John Buell

The Future of Emergency Politics

Brown University political theorist Bonnie Honig suggests that one fruitful response to emergencies might be informed by classic democratic political theory. In The Social Contract Rousseau argued that it takes good men (sic) to make good laws and institutions but that it takes good laws and institutions to make good men.

There is an eternal chicken-and-egg problem here. Rousseau circumvented the problem by postulating a beneficent father figure who founds a healthy republic and then exits the scene. Absent such mythical guidance, perhaps we can have a politics that appeals to our better natures, to what we can become and that continually reminds us of the ways we will always fall short.

In more recent times, Reinhold Niebuhr issued a similar challenge: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Such an approach to politics in an emergency is not without precedence in our history. Honig cites the case of Louis Post, assistant secretary of labor during the post-World War I Palmer raids. Post assumed the task of ruling on the deportation of purported radical aliens in the wake of the 1919 bombings and suicide bombings attributed to anarchists. He mined every aspect of law to find justifications for releasing immigrants whose only “crimes” were the heterodox doctrines some of them professed. Called before Congress, he pointed to the limits of the law and also challenged the national conscience:

“I could not sleep at night for thinking of some of the cases where the men had to be sent out. They were good, hard working and useful men, who would have made good American citizens, but it was proved they were members of this organization, even though they did not know what its purpose was…I have deported such men because the evidence showed it was clear that they belonged to the organization.”

As Honig comments, “Post raised the question of democratic integrity, both with regard to himself and, by implication, with regard to the country. Democratic integrity limits what we may do to survive an emergency on behalf of who we want to be afterward.”

The rhetoric of constitutional lawyer Obama bears comparison with Post: “ Even as we’re vigilant, we cannot, and we will not, succumb to fear. Nor can we allow fear to divide us — for that’s how terrorists win. We cannot give them the victory of changing how we go about living our lives. … The good news is Americans are resilient. We mourned the lives lost at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon, at Chattanooga. But we did not waver … We’ve gone to ballgames, run marathons, and we’ve gone to concerts, and we’ve gone shopping. And men and women who want to serve our country continue to go to military recruiting offices.”

The principal freedom celebrated is the right to shop, go to games, or join the military. Obama reminds me of George W Bush’s recommendation just two weeks after 9/11: “Get down to Disney World in Florida, Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

But how about a president who would commend us for a robust commitment to democracy, one marked by a recognition that healthy democracy and its freedoms have been grounded in and sustained encounters among different core faiths, including secular liberalism, various versions of the social gospel, and Islam, which itself played a central role in the development of Christianity? And the president might have commended democratic citizens for their willingness to debate and acknowledge new rights and for being sufficiently capacious at least always to grant a hearing to those who point to our nation’s culpability for 9/11 and for the slaughter on a vast scale.

He/she might ask us what we will be as a people if we are willing to accept any and all restrictions on our freedom as long as these preserve mere life. Is living synonymous with the mere right to shop, the only cause for which current elites ask us to risk death?

In his defense of non- violent civil disobedience Martin Luther King presented another vision: “Even if [your oppressor] tries to kill you, you develop the inner conviction that there is something so dear, something so precious, something so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2016

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