Friday, November 4, 2011

A Brief History of Political Fortitude II

Historically, political fortitude or courage was an essential civic virtue in two ways. First, fortitude meant traditional military bravery to defend the republic from external domination, thus preserving its liberty. But second, and more importantly, it was and still is, the courage to defend the republic from internal domination by would-be oligarchs, demagogues, and tyrants. This is a courage that is both physical and moral, because before it is needed on the revolutionary guerilla battlefield once the oligarchs take over, it is needed in the public forum to prevent or delay that takeover in the first place. It is the kind of moral and physical courage and stamina that the Occupy protesters are showing right now. Those who would steal liberties are, when pressed, willing to resort to all forms of domination, including propaganda, demagoguery, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, cheating the political rules, and even military coup de ├ętat. Exercising fortitude to prevent domination is obviously best, but vigilance, strength, and determination can be exercised against tyranny anywhere in the process.
Some might wonder what role fortitude has to play in the realm of public debate. What use is courage in public speaking? The answer seems obvious, since most of us get nervous when addressing a crowd and need to summon up the courage to do it. But strength and determination are important for another reason. A democracy only works well when all sides have the courage to present their honest, authentic views to one another, because democracy is based on deliberation about different ideas. The ancient Greeks called this parhesia -- “frank speech.” One has to have what used to be called the “courage of your convictions” and speak up for principles that you believe are good for the country, basing your arguments not on political calculus but on genuine, principled, well-considered judgments about the matters at hand. Your fellow citizens have a right to know your sincere view regarding the question “What is in the public interest?” and to know clearly that your answer is free of political calculus. You need to have the fortitude to stand up for what is right regardless of whether you are the lonely voice in the room, whether you fear being ridiculed or shot down, or whether you estimate that a principled proposal won’t be “politically possible” or “serious” enough for the pompous pundits.  Of course, success in implementing a progressive agenda will take much more than this, including organizing, money, and smarts, but all that will be fruitless without the political fortitude to advance liberal and progressive principles. 
Despite slightly tougher rhetoric since the Occupy protests began, the center-left capitulation machine in DC has zero inherent political fortitude -- less than zero -- and that is why the United States has initiated wars of choice, tortured the prisoners of those wars, metastasized a national security surveillance state, created a massive incarceration industry, developed third-world levels of inequality, shrunk its middle class by a quarter, and left its infrastructure, education, and safety net in tatters. The center-left DC elite fear the disapproval of the pundit class and their right-wing colleagues more than anything. Fear of disapproval is powerful thing, and having the moral courage to overcome that fear is as important as physical courage in the face of physical oppression -- more important in the normal course of politics.  Standing for justice against corrupt conservatism, and for the rebirth and renewal of our republic, requires having the courage, confidence, stamina, and determination to take political action, to take political risks. And, I will argue, that includes taking the the risk of withholding approval, and votes, from political leaders who lack the damn backbone to actually press for the principles and policies for which we stand.


  1. This is an excellent and important post! Thanks for writing it!


  2. Enjoyed the post, Mr. Z.

    The implication of your piece is that political fortitude is merely a matter of summoning will. Be bold, you say, stick to principle. But does the source of our political misery really derive in some failing of fortitude (fear of disapproval, for example), or does it have deeper, systemic causes, such as the power of monied interests, the unprecedented use of the filibuster to stymie reform, and a purportedly progressive party (Dems) that is largely beholden to the same wealthy constituencies as the GOP?

    I wonder.

  3. Jon, it's not that a lack of political fortitude is the *cause* of our problems itself, and I certainly agree with you that those problems have systemic causes. And we will need to make systemic changes to solve those problems, including changing political incentives, altering economic institutions, promoting community, re-doing the basic way we use energy, and a host of other things. To do all that we are going to need more knowledge, a more politically engaged and active electorate, and better organization.

    But one necessary task we face is beating the entrenched interests who currently benefit from the status quo. To quote Martin Luther King, "Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily... freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." That takes courage, stamina, mutual support, and collective will - and the label that I'm using for that is political fortitude. I think it is the thing that has been most lacking on the Left for a generation, and thus what we most need to focus on right now - and is a necessary prerequisite to making the systemic changes you'd like to see.