Some decades ago, a teacher of political science put something so succinctly that it has remained with me though his name is long since forgotten. In the end, he said, the allocation of power in a state comes down to either ballots or bullets. In the navigation of human conflicts more broadly, one might say that the options devolve finally to words or blows. I want to talk about how words fail, and what is at stake when they do, whether the special performative word of “I vote yea [or nay]” or the more ordinary declarations made in the exchange of convictions or grievances in the context of public life.
Words fail us, we say, when we cannot get them to express our experience or its meaning to us: when they seem too pale or too tame, not deep enough for the reality they try to convey. But that is not the kind of failure in view here. There is a tectonic shift that comes when the declared will of a populace does not move the levers of power, or when the effort to present commitments or challenges in public collapses into violence between factions or between citizens and agents of the state. This is not merely a failure of communication. It is more fundamentally a moral failure: a betrayal of the patient labor of millennia to create structures that offer an alternative to the war of all against all that Hobbes posited as the state of nature, or the more-or-less-organized domination of the weak by the strong that has passed for order through much of human history.
This is not as simple as a betrayal of justice, despite the appeal of such rhetoric. In truth the structures of any society offer at best some approximation of fairness, of equal treatment for equal cases, and fall far short of the classic definition of justice as the assurance that each receives her or his due. But as Reinhold Niebuhr tried to teach us a lifetime ago, political life is the struggle to secure a little bit more rather than a little bit less equity, a little better rather than a little worse government. Its pursuit as a moral endeavor requires a kind of chastened hope, and people willing to make an enormous investment of effort and passion for a modest and uncertain return.
Social structures are made of more than words, of course: the divide between political speech and blows is not absolute, since backing the effect of votes cast or laws debated and enacted are mechanisms of enforcement that include the use or at least the threat of force. But what we mean by a civil society is one in which that use of force is mostly unnecessary, one where its limited actual use can claim the mantle of authority and not mere power because it is ultimately governed and constrained by ballots and not bullets.
Recent events in our society display that sustaining representative and constitutional forms of government depends more upon words than upon powers of enforcement. If words fail, if public discourse is utterly compromised, then the legitimacy of government is undermined, and the business of maintaining order becomes a constant and destructive preoccupation. It is a vicious circle in which more suspicion breeds more disorder and defiance, and efforts to suppress unrest create more and more violent unrest, until the basic trust that makes a free society possible dissolves. We are not there yet: despite the overheated reporting on both sides of our political divide that portrays sharp disagreement as all-out war, despite the overwhelmingly corrosive and balkanizing effect of social media as a platform for political exchanges, we are not. But we are flirting with the conditions that bring about such failure, as in our pursuit of political gains we embrace strategies whose effects cannot be undone. The tolerance of outright falsehoods and indifference to demonstrable facts is one kind of assault on public discourse. Another is the growing acceptability of overt contempt for political opponents, justified by the claim that one’s adversaries are either evil or invincibly stupid and do not deserve a hearing. Advocates use language not of defeating a position but of destroying or taking revenge upon people who hold opposing views. This is already the defeat of democracy. What is left is demagoguery, whether of left or right – and in the long run, which one matters less than might be thought. Both are ultimately forms of power-grabbing, indifferent to public good. Any political victory obtained by such means is too dearly bought, and sows the seeds of its own undoing.