You Say You Want a Revolution


Storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houel – Bibliotheque nationale de France

One of the things that has been striking about the campaign rhetoric of at least some of our U.S. presidential candidates and their followers is the language of revolution. I was listening to a call-in show today where a supporter of one of the Republican candidates made the claim “we are the revolution” and “you can’t stop the revolution.” I’ve heard similar language with at least one of the Democratic candidates as well.

I get it. We have a political system that to all appearances is grid-locked most of the time. And this is the danger of dysfunctional political systems. They encourage the frustrations of people who decide finally that the only solution is revolution. It’s a system where there are people who just feel closed out and not heard. Some of the candidates are saying out loud and very publicly the things people have wanted to say and feel have not been heard in our national discourse.

I’m with the Beatles on this one. In the song “Revolution” they say “don’t you know that you can count me out.” I don’t want saviors, strong men, or revolutionaries. Actually, what I want are “good politicians”, in the best sense of those two words. I want people who are skillful in serving the polis, who have a sense of what government can and can’t do for the public good, and are pursuing the best solutions not simply for one portion of the polis, but for the various groups of people who lay claim to the title of “citizen” of this land, with all its rights and responsibilities. I also want people who are not only skillful but good in the sense that they strive for an integrity about their lives, where their walk and talk match up, at least as much as it does for most of us.

I don’t want a revolution. Most revolutions are more destructive than constructive. Our nation’s beginnings may have been one of those rare shining moments, and even then it was violent,  it was oppressive to the native peoples who we displaced, and exploitative of the Africans we forcibly brought here and declared three-fifths of a person in our founding documents. Then a bit over 80 years later, we underwent a second revolution. We called it a “Civil” War. An estimated 620,000 men died in this conflict. Even when revolutions are not violent, they often end up dismantling inefficient but functioning systems for even less functional ones.

The worst outcome is when the vacuum of power in political systems becomes so great that only a strong man can fill it and tyranny rules. In the early nineteenth century, that was Napolean. In the twentieth century, it was Stalin, Hitler, and Mao (the three accounted for over 100 million deaths).

Besides, all this talk about revolutions and quests for strong men and saviors feels to me like it gives politics an inordinate place in our lives. There are so many other important structures to life from neighborhood associations, to trade groups, to religious bodies, to volunteer organizations, to local schools and parents groups, to businesses and groups of artisans and artists and their benefactors. Just how much of our own agency do we really want to give the political powers? Yes, good government provides for liberty and justice for all, for interstate commerce, for defense of our borders, and for the care of those that our private organizations and local structures can’t care for (I realize there is a big discussion here about how much ought government, and our taxes, do here). Important stuff indisputably, but not everything.

There is one place I do want reform. It is electoral reform. This concerns both how districts are shaped, which now is a very partisan activity which means most politicians never represent a true cross-section of the American people. And it concerns how elections are funded. Because of court rulings, I suspect this would take a constitutional amendment. But we have a system that typically allows the rich special access to the people who represent us all. So much of what is broken in our system can be attributed to these things. It’s not sexy, and its not easy to fix this. It will take a long and determined effort.

But count me out of your revolution. To be honest, I’m praying it won’t succeed. And if it doesn’t, maybe it will make us look at all the things we can do in our own neighborhoods, city councils, school boards (all politics is ultimately local), and through all the other social institutions that make up our communities and society. Maybe then we will realize that the work of healing our national discords is our work that cannot be given away to our political leaders.

Wouldn’t that be great?


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