Against Political Futility

By Dr. Leigh M. Johnson. Photo Above: Getty Images
This article originally appeared in Leigh's blog, ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore, and has been updated.

At one point during the most recent GOP Presidential debate, the closed-captions read: “[unintelligible yelling]”

This is the new low that public discourse has reached in our country.

I suspect I'm not the only one who sometimes wonders what the point is in trying at all to maintain some sort of serious, active, and critically engaged civic posture, much less trying to cultivate the same in others, as I attempt to do each and every day in the classroom. This Presidential primary season has appeared, at times, to be a bona fide circus. The Republicans’ leading candidate for President believes, and has said out loud, that he could shoot a man on 5th Avenue just to watch him die. Another thinks that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. And it’s not much better on the Democrats’ side, either, where the Official Party Line is that this whole dog-and-pony-show is nothing more than a fait accompli. Madame Secretary has the pedigree, the bankers' backing, and the entire technocratic, Machiavellian genius of the DNC election-machine behind her in what everyone assumes to be a war of attrition. The “other guy” in the race is a crazy socialist, after all. 

People are broke and in debt and seriously, legitimately, disillusioned, fed up, indignant and angry.

In the meantime, outside the Beltway and beyond the local primary echo-chamber, people are protesting in the streets. People are being poisoned by their own tap water. People are being endlessly, secretly, and exploitatively surveilled. People are being screwed over by the criminal justice system every day and, if they’re lucky enough to have not been so yet, they're learning that they're just a lucky break away from being so by binge-watching Netflix. It's only the end of February, only 60 days into 2016, and already 172 people have been killed by police this year.

Let me say for the record that I understand the grim, race-based and asymmetrical economics of the criminal justice system, the healthcare system, the job market. I am fully cognizant of the depressing mathematics of a single voter's effectiveness in a representative democracy with an Electoral College. I am painfully attuned to the mutual back-door back-scratching of corporate and political interest-lobbyists. I, too, mourn the substitution of infotainment for real investigative journalism in mainstream media. I know, I really know, the game is all but already fixed.

And, yet, still.... I believe in democracy and in my role as a citizen. I believe there are things worth doing. I believe it's still worth doing something.

If you've found yourself lured by call of Political Futility sirens, read on.


As a philosopher, I wish I could say that I found my most recent encouragement in a philosopher-- Fanon or Rawls or Fraser or Derrida, or even Obama-- but the truth is that my relief came from a novelist. My sister (an excellent reader, whose literary judgment I trust without question) loaned me a novel recently, Defending Jacob by William Landay. I'm not very far into it, so I won't even bother to proffer a spoiler alert. For present purposes, all you need to know is that the narrator (Andy Barber) is a district attorney. In the first chapter, Barber has been called before a grand jury and is asked whether or not he wants to exercise his Fifth Amendment right. Barber declines, saying that he has no desire to remain silent. His only interest, he says, is in seeing that the truth comes out. 

"No matter what?" Barber is asked. 

"I believe in the system, same as you, same as everyone here," Barber responds. And then he goes on: 

Now, this was not exactly true. I do not believe in the court system, at least I do not think it is especially good at finding the truth. No lawyer does. We have all seen too many mistakes, too many bad results.... And yet, despite all that, I do believe in the power of the ritual. I believe in the religious symbolism, the black robes, the marble-columned courthouses, like Greek temples. When we hold a trial, we are saying a mass. We are praying together to do what is right and to be protected from danger, and that is worth doing whether or not our prayers are actually heard.


That "belief" in the system-- and I intentionally put "belief" in scare-quotes-- is what keeps me up at night, what aggravates and exasperates and annoys me, but it is also what keeps me from being drawn into the quicksand of civic despair. These days, when one is tempted to ask the inaugural philosophical question-- why is there something rather than nothing?-- with an especially plaintive kind of insistence, it's worth remembering that all of these so-called social contracts we engage in with one another are but experiments, after all. They work only if we believe in them. They cease to work when we stop believing in them. As I have written about prayer before, hoping-for or wishing-for or believing in things-not-yet-evidenced is as much doing the work of a social contract as it is constitutive of the social contract. 

So, too, is taking to the streets, the voting booths, the classroom, the town council, the city hall, the neighborhood association meeting, the local caucus or the local bar. There's an age-old adage that goes: as long as there are tests in schools, there will be prayer in schools. One need not necessarily believe in some transcendent, omnipotent or interventionist Power to believe in the mundane, everyday human power of belief, of hope, and of change. Hope and change is our work to do. 

As Deray Mckesson says on Twitter at the end of every night: Remember to dream. And that's a man who understands that dreaming is only the beginning of all the work there is to be done. 

Photo: Associated Press

That's what Democrats believed in 2007. Yes, Obama broke their hearts in a thousand inexcusable, insufferable ways. But we all saw some change, some small steps forward, enough for even the most defeatist among us to be forced to admit: yes, it matters what I do

When a Presidential candidate stands in front of a microphone and assures you that he could shoot someone in the broad light of day with no consequence, it's time to check your political engagement gauge. If you find that speaking up, acting up, stirring things up is not worth your time in response to that... well, I say stand out of the way of the rest of us who believe there is still work to do.. 

We are praying together to do what is right and to be protected from danger, that’s what democracy is, and that is worth doing whether or not our prayers are heard.


Dr. Leigh M. Johnson is a Philosophy professor in and from Memphis, Tennessee. Her primary research/teaching focuses on moral and political philosophy, broadly speaking. She also writes about politics, philosophy, film, technology, music and pop culture at her blog ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore
Posted by Josh Colfer at 1:34 PM

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