The Nature of Politics

By Joel Bellman
Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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The Nature of Politics
Undertow, Winslow Homer (Wikimedia Commons)
“When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.” Stephen Crane, The Open Boat (1897) I recently had lunch with a friend in distress over the current state of our politics, a condition—let’s face it—that has afflicted more than a few of us over the past few decades, and most particularly over the past seven years. He’s written on a variety of political topics, but unlike the impassioned social justice warriors armed with little more than their keyboards and too much time on their hands, this guy is a trained, hard-headed professional with years of governmental service, and deep policy knowledge, as well as journalistic experience. He’s also a skilled advocate who knows how to advance and rebut serious arguments when the stakes are high. So when he confessed to a kind of existential despair at the futility of trying to influence the quality and direction of public debate, from foreign-policy crises to the recent federal, state and local elections, I listened closely. And then I thought of Stephen Crane. “The Open Boat” is one of Crane’s best known stories, a lightly fictionalized narrative based on Crane’s first-hand factual account of surviving a shipwreck while en route to Cuba as a war correspondent. Crane wrote it as a young man of 25; by the age of 28, he was dead of tuberculosis, leaving a relatively small but immensely influential body of literature. And one of his recurring themes is the struggle of man v. nature, between humankind and not a malevolent, but a harshly indifferent cosmos. In light of his frequent subject matter and early death, it’s easy in retrospect to sense in his work the foreshadowing of such overarching themes as the individual’s relative powerlessness and Crane’s own intimations of mortality. I couldn’t tell my friend that he was wrong to feel that way, but I did counsel him against giving up. The timing of our lunch was fortuitous; it was my day off midway through my stint as a poll worker in the 11-day voting period leading up to this month’s primary. I’ve written before about my near-religious epiphany on our 2018 driving trip through the Deep South, visiting key sites in the history of the Civil Rights movement throughout Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Once you know and experience even a little of that history, you can never again take voting for granted. Republican efforts in 2020 to make it more onerous to cast ballots, and easier to challenge and manipulate the tally later, only cemented my resolve to get more directly involved in helping operate the machinery of democracy and protect it from harm. I deeply believe in what we do, but it’s not purely altruistic. The truth is that, for me, it’s also profoundly therapeutic. At a time when the media are saturated with war news and endless stories about homelessness, rising crime, runaway inflation, one mass shooting after another, nationwide shortages of baby formula, and celebrities behaving badly, the simple act of voting takes on a totemic power to wrestle all this burgeoning chaos back under control. In a democracy, we were taught, the people are sovereign. Our elected officials derive their only legitimate authority from the consent of the governed, and we bestow our consent solely through casting a ballot. Voting is more than a constitutional right; it’s a sacrament. And I consider it almost a sacred privilege to be empowered to help others exercise that right. However daunting the policy challenge may be, any potential solution begins the same way: with a popular vote for the right legislators, or in California, for the right ballot measure. As intractable as crises like gun violence or homelessness may seem, the prerequisite for any action is that vote. Every election, then, represents a fresh opportunity for each of us to act with agency. And that takes us back to “The Open Boat.” Unlike Crane’s battered survivors of that shipwreck, bobbing helplessly on a vast and rolling sea, we are in fact masters of our own destiny. Our political systems are not implacable forces beyond human control or understanding. They are constructs of human minds, populated by human beings, held in check by the reins of law and custom that are firmly gripped in the hands of our citizenry. Last year, on the first anniversary of the COVID shutdown, two months after assuming office, President Biden declared, “We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us. All of us. ‘We, the People.’ For you and I, that America thrives when we give our hearts, when we turn our hands to common purpose.” At the time, I rolled my eyes at what sounded like his corny and naive flag-waving. But something happens to me around election time, particularly since I’ve been working the polls. I remember the Orthodox Jewish father bringing his toddler daughter with him to cast a ballot, looking earnestly into my eyes as he said, “Thank you for doing this.” I remember a Persian woman with her overprotective mother, explaining that she hasn’t voted before because she only became an American citizen last year. And when I had to transport the ballots at the end of the day to a secret location where they would be secured to be tallied later, I felt like I was responsible for safely delivering the most precious cargo in the city. Our governmental universe is not indifferent—unless we passively and consciously allow it to be.
Joel Bellman

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JUNE 10, 2022

Topanga Days 2022