I am coordinating a conference hosted by the King’s University in Edmonton, Canada, on having difficult moral conversations, many of which are political. We are even hosting two politicians from our New Democratic Party and the Conservative Party. Since I am a theorist of authenticity, and of Hannah Arendt, I have been impressed by the problem of how to engage in politics authentically, with the awareness that the hyper-partisanship with which we are all familiar (liberal/conservative, pro-choice/pro-life, etc.). This activity, and my engagement with the topic, come in the context of the Conservative Party of Canada selecting a new leader. I must admit, I have become less political than is ideal.
However that may be, I also wanted to introduce Arendt, who died in 1975, to new readers, and to impress onto readers what she called “authentic politics”— as she wrote, “different people getting along with each other in the full force of their power”— before those fed up with politics, or only interested in using it for their own personal gain distort the very meaning of politics beyond recognition. For Arendt, politics was the back-and-forth interplay between regular people in a democracy. Politics is the realm of freedom (The Human Condition) and will not only combat hyper-partisanship and raw power plays, but may even help us thrive even in the face of great collective challenges.
I have been continuing to think with Arendt about our moment, our political moment, and I think there’s plenty we can learn from her insights about politics in a time of pandemic, inflation, police brutality, and protest.
The first and last thing Arendt teaches us is that politics was made for these crises. This may be obvious enough when it comes to police brutality and other forms of racist violence, but it is also true for the pandemic. While science, medicine, engineering, and manufacturing are essential to combatting coronavirus, Arendt would argue that it is politics, and politics above all, that creatively shapes how science is used, to whom medicine is applied, and how engineering and manufacturing are summoned to serve the public good. In acting collectively to care for others, we act politically. What is all this coordinating with innumerable perfect strangers to seek the good of our cities, communities, and neighborhoods, other than a form of political action?
We have a hard time seeing this because we assume politics to be the business of political parties, of Republicans and Democrats. If we absorb Arendt’s writings, we should be disabused of this assumption.
Hannah Arendt the person was a respected and considered intellectual in her own time. She taught at the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research. But she was more than an academic. She regularly commented in magazines and journals on the current events of her time—from the Nazi Adolf Eichmann to the Pentagon Papers to the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights movement. Her whole intellectual career can be seen as an ongoing engagement with contemporary social, economic, and political crises. She brought to her commentary a wide range of ancient and modern thinkers, ranging from Socrates to Alexis de Tocqueville, Augustine to Immanuel Kant, John Adams to the 20th-century revolutionary philosopher Rosa Luxemburg to the literary critic Walter Benjamin. She consumed this vast history of American and European political thought in order to better think about the challenges and promises of politics. Writing during the Cold War, her political sympathies considered and were aimed at individuals working among others—sometimes in concert, sometimes antagonistically—to achieve new goals. In no ways would her main work be considered as advocating any specific cultural axiom like individualism, capitalism, or communism.
Her stature has only grown since her death. The growing interest in Arendt is due, in good part, to the curious case for politics she made. She refused partisan labels, criticized partisanship, and opposed the concentration of state power—arguing that politics was distinct from all of this, and that it was a positive human good. When people gather together in relative freedom as equals to address matters of common concern, no matter what the issue, they reveal the capacity for people to truly make a difference. Neither populism nor partisanship, it is politics.
Although Arendt published no work (as far as I know) on a pandemic, she associated politics with birth, even miracles. She once wrote of politics, “Whenever something new occurs, it bursts into the context of predictable processes as something unexpected, unpredictable, and ultimately causally inexplicable—just like a miracle.” (The Human Condition) Suppose politics is the art of different people getting along with all their power. In that case, the distinctive power of politics is different people getting along to change the course of things, stop the inevitable, and do something new. So, for example, people gather together and decide that there are other, better ways to organize our economy than around maximizing consumption and shareholder wealth. To recall the selection of the Canadian conservative leader: the frontrunner, Pierre Pollievre, will seem to be crowned based on the very reality of the concept of shareholder supremacy in that party. Would deciding on the leader of a party based on Arendt’s idea that we could do something new seem miraculous to you? It would to me. But political movements have achieved, and can achieve, equivalent miracles, be it in the form of labor laws, civil rights achievements, the struggle for greater religious liberty, or public health movements.
Had we left the pandemic to run its inevitable course without acting, we reduced the number of deaths. The same is true of the systemic reform we desperately need to mitigate systematic inequality—the systems won’t reform themselves, but with effective collective action, we can do something new and better. It may be the same with inflation. These options are not obvious possibilities; they are political ones. It depends on you, me, and many others exercising our power to respond creatively to ruthless phenomena. As Arendt might put it, together—through authentic politics—we can orchestrate an “interruption” of the automatic, chain-reaction spreads of deadly viruses or racist violence. And that is what we are beginning to do across the land, and indeed in other parts of the globe, with some tangible, if early, success.
Some will say politics is to blame for all these problems in the first place, and that political leadership has failed us.
I am reminded of something Arendt wrote about an entirely different kind of crisis, the short-lived Hungarian Revolution. During a few fateful weeks in the autumn of 1956, the people of Hungary revolted against their Moscow-backed Communist Party masters. They formed local “councils,” with elected, non-partisan representatives, to serve as their new government. The revolution was over within weeks, and a new Soviet-style government was reinstated—but Arendt saw in the powerful, if temporary, emergence of these Hungarian councils a vivid contrast between authentic politics and totalitarian domination. She noted, “while the naming of a candidate by a party depends on the party program or the party ideology, against which his suitability will be measured, the candidate in the council system must simply inspire enough confidence in his personal integrity, courage, and judgment, for someone to entrust him with representing his own person in all political matters.” Arendt found in this non-partisan form of “council” politics the eruption of yet another instance of authentic politics.
We see this echoed today in Dr. Fauci himself, whose great skill is political in nature. He knows how to communicate with honesty and tact; he displays as much good judgment as he does intelligence; having worked with presidents since Reagan, he knows how to navigate the Game of Thrones world of the White House without breaking public trust; and he shows courage. Fauci’s success in public leadership is not ideological—he does not toe the party line—and it is not strictly scientific either.
He commands authority for reasons entirely consistent with the qualities Arendt admired in Hungary’s council leaders: his integrity, courage, and good judgment.
In other words, in the response to both COVID-19 and runaway inflation, we are witnessing firsthand the difference between partisan power and political power. The same, I would dare to say, is true of the protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Looking through the eyes of Arendt, it is plain that while Pollievre and Prime Minister Trudeau have extraordinary partisan power, they may have less authentic political power than we might assume—in large part because they may lack the virtues of integrity, courage, and good judgment we see in our friends, neighbors, and local community leaders.
Is this political commentary? Absolutely. Is this partisan commentary? Absolutely not. And this difference between the partisan and the political is an essential point of Hannah Arendt, be it in a time of pandemic and protest or not. Totalitarianism and authoritarianism, Arendt argued, are perpetual threats, not once-in-a-millennium disruptions. Political parties, because they can so readily gravitate toward the seizure of power over respect for persons (though they need not), do not offer a reliable stopgap to authoritarianism. A robust democratic political culture, however, can.