Sunday, May 03, 2009

Homo electus and the last election

A remarkable Times article today documenting improvement in race relations in the U.S. since Obama's election also bears witness to the power of democratic participation as an expression of human nature:

“I didn’t vote for Obama,” said Chris Miller, 46, a boat builder in Johnstown, N.Y., who is white. “But just what I saw during the campaign — you had people, white, black, yellow, green, gray, every race and nationality out there together supporting that man. That right there showed me, hey, things are changing, things are better here. I had never seen anything to that extent.”

Alan Ingram, 29, a Web site designer in Milwaukee, agreed. “People had more of an opportunity to get together with this election and all of its events,” said Mr. Ingram, who is black. “You literally saw people of all kinds of backgrounds finding common ground.”

In a cafe on Friday, Mr. Ingram struck up an easy conversation with Nicole Nelson, a white law student, who agreed with his assessment.

“I went to an Obama rally, and I saw everything,” Ms. Nelson said. “I voted for him despite being brought up with conservative, small-town values in a place that had no diversity. I think it was a matter of exposure that changed how I looked at life.”
Color me a sap: that gives me chills.

There are good democrats (small "d," as in believers in democracy) who are what you might call minimalist democrats, of the school that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the alternatives." According to this school, democracy is necessary because no one can be trusted with power, everyone must be held accountable. This skepticism about human nature is fundamental to all democratic - and indeed, Republican - theory and underpins the U.S. Constitution with its separation of powers.

But is democracy's chief virtue negative - a check against corruption of power? A more expansive view is that political participation makes us fully human, and that democracy provides the opportunity for such participation to all. According to Aristotle, "man is by nature a political animal"; the political community, as the most developed social unit, is the ultimate expression of human nature, and "the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society." Democracy provides the opportunity and responsibility to all adults to participate in "the administration of justice."

Perhaps the ultimate reason that Obama won is that he communicated this understanding of democracy. As, for example, in the Jan. 5, 2008 debate:
And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
We had an election last year that riveted the nation, that revived and elevated political discourse, that generated a fresh drive toward a more perfect union and in itself changed this nation for the better.

Further, if human beings are essentially social animals, and if politics is the highest form of social interaction (plenty of room for debate there, I know..), and if our politics ultimately changes our values and our behavior, then we may actually be driving our own evolution through political action. Call us homo electus.

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