Francis Fukuyama has recently argued that Western democratic states, especially America, are suffering political decay. The causes of this decay lie in institutions and culture: state capability, law and accountability begin to work against or undermine each other, rather than working together as complementary components of the political order of liberal democracy.
While Fukuyama’s strongest case of decay is the vetocracy of the United States, similar problems are apparent in Australia. The Senate blocks executive mandates. The parties have hollowed out and become parasitical on executive government, raiding bureaucracies for announcements to market the brand of the party and to promote the careers of a new nomenklatur. The quality of political talent is in decline, and large parts of the senior level bureaucracy have abandoned the ethos of an independent public institution to become a modern court, obsessed with favour, relationships with advisers, and virtue- and rank-signalling behaviour. The public dialogue about the issues of governing is degraded, and nowhere is this more apparent than the fall of the ABC’s QandA from an adventure in democracy to a frenzy of social media outrage.
So how can this change for the better? The answer does not lie in systems or institutions or leadership. It lies I think in simple ordinary virtues that the meek and the humble and the people outside of “leadership positions” can act on. The answer can be found in ordinary virtues that underpin governing well.
Ordinary virtues were described by Tzetvan Todorov in contrast to heroic virtues as part of an exploration of moral conduct in the extreme circumstances of the Nazi death camps. Rather than heroic virtues of defiance, bravery, combat and self-sacrifice, Todorov celebrated the small actions of daily life, which expressed three cardinal ordinary virtues: dignity, caring and the life of the mind.
Caring especially today is a virtue more widely practised if rarely celebrated, and it is a virtue that the leaders in their bubbles rarely know well. It may bring anonymity, but that is not the test of this virtue, as Todorov comments:
“If money does not make one person more deserving of living than another, neither does a commitment to the life of the mind, even though history may remember the names of poets and scholars and not those of the people who brought them tea in their bedrooms or sewed on their buttons.”
The life of the mind, dignity, and caring are virtues that can be cultivated again so that we can govern well again. Todorov suggests his three ordinary virtues are the foundation of living with others
“Wisdom is neither hereditary nor contagious: one attains it more or less, but always and only alone, not by virtue of one’s membership in a group or a State. The best regime in the world is never anything but the least bad, and even if it is the one under which we live, everything still remains to be done. Learning to live with others is part of this wisdom.”
There are other virtues that need to be discovered if we are to reverse political decay – talking to strangers, scrupulous pessimism, humility in both tradition and prediction. But what other virtues do we need to rekindle not just among the leaders, but among all those who play a part in governing democratic states?