrections, to starboard and port, in order to avoid beaching the ship (of state) on the shoals (of extremism).

This simple model of left-right complementarity is complicated by the existence of multiple levels of authority: national, regional or state, municipal, and individual. Both the left and the right may try to use the power of one level of government to weaken or strengthen that held at other levels or by certain people. Examples include progressive support for, and conservative opposition to, national civil rights legislation during the segregationist era and the present-day federal protection of abortion rights.

Another current example, in which the attitude of left and right toward federal power is reversed, is conservative support for, and progressive opposition to, a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage. Generally, conservatives view governmental regulation and taxation as restrictions upon individual authority and autonomy and thus oppose them, whereas those on the left see these functions of government as fairly distributive of power and are more willing to support them.

Which party fulfills the progressive or conservative role is secondary compared to the overarching need to maintain social and political stability. A society that doesn’t trust anyone with authority loses its ability to coordinate and execute complicated tasks in a timely fashion.

Systems of governance that cannot “stop people talking,” to use Clement Attlee’s phrase cited in chapter 3, are vulnerable to what the women’s movement in the 1960s called the “tyranny of structurelessness,” which groups that govern by consensus will recognize as the interminable, indecisive meeting. On the other hand, a society that doesn’t limit the power of its rulers (such as in the USSR and Nazi Germany) will find individual initiative stifled and liberty eroded. In this case, the threat is the tyranny of conformity.

What’s imperative for civic stability and civil governance is that both upholding and circumscribing the power vested in rank have earnest advocates and that partisans be aware of and have some appreciation for the validity of the role played by their opponents. This duality is so important that even in one-party systems dedicated to some ideological principle, the divide between conservatives and liberals soon reappears in the form of “hard-liners” and “democratizers.”

Navigating the ship of state between right and left reflects the need to avoid absolutism and anarchy, either of which can be the undoing of a government and a people. Systems of governance that lack such a steering mechanism are prone to self-destruct. Without its opposite number to serve as a counterweight, either party, unrestrained, will eventually run a nation aground. To paraphrase an unknown pundit, we have lunatic fringes so we know how far not to go.

An individual’s political orientation is influenced by his or her own personal relationship to rank. For a variety of reasons—psychological and political, and, recent studies hint, even genetics—some tilt conservative, and an approximately equal number tilt liberal. As Gilbert and Sullivan put it in their play Iolanthe:

I often think it’s comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!

One determinant of personal political orientation can be compensatory: we may give our support to the party whose predilection we wish to strengthen within ourselves. Thus, the people who fear their own indiscipline may champion the party of law and order and leave telltale hints of their underlying motives by expressing excessive disdain for liberals, whom they perceive as libertines. And those who seek to dispel guilt for a history of domination or prejudice may do so by becoming proselytizing champions of the weak, thereby expiating their sins and gaining a sense of moral purity.

Another factor in party preference is that each of us carries within, to different degrees and at different times, a sense of being both a somebody and a nobody. Those who identify themselves with their inner nobody are more apt to sympathize with those whom society casts as underdogs or second-class citizens. Contrariwise, those who align themselves with their inner somebody are more apt to support the “law and order” party.

Regardless of political orientation, aversion to abuses of power can blind partisans to rank’s legitimate functions. Likewise, excessive loyalty to power-holders can turn partisans into apologists for rank’s misuse. Tracing peoples’ political orientation to their relationship to authority helps explain why political argument is so rarely persuasive. A good deal of partisan dispute stems from our gut feelings about whether increasing or decreasing the power of officeholders, especially as it may bear on a current issue in which we ourselves stand to gain or lose, is the greater threat. Once that choice has been made, the “facts” can usually be spun to support it, and reciting them to someone in the other camp has little effect.

A Dignitarian Model of Politics

To sum up, fair and effective government requires balancing the need for some centralization of power with concern about its proper use. That in turn requires a political model in which both parties acknowledge the legitimate functions of power and are conscientious about limiting it to the proper sphere. In the dignitarian model, tension between liberals and conservatives is regarded as a natural part of working out the appropriate use of authority in a given situation. Instead of being locked in stalemate, the parties engage, without fear or malice, in an open process of give-and-take until a common understanding is reached.

As rankism, like racism, falls into disrepute, the partisan insults, put-downs, and smears we have become accustomed to will find less favor with the electorate. Sneering at opposing views, contempt for nonbelievers, and personal attacks will all backfire, discrediting the purveyors and not their targets. There is no reason to expect dignitarian politics to be less argumentative, but there’s every reason to believe it will be more civil.

The message of detachment common in Eastern religions provides a useful antidote to the rancor and self-righteousness of partisan politics. It encourages us to witness and acknowledge our reactions to a situation and see them as part of a larger picture. Activism is not conceived of as directed against an evil foe, but rather as part of a dynamic in which one’s opponents also have a valid, if perhaps misguided, role.

Detached activists, while putting their strongest case forward, take pains to protect the dignity of their adversaries in what is, after all, a struggle to identify and expose whatever specific ignorance is sustaining the conflict. If you lose sight of the dignity of your adversaries, it’s a sign that you’re intoxicated by your own ideology. According to a Mayan saying: Tu eres me otro yo (You are my other self).

A dignitarian politics, while allowing for partisanship, would be inhospitable to the ideological extremism and dysfunctional incivility that undermine many modern democracies. The most effective thing one side can do to win the cooperation of the other is to discover what it is that’s right about the opponent’s position. Once a party to a conflict feels that some kernel of truth it defends has been appreciated by the other side and incorporated into a broader model—one that transcends the starting positions of both adversaries—it becomes easier for that party to cooperate. The day often goes to the side that takes the lead in figuring out a way for its opponents to hold their heads high while both sides abandon some of what they’ve been fighting for. Dignitarian politics is not so much nonpartisan as it is transpartisan.

Confronting Bureaucratic Rankism

Rankism is the malady of bureaucracy. Regardless of state ideology, when bureaucrats put their interests above that of the public they’re meant to serve, trust is eroded. Bureaucratic rankism is an equal opportunity disease afflicting communists and capitalists, fascists and democrats, liberals and conservatives alike.

But despite its endemic nature, rankism can indeed be overcome, one step at a time. Not that there aren’t good grounds for cynicism. The rankist dysfunction that plagued FBI operations prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has been identified by numerous investigative bodies. In hindsight, the success of the attacks was widely attributed to the rankist culture of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The consensus is that on that fateful day America paid a tragic price for deeply ingrained habits that caused the FBI and CIA to put their institutional interests ahead of public safety.

In contrast to these high-profile instances of bureaucratic rankism are success stories that exemplify the opposite. Perhaps the most noteworthy recent example of overcoming the rankism of U.S. government officials is the Watergate scandal. A less publicized, closer-to-home example that directly affects every American taxpayer involves the Internal Revenue Service.

In 1997, during hearings of the Senate Finance Committee, it came to light that IRS agents and auditors were using the power of the agency to harass political dissidents, various religious groups, and certain other citizens by subjecting them to punitive audits. A whistle-blower named Shelley Davis, former historian for the IRS, described the “intransigence, arrogance, and abusive patterns of behavior that [are] common inside…the IRS” in her book Unbridled Power: Inside the Secret Culture of the IRS. In testimony to the committee she described the agency’s Special Services Staff as a secret, cloistered unit of list-keepers. Anyone it considered “of questionable character,” as determined from newspaper articles and their FBI files, was targeted for auditing even if they had no known tax problems.7

In this case the system of checks and balances worked as the Founding Fathers envisaged and the rankist agency practices at issue were identified and largely eliminated.As a result of the congressional hearings, the discretion of individual agents was removed from the equation.

Rather than allowing them to target people based on their own opinions, a system was instituted that flagged returns for audit by computers programmed to pick up patterns of probable underpayment. This new arrangement eliminated personal discretion from the audit selection process and has gone a long way towards curbing abusive IRS power and quelling public concerns about it.

In a dignitarian culture, where the burden of proof is on alleged perpetrators instead of alleged victims, successes like this one shouldn’t be hard to come by.

Seeking Common Ground

Imagine that a dignitarian approach to politics has taken hold. Parties of the left and the right continue to vie with each other for votes, but candidates who demonize their opponents are themselves discredited. Rather than being diverted by such sideshows, voters focus on whether their representatives are providing solutions that respect and protect their dignity.

In broad terms, what ideas and programs would we expect a legislature charged with overcoming rankism to come up with? Before giving an answer to this question, I want to acknowledge that this is only my answer–the kind of legislation I personally would wish my congressional representatives to enact to safeguard my dignity and that of my family. While it’s tempting to guess at what others would want, that would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the dignitarian process. (Many of the following issues have been discussed in greater depth in earlier chapters.)

  • Dignity security, not job security. This would provide a fair chance to compete for any job for which I have the specified qualifications, and transitional support if I should need to find a new one.
  • Compensation for my labor that enables me and my dependents to live with dignity.
  • Access to quality education for my family members regardless of our financial circumstances.
  • Affordable basic and specialized health care for me and my dependents.
  • A system for funding campaigns that enjoins lawmakers to put the public’s interests above special interests. Incumbents should be barred from using the power inherent in their position to gain an unfair advantage over challengers.
  • Protection of my privacy and autonomy against unwarranted intrusion from my fellow citizens or the government.
  • An equitable tax policy. Obviously, everything depends on the interpretation of equitable. The word acquires a functional meaning through a national dignitarian dialogue.What we agree to be fair is fair, until we change our minds. Periodic renegotiation occurs in the form of a democratic political process that gives electoral weight to the interests of every citizen, with no exceptions.
  • A national defense that deters would-be aggressors and defeats them if they mount an attack, along with international policies that avoid giving the kind of offense to others that incites their revenge.
  • Participation in global agreements that foster international security and environmental sustainability.

More important than any of these particulars is to elect candidates who are committed in general to searching for models that protect the dignity of all.

How will all this be attained? Unfortunately, there is no quick way–any more than there was a way during the era of racial segregation to vote enough enlightened legislators into office to pass civil rights legislation. The process will take time.

And we shouldn’t expect our political representatives to be more dignitarian than we are. If we ourselves presume ideological or moral superiority, our politicians will simply mirror one or another brand of it back to us in an ongoing attempt to find favor with a majority of voters. The result will be more of the same—unending, uncivil stalemate and stagnation.

To elect politicians who will build a dignitarian society requires the creation of a dignitarian culture. As this culture takes hold, our politicians will find it increasingly difficult, and ultimately impossible, to deny us dignitarian governance. Such a society will not come to us as a gift. It will come as we earn it–by personifying its values and demanding the same from our leaders.

The following chapter begins to examine how we can establish a dignitarian perspective and sketches out what the emerging dignitarian cultural consensus will look like.

This is the thirteenth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]