Writing yesterday about our government’s latest act of profligacy—raising the debt ceiling from $12.394 trillion to $14.294 trillion—I concluded with this observation:
“More and more, I believe, the burning question with which the Obama administration confronts us is this: Will he and his colleagues damage the country beyond repair before the voters, roused from their dogmatic slumbers, realize what is happening and throw them out? I wish I were more confident that the answer was no.”
Digesting that last bit, a friendly reader wrote to express his sadness that many of the chaps whose work he favors were so “pessimistic. America,” he wrote “can still redeem itself . . .”
Ellipsis in the original, which I take softens the original declaration into something more optative. In any event, I believe the reader has seized upon a supremely important point that is partly psychological, partly political.
First, a terminological point: a pessimist is someone who looks at a state of affairs and concludes that things are worse than they really are. An optimist looks at the same state of affairs and concludes that they are better than the facts warrant.
Our difficulty, of course, is that we have no reliable access to that common reality which would enable us to say with confidence “this is how things really are, so chap A took too dour a view, chap B too rosy a view.” As with most important things in life, there is a leap involved: our affirmations about most human realities are less statements of fact than pearls containing at their core a grain of dark uncertainty.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a little book about Kant’s political philosophy which I read when I was in graduate school. I remember being surprised at first that the book focused on Kant’s “Third Critique,” the Critique of Judgment, which deals partly with taste and aesthetic judgment and partly with judgments about the ends and purposes of nature. “What do those subjective activities have to do with politics?” I asked myself. “Everything,” was the answer. As Kant notes, when we make an aesthetic judgment (“this painting is beautiful”) we do not offer a judgment that compels assent because of logic (“2 plus 2 equals four”). Rather, as Kant picturesquely puts it, we “woo” or court the agreement of others by appealing to a sense of the world we hold in common because of our common humanity.
Kant and Arendt have a lot more to say about the subject. I mention it here to underscore three points: 1. the element of uncertainty that, like that grain of sand in a pearl, is an essential concomitant to our political judgments; 2. the standard which our common humanity supplies to guide and inform our political deliberations; 3. the importance of rhetoric, what Aristotle defined as “the art of persuasion,” in politics. Politicians may draw upon facts and figures in their speeches. At the end of the day, however, they do not demonstrate anything. They appeal to our imaginations, to our emotions, to our common sense of what is the good life and how to achieve it. Indeed, one of the signal dangers that stalks political life is the temptation, felt by politicians as well as their audiences, to regard political pronouncements as inarguable statements about the way the world is rather than—what they really are—the expression of opinion.