CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It may seem incredible in an age of polarized division, but Ned O’Gorman is making a proactive case for politics.
His new book “Politics for Everybody” is true to its title. It’s a “defense of politics for people who have lost faith in it.” It’s also a call for renewed engagement in public life, though with an altered focus and priorities.
O’Gorman is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who teaches the history of political rhetoric and studies the Cold War.
“Politics for Everybody” is published by the University of Chicago Press.
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He began formulating his book during the 2016 presidential election campaign, concerned that “politics itself was becoming the bad boy, the villain. I felt like the positive case for politics was lacking. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, politics may be in a sorry state, but what are the alternatives?’”
Essentially there is no better alternative, O’Gorman said. Politics is unavoidable, part of human nature and the only means we have for figuring out how to live together – at least in freedom, he said. “Politics is a form of human relationship, it’s something we do.”
That’s why the political polarization that concerns him most is not that of left-right, but of the “amped up” versus the “checked out” – those anxiously obsessed with politics versus those completely divorced from it. “It is the infrastructure on which partisan polarization is built,” he wrote.
One of O’Gorman’s goals is “to take politics out of the realm of existential threats and humble it in a sense, and start by thinking about our political lives down on the ground,” he said.
To do that, he focuses on politics as practiced in neighborhoods and local communities, using examples as basic as pedestrians and drivers negotiating a crosswalk or neighbors dealing with trash.
“We know on an intuitive level, on a local level, on a neighborhood level, how to do certain kinds of political things together in ways that are not fundamentally adversarial, fundamentally us versus them,” O’Gorman said. “We're making all kinds of little decisions all the time that have consequences for our neighborhoods and our communities and those who are perfect strangers.”
Those examples point to “better ways to go about doing our national business,” he said.
The book deals with broad themes: authentic politics versus the twisted or distorted kind, the difficulty in appreciating politics, the challenge of political judgment, the problem of truth in politics, the role of persuasion and the imagination of freedom.
O’Gorman’s “guiding spirit” throughout is Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jewish thinker who fled the Nazis for the United States and wrote extensively in defense of politics and democracy, warning against authoritarian tendencies. The book’s subtitle is “Reading Hannah Arendt in Uncertain Times.”
Our current uncertain times – in which politics is often associated with misery, apathy and outrage – are in stark contrast to what both the ancient Greeks and the American Founding Fathers saw as the goal of politics, O’Gorman said. That goal was happiness, public and private, tied together.
“The pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence was rooted in the idea that “the best way to secure our everyday contentment is to invest in the constitution and maintenance of our collective life,” he wrote. Put another way, “politics is a quality-of-life issue.”
Through most of U.S. history, however, Americans have largely disconnected public and private happiness, O’Gorman wrote. Politics, for many, became “at best a kind of extracurricular activity, reserved for those with particular public or political ambitions.”
In this criticism, O’Gorman is channeling ideas of republican democracy, as opposed to liberal democracy. Neither should be confused with political parties or ideologies, he noted. (His own politics “don’t fit any partisan structure.”) He described Arendt as “the most knowledgeable defender of republican democracy in the last century.”
Central to that philosophy, as O’Gorman sees it, is that individuals should identify first as citizens, rather than as holders of rights, which tends to be the focus of liberalism.
“Relating first as citizens is just a really different place to start thinking about collective life, which is ‘I respect you as my equal, let’s relate in freedom, ’” he said. “We can become so committed to a sense of entitlement, a sense of rights, that when those rights feel under threat, we’re willing to look for the most efficient, effective ways to make sure we get what we feel like is ours – to heck with everybody else.”
Therefore, while liberal democracy contains many important and essential ideas, it may also contain the seeds of authoritarianism, O’Gorman said. “I’m not anti-liberal, but I am wanting to put a strong republican pushback on a lot of liberal assumptions.”
O’Gorman’s “Politics for Everybody” is a long way from the cynical, no-holds-barred, “House of Cards”-style take on politics, so he knows it risks being discounted or dismissed. He said we should challenge those assumptions, however, about how politics works.
“If we stopped and looked and thought and opened our eyes, we would see that this is actually not the way politics works in our everyday interactions,” O’Gorman said. “If we could start to see things politically in that way, then maybe these arguments from ideological extremes start to lose some of their compelling nature.”