A Crisis of the Soul

American politics is anthropomorphized: we speak of the polity as “the body politic,” as one living and wholistic organism. Politicians appeal to “we,” inveigling themselves into constituencies and interest groups. Legislators view law as a type of nourishment for the body politic, using government power not as a check upon infringement of the rights of the citizenry—including those done by government itself—but as a force to improve the lots of their peoples’ lives.

If the citizenry is the body politic, then the legislature is the great pumping heart of the nation and laws the lifeblood that keeps it healthy.

Given this dominant vein of rhetoric, it should come as no surprise that politics becomes a collective prospect.

Just as the health of the body relies on each constitutive organ fulfilling its unique purpose, so too does the health of the nation depend upon the contributions of each of its constitutive members. The good of all, then, becomes the good of one; as the nation goes, so go its people. And vice versa.

Such a view requires the most powerful political figures—prominent members of the legislative and executive branches—take an active interest in the needs and interests of their constituents. It is, after all, their job to secure more effectively those goods and services which secure the welfare of their constituents, for when this is the case, individual citizens are more productive and better able to contribute to and grow the wealth of the nation, wealth that has been invested in constituents through the goods and services government provides.

But such a view ceases to see citizens as autonomous beings with sovereign rights, such as the right of conscience, which includes by implication the ability to form one’s own ideas about right and wrong and how best to pursue it in one’s life. Instead, it gives to itself the supreme power to judge moral sentiments: as the welfare of the people is bolstered by the goods and services government provides, the welfare of individuals is dependent upon the welfare of the nation. Their good is not independent and the only meaningful scale of right and wrong is defined in reference to the prosperity of the nation.

This is a view that does not respect individual conscience, but more publicly-minded ideas of morality. It is a much more materialistic view of morality, concerned not with the ability of citizens to conceive of and live in accordance with abstract philosophical notions of right and wrong but with statistics related to one’s place in society: with class and income and the prosperity of various industries. Morality is public: it’s about survival of a culture, defined by the dominant traits of communities.

It’s here that what Donald Trump recently articulated as “a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul” is found. Questions of politics are really questions of society and culture. Can well-established ways of life continue? If not, government feels compelled to step in and do something to save its people.

Trump’s description of the tinderbox that is immigration as a “crisis of the soul” is a particularly clarifying articulation of this approach to politics. Trump described immigration as a “humanitarian” problem: one of the exploitation of desperate people looking for a better life in America, one of the culture of dependency created by drug traffickers and one of the question of survival for American communities being overrun by sicky and needy immigrants.

Facts have very little relation to this sort of rhetoric; indeed the imagery of the heart and the soul invoked by the president brazenly casts fact aside in favor of emotion, particularly those potent emotions related to questions of survival: fear, anxiety, despondency, etc.

Casting any policy issue as an issue of the soul implies a degree of unity required by the characterization of the citizenry as a body politic. A body is a singular unit. Though each of its constitutive organs has a role to play, the function of that role gains significance in reference to its part of the larger whole: the stomach, for instance, has no purpose divorced of a body which nourishes itself and provides food for the stomach to digest.

To speak of political issues as issues of the soul presumes the same relationship of dependency: the people need the government to interpret political issues and parlay them into terms that have meaning for their lives. In this instance, Trump claims the immigration issue strikes at the soul of America by threatening to flood the nation with sick and desperate individuals whose needs will be a drain upon public resources and limit the prosperity of the nation as a whole.

The facts of this are irrelevant in context of the greater issue of survival: for if the body dies, its constitutive organs die with it.

But while collectivizing the soul in this way is dangerous because it grounds political discourse in emotions rather than the facts that ought to influence public policy, it also contributes to a greater philosophical problem. The ethos of this body politics strips individuals of their autonomy. They can find meaning in their lives only in reference to the whole. Individuals lose their right to make determinations about right and wrong, to define value for themselves and exercise their judgment in making life decisions that pursue those values.

When politicians speak of political problems as crises of the soul, they remove the agency of the soul from individuals and graft it onto figures of government authority. There is no right to dissent—a crucial tenet of the right of conscience—when moral authority comes from those in power. For to dissent then is akin to an organ of the body attacking itself. If the body is to survive, it must remove the offending organ before its illness spreads.

Even though such an approach to politics is undertaken in the name of the welfare of the citizenry, it undermines the ability of citizens to even make determinations about what constitutes that welfare.

And that is the true crisis of the soul.


Also published on Medium.

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All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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